Monday, September 25, 2006

Buying Cookware, Part Three

I ended part two of this series with some of the pros and cons of Calphalon Commerical Hard-Anodized cookware (and similar products). In my view, as someone who owns a bunch of Calphalon, there are a bunch of cons. Fortunately, there are some good alternatives that capitalize on the great heat conduction of aluminum but mitigate those problems.

The best known and mostly highly rated alternative is All-Clad. This is the brand that comes out on top of various cookware lists time and time again. It - and other brands like it - are based on "tri-ply" construction. Here's what that looks like:
The interior of the pan is a high quality stainless steel surface. Stainless steel on its own isn't a great material for cookware - it doesn't conduct heat very well, or very evenly, so you end up with lots of hot spots. But it's a great surface to cook on. It gives you a nice sear, builds up a fond so you deglaze the pan for nice sauces, and best of all - it's virtually indestructible and can be cleaned with steel wool if things get really dire. It will stick, but if you preheat the pan and the oil before adding your food you can really minimize that.

Underneath the stainless steel layer is a layer of aluminum, sandwiched between an outer layer of stainless steel. This pure aluminum core captures all of the great elements of aluminum that I talked about last time, but keeps the potentially reactive aluminum metal away from your food.

The outside layer of magnetic stainless steel gives All-Clad a shiny and attractive look while it's hanging on your pot rack. (So long as you clean the outside as thoroughly as the inside - that shiny silver exterior will show all the dishwashing lapses that Calphalon's dark gray finish hides.) In addition, that magnetic stainless layer makes All-Clad suitable for use on an induction cooktop (which heats by using magnetism to agitate the atoms of the pan itself). If that's not important for you, and you want a little extra insurance on heat conduction or prefer a darker exterior to your pan, All-Clad also makes a line called LTD that has an anodized aluminum exterior.

All-Clad is what's called, in the cookware world, "fully-clad" cookware. This just means that all the metal in the pan is that tri-ply construction. In some other manufacturers, only the bottom of the pan has an aluminum core or disc on the bottom. This distributes the heat evenly where you need it most, but the unclad sides can be prone to scorching, and - if the disc on the bottom does not extend all the way to the edges of the pan, then you can get a hot ring on the outside of the pan. For frying pans and saute pans, I'd definitely prefer a fully-clad item. But I have a Farberware saucepan with just a disc on the bottom, and I don't miss having extra thickness in the sides.

Pros: The best of both worlds - good cooking surface and good heat conduction in one pan. A couple of different exterior looks. Can work on an induction cooktop. Easy to clean, works with any utensil, can be beaten into submission with steel wool if necessary.

Cons: Expensive with a capital E! And then some. Did I mention that it's expensive? You can buy an entire set of lesser cookware for the cost of one All-Clad saute pan.

So in my view, this is one of those brands where it's definitely worthwhile to buy a piece or two, but the matched set is overkill. Skillets and saute pans are where you'll get the most bang for your buck (I'll talk about the difference between those in my next cookware post). For sauce pans, you'll probably be just as happy with something that's got a nice heavy reinforced bottom, but simply stainless steel sides.

Part One: Sets, Stock Pots and Cast Iron
Part Two: Anodized Aluminum


Anonymous said...

The NY Times had a article in June titled "In Search of a Pan That Lets Cooks Forget About Teflon" that selected the Le Creuset skillet and two cast iron ones as the best. It's reprinted here

Tammy said...

Great article - thanks for the link. That certainly fits my experience with cast iron, and is why it's quickly become my go-to pan.