Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Buying Cookware, Part Two

So, in my last post I talked about stock pots and cast iron pans. Before I go on, I should add a couple more words about stock pots. Most of us use our stock pots for boiling pasta water, or making soup or stews. For those purposes, a 6 or 8 quart pan is a great size. But if you actually want to use your stock pot to make stock, then you'll want something larger - 12, 16, even 20 quarts. Particularly when it comes to these larger pots, you don't need to invest in something fancy. "Better" cookware often has multiple layers, or a reinforced bottom, and all of these features are designed to aid heat conduction and reduce hot spots and burning. But since most stock making applications don't require a browning step, a cheap stainless steel pot is going to work just fine. And if your stock recipe does require browning, you can always just use that 12 inch cast iron pan we talked about last time, and transfer the contents into your stock pot (deglazing the pan to get all the good bits, of course).

Okay, back to pans. As I said in my last post, cast iron - while great - isn't right for every application. It holds a lot of heat, and if it gets too hot, even taking it completely off the heat won't cool it down very quickly, and your food can easily burn. Cast iron is also heavy, so if you need to move the pan around a lot, it can be a real pain. So for applications where you need to have more control, another material is called for.

After cast iron, one of the best conductors of heat is aluminum. Aluminum is in many ways the complete opposite of cast iron. It's lightweight. It's very responsive to change in the heat from your gas flame or electric burner. However, aluminum in it's natural form also has some drawbacks for cooking. Like cast iron, it's reactive. This means that it will interact with the food you put in the pan, and if that food is acidic (think tomatoes or lemon juice) you can end up with aluminum ions in your food. This effect means that cooking with cast iron is a good way to get some extra iron in your diet (and the taste effect is pretty minimal so long as you don't leave things sitting for hours). But aluminum has been implicated in Alzheimer's disease, so many people are wary of using raw aluminum cookware. And aluminum cookware doesn't even have a layer of "seasoning" to reduce it's reactivity, so it can really impact the flavor of foods.

Fortunately, there are a couple of different approaches to capturing the great heat conductivity of aluminum while mitigating the risks and drawbacks. Calphalon has traditionally been the best known name in anodized aluminum cookware, having made their name with their Commercial Hard-Anodized line.

What is Hard-Anodizing?

Hard-anodization is an electro-chemical process that hardens aluminum. (Hard-Anodized aluminum is 30% harder than stainless steel.) During hard-anodization, aluminum is submerged in an acid bath, then subjected to electrical charges. The result is a chemical reaction wherein the surface of the aluminum combines with oxygen to become aluminum oxide. This reaction is also known as oxidation, a process which occurs spontaneously in nature. Hard-anodization is actually controlled, accelerated oxidation.
The anodizing process makes the aluminum non-reactive, thus addressing the chief flavor and health concerns related to aluminum cookware. Unfortunately for fans of their products, in 2004 Calphalon replaced their Commercial line with Calphalon One, a product they call "infused anodized" that incorporates a non-stick element into the metal of the pan, not just as a coating on top. I have no personal experience using Calphalon One line.

Fans of the Commerical Hard-Anodized line need not despair, as there are still plenty of pieces floating around the Internet, and there are other companies who make hard-anodized aluminum cookware. It's relatively expensive (although not as much as some of it's competitors.) I find Calphalon regularly at yard sales, where it's a great buy. Other people I know see it in resale shops. It's a dark gray matte metal, with heavy metal handles. It's functional rather than fancy in appearance. It's very high quality cookware, but like everything else, it has its pros and its cons, and it will be right for some people but not others.

Pros: It's aluminum, so the heat conductivity and responsiveness is tops. It's not non-stick coated, so there's no worry about what utensils to use and no coating to chip away. Because it's not non-stick, it browns well and gives you a good sear on meat. It's pretty heavy and thick, so not prone to warping that would create hot spots.

Cons: It takes some time to learn to cook with Calphalon. Especially if you're used to using non-stick pans, you'll need to get used to preheating the pan dry, adding your oil, and then your food. I find it harder to keep clean than some other cooking surfaces - it seems to get build up quite easily, and that build up will make it stick even more. (There's a special cleaner - Dormond - that helps remove this build up. Steel wool is not recommended, but those stiff green scrubbie pads are fine.) It's dark in color, so isn't ideal for applications like browning butter, where you're watching for certain color changes. And it can't go in the dishwasher (not that I ever put pots and pans in the dishwasher) because the dishwasher soap will discolor the interior of the pan.

If the cons sound too much for you, don't despair. There are other ways to capture the great heat conductivity of aluminum, and I'll write about those another time.

Part One: Sets, Stock Pots and Cast Iron
Part Three: Stainless Steel


David said...

Lordy, I despise Calphalon, food sticks to it constantly, I've had the anodizing wear off on just about every piece I own, plus it's really hard to tell when sauces are browning against the black-matte finish. I've switched almost all of my pans to all-clad stainless at this point. The heat control is easier, the heat distribution is far better and on the rare occassion that something does stick, they are far easier to clean.

Tammy said...

I'm with you David - it definitely has its challenges. But there are people who love the stuff, and I used to sell quite a lot of it back in the day. I'll be talking about All-Clad next time.

Matthias said...

I've used the Calphalon One Infused Anodized Cookware for 2 years now and finally concluded it does not work. Almost every food I've tried to make with the frying pan has stuck to it and cleaning is really hard. And I was following the instructions that came with the pans. I returned the pans for a full refund and am looking into stainless steel now...

Tammy Coxen said...

Thanks Matthias, for weighing in on the Infused Anodized - I don't have any experience with it, so I appreciate the first hand report.

My cast iron pan is really my go-to pan for almost everything these days, so you might think about that as well.