Part 1: Cookware
My uncle jostled me from bed on a steamy July morning in 1972. “Get dressed, we’re going in early today,” he said. This would be the first of many summers living with my uncle and working at his restaurant in Vermont. Most days were spent at the dishwashing station under the watchful eye of Andre’ - one of the mentally disabled persons in my uncle’s employ. Andre’ was a kind soul with a profound sense of humor, and it was a pleasure working for him. Back then, automatic dishwashers were not common, so washing dishes in the restaurant was a purely human endeavor. We scrubbed the dishes and pots in racks over a large drain and sprayed them down with ultra-hot water. Each day of work was a steam bath.
“Why did we come in early?” I asked, still wiping the sleep from my eyes. “I’m going to teach you how to cook today,” he responded. Together, we made Eggs Benedict. It was the first dish I ever created, and it is my signature dish today. I have loved the art of cooking ever since.
If you are to cook properly, then you must know your cookware. Generally, cookware falls into the following five categories, which are listed in order of their non-stick properties.
What is Seasoning?
When it comes to cookware, the term seasoning refers to coating the cookware with a layer of oil. Cast iron cookware requires that the oil is converted, via cooking, into a carbon polymer. Whereas non-stick cookware is coated with a thin layer of uncooked oil between uses to maintain its non-stick properties.
Teflon, a polymer made from carbon and fluorine, was the first non-stick cookware. Over the years, it became apparent that Teflon leeched the toxic chemical polytetrafluorethylene into food and polytetrafluoroethylene gas into the air. As a result, perfluorooctanoic acid, which was linked to many forms of cancer, accumulates in the body. Today, non-stick cookware is manufactured without polytetrafluorethylene, and you are not likely to see the word Teflon anywhere near it. Even the word Teflon was changed from a chemical name to a brand name that has little to do with the original formulation.
These days, non-stick cookware is typically made by way of a non-stick surface on a heat conductive metal like aluminum, which distributes heat evenly. The benefits of non-stick cookware are convenience, equal distribution of heat, and cooking with less oil. The problems with non-stick cookware are that the non-stick properties do not last very long, and the non-stick coating eventually scratches off, defeating the benefit of non-stick cookware in the first place. Furthermore, non-stick cookware will not sear or caramelize meat very well.
Frankly, I despise non-stick cookware and do not keep it anywhere near my kitchen. First of all, I do not believe that cooking with oil is unhealthy. In fact, based on forty-years of excellent health and my research as a Medical Laboratory Scientist, I do not believe that there is such a thing as an unhealthy fat (see my book Strong & Happy). Secondly, non-stick cookware may still pose a health risk. It took forty-years before Teflon was identified as toxic. Might we discover the new non-stick surfaces are toxic forty-years from now?
If you choose to cook with non-stick cookware, then there are a few common sense guidelines to follow:
Use soft silicon-based utensils.
After use, clean the pan with soap and water, dry thoroughly, and season the cooking surface with a light coating of oil.
Clean the seasoning off with a dry paper towel just prior to using the pan for cooking.
Cast Iron Cookware
You may have read blogs stating that well seasoned cast iron pans are on-par with non-stick cookware. This is not true, but cast-iron cookware certainly runs a close second. Unlike, non-stick cookware, which uses aluminum for even heat distribution, cast iron does not distribute heat evenly. However, cast iron compensates for its poor heat distribution by offering a more or less non-stick surface and by providing excellent heat retention; which cooks food faster, provides an excellent sear, and caramelizes meat to perfection. The cons of cast iron are: It must be re-seasoned on a regular basis, iron has uneven heat distribution, and it is not suitable for cooking acidic foods or sauces - which will ruin both the seasoned coating of the pan and the dish you are cooking.
Smooth vs. Rough
Most of the cast iron cookware manufactured today comes with a pebbly surface. This is because cast iron cookware is cast from molds made out of sand. In the old days, the cast iron cookware was polished for up to three days until it was as smooth as glass. Today, most manufacturer’s have eliminated the polishing step and this cookware is made in as little as ninety-minutes. According to Lodge, a major manufacturer of cast iron cookware, the pebbly texture helps keep the seasoning from flaking off. I have both smooth and pebbly cast iron cookware, and the seasoning does not come off my smooth pans. When it comes to being non-stick, the smooth ones beat the pebbly ones every time. Some people say that extra seasoning should be used as a leveling agent on the pebbly cooking surface, but in so doing they create a thicker layer of seasoning that will flake off, which is what pebbly surfaces are supposed to prevent. That being said, it is true that seasoning is far more likely to flake off a smooth pan. The trick is not to season the smoother pans to a complete blackness. Instead, you should season smooth pans to an amber brown (see picture shown above). I have done this during my 40+ years of cooking and have never had seasoning flake off my smooth cast iron cookware. However, the seasoning on my pebbly cookware flakes off whenever it gets too thick. Notwithstanding, I love my Lodge cast iron cookware for its heftiness and excellent heat retention. Even so, I would not even think about using a pebbly cast pan without first sanding down the cooking surface.
Smooth Cast Iron Cookware Will Cost You
As stated earlier, Lodge cookware has its benefits and should be a part of every cook’s arsenal. However, if non-stick is what you seek, then you are better off with smooth cookware. I use both, and I will turn to my Lodge pans when searing meat. Once the surface of meat reaches proper caramelization, it will release on its own, so there is no need for a non-stick surface. Likewise, I find my Lodge cast iron griddle works perfectly for pancakes. If I am frying eggs, however, I will turn to my smooth antique cast iron pan.
If you want cast iron cookware with a smooth surface, then it will cost you time or money. You can invest time to seek out and restore antique cookware (as I do), or you can buy a decent sized polished cast iron pan for about $300. If you wish to do the latter, then you may want to consider Smithey. Better yet, while researching this article, I discovered a 10” smooth bottom pan with decent reviews on Amazon for under $35 (Greater Goods Cast Iron Skillet).
If you prefer to go old school, then you can find some great deals at antique shows and shops. I got my hands on a 12” smooth skillet at an antique store for $10! When buying an antique, the cooking surface should be smooth and undamaged - be sure to skip cookware with gashes on the cooking surface. After you purchase the cookware, you will have to restore it. Here is how I restore my cast iron cookware.
1 – Strip all the seasoning with a paint stripping sponge.
2 – Sand the entire pan down with 400 grit emery paper.
3 – Wet down the pan and re-sand with 220 grit wet/dry emery paper.
4 – Wet down the pan and re-sand with 400 grit wet/dry emery paper.
5 – Thoroughly wash the pan with mild soap and water.
6 – Thoroughly towel dry the pan and throw it in a hot oven to dry for a few minutes.
7 – Season the pan immediately.
Seasoning Your Cast Iron Cookware to Perfection!
According to the Lodge website: When oils or fats are heated in cast iron at a high enough temperature, they change from a wet liquid into a slick, hardened surface through a process called polymerization. This reaction creates a layer of seasoning that is molecularly bonded to the iron. Without this layer of carbonized oil, iron cookware would corrode and rust due to the oxygen and moisture in the air. On a microscopic level, cast iron has a jagged, uneven surface. This texture provides more surface area for the seasoning to bond and adhere to the iron. As the layers build up, the oils and fats will fill in the texture, creating a smooth, naturally nonstick cooking surface. Lodge goes on to say that the seasoned surface will last for generations. Please do not fall into the ‘seasoned for generations’ trap. The only way seasoning can last for generations is if you do not use the cookware. Otherwise, you must maintain the seasoning on a regular basis. If you think that seasoning cast iron is a science that takes years to perfect, then you are right. But you can take heart because my mistakes are your gain. Follow my instructions and you will season your cast iron cookware like a pro.
I was super excited when I purchased my first cast iron pan about forty-years ago. The seasoning instructions advised coating the pan with olive oil and baking it at 350-F for six hours. The result was a sticky gooey mess of a seasoning that stuck to food every time I cooked. Later in life, I read that flax-oil was the way to go. I must admit that I had better success with flax oil, but I still did not have an acceptable non-stick surface, and the flax oil had a bad habit of easily flaking off. After many years of trial and error, I finally got it right.
If your cast iron cookware came pre-seasoned, then you have to decide whether to remove the pre-seasoning first. In my experience, Lodge puts a quality seasoning on their products, so there is no need to remove it. Other manufacturer’s, however, may have a sub-standard seasoning that, if used as your base coat, will cause the additional layers of seasoning to flake off. Personally, I remove all manufacturer’s seasonings by giving new cast iron cookware a light-wet sanding with 220-grit and then 440-grit wet/dry emery paper. If the pan is pebbly, then I first sand down the cooking surface with 100-grit emery paper.
Oil: Do not believe all the hype about monosaturated oils, saturated oils, flax oil, etc. I have been there, and the results were always dismal. The only oil you should use to season your pans is unflavored Crisco. At elevated temperature, Crisco converts into a hard polymer that will bond to the iron and provide a super non-stick surface.
Before Seasoning: Be sure to thoroughly wash the cookware with mild soap and water. Then, thoroughly towel dry the pan and put it in a hot oven for a few minutes to completely dry off.
First Coat: The first coat of seasoning should be nearly one molecule thick. You start by spreading unflavored Crisco on the cooking surface and inside walls of the cookware. Then, using a paper towel, keep spreading the Crisco until it is a uniform ultra thin later. This first seasoning will hardly be noticeable because its purpose is to form a strong bond with the iron surface of your cookware. Flip the cookware over and do the same on the outside, including the bottom of the handle– be sure not to coat the rim, which will be done in subsequent seasonings.
Place the cookware upside down in a 550-F preheated oven and cook for 35-40 minutes. The cookware is placed upside down to keep the seasoning from building up unevenly along the outer circumference of the cooking surface.
Second and Third Coats: Re-apply Crisco when the cookware is cool to the touch. This time, however, you will apply a slightly thicker coat of Crisco. As before, place the cookware upside down and cook at 550-deg for 35-40 minutes.
Fourth Coat: At this stage, the outside of the cookware should have enough seasoning to keep it from rusting, so all future seasonings will concentrate on the inside of the cookware. When the cookware is cool to the touch, re-apply Crisco to the inside of the cookware and to the rim and top of the handle. Place the cookware right-side up in a 550-F oven for 35-40 minutes.
Subsequent Coats: Repeat instructions for the fourth coat until the pan has the desired color of seasoning: black for pebbled pans and amber for smooth pans. Be sure not to make the seasoning too thick or it will chip and flake off – even on a pebbled pan.
One Last Tip: For all intents and purposes, proper seasoning will make cooking in your cast iron pans as close to non-stick as possible. Even so, before cooking, I wipe the cooking surface with a very thin layer of butter, which enhances the non-stick capability of the pan.
When to Re-Season Your Cookware
If done right, then the seasoning on your cast iron cookware should last for months. I am extremely hard on my cast iron pans, and I use them at least twice a week. Even so, they only require re-seasoning every one to four months. Do not be discouraged if the seasoning loses its shine after you cook. This does not mean that the cookware needs to be re-seasoned. Depending on use, you should, re-season your cast iron cookware every one to four months, unless it becomes so thin that you can glance the bare metal. If you are a professional chef and use the cookware constantly, then you may want to re-season with a single maintenance coat on a daily basis.
Copper cookware boasts superior heat conduction when compared to any other type of cookware, with aluminum being a close second. Copper cookware combines, to some extent, the benefits of both cast iron and stainless-steel cookware. Like cast iron, copper cookware will provide an excellent sear and caramelization to meat at high temperatures while, like stainless steel cookware, copper will provide unparalleled heat distribution for super precise cooking. Best of all, copper as a metal is the most responsive to changes in temperature of your stove top. So, you can get that sear at high heat, and then lower the temperature without fear of over cooking your dish.
The most obvious con to copper cookware is the cost. It is without a doubt the most expensive type of cookware on the market. A single skillet typically runs hundreds of dollars. For instance, my Mauviel copper roasting pan cost $400. Unlike stainless steel, copper will react with food and can often impart a copper or metallic taste. For this reason, most copper cookware has the cooking surface lined with tin or stainless steel.
Stainless Steel Cookware
Stainless steel cookware is popular because stainless steel is a non-reactive metal. In other words, it will not impart a flavor to your food. Nor will stainless steel leech metals or chemicals into your food. Since pure stainless steel is a horrible conductor of heat, most stainless-steel cookware is not 100% stainless steel. Instead, stainless steel cookware is layered.
My favorite stainless-steel cookware, which is also the favorite of most professional chefs, is the All-Clad D3 collection. When it comes to stainless steel cookware, I will not cook with anything else. All-Clad's D3 line of pots and pans sandwiches an aluminum core between two layers of 18/10 stainless steel. Thanks to the aluminum core, the tri-ply construction heats evenly and quickly. As a quick aside, my love of All-Clad’s D-3 line does not mean that all All-Clad products are good. Some of their products use non-stick coatings and others are of lower quality because they are made in China. So, when shopping for All-Clad be sure to check the country of manufacture and that the product is not non-stick. In my experience, you can never go wrong with their D3 line of stainless-steel cookware.
Overall, stainless steel provides the most versatility at a fair price, which is why I cook 90% of my dishes with stainless steel cookware.
Enamel Coated Cast Iron Cookware
Many people love enamel coated cast iron cookware. Frankly, I have little use for it. Enamel coated cookware is cast-iron cookware with an enamel coating. When new, only copper cookware can rival its beauty. Eventually, however, the cookware becomes scratched, chipped, stained, and starts to look ratty. Since the enamel coating reduces heat distribution, the cast iron is typically doped with aluminum, which results in less heat retention. Furthermore, everything sticks to the enamel surface and cleanup is a nightmare. That being said, I would not bake hearth type bread or attempt a stove-top roast in any other cookware.
Cleaning Your Cookware
Non-stick: You should clean your non-stick cookware in warm to hot soapy water with a soft, non-abrasive sponge. If scrubbing is needed, then use a Scotch-Brite Non-Scratch Scrub Sponge.
Cast Iron: Cast iron cookware should be cleaned with a mild dish detergent and a Scotch-Brite Non-Scratch Scrub Sponge. After cleaning, thoroughly towel dry the cookware and place in a hot oven for a few minutes to dry completely.
Copper and Stainless Steel: Heat and food tends to mark stainless steel and tarnish copper. Barkeeper’s Friend will keep your expensive stainless steel and copper cookware looking brand new and maintain it to last a lifetime. Best of all, it is dirt cheap and found on the lower shelf of your supermarket’s cleaning aisle.
Enamel Coated Cast Iron: Boil water in cookware to remove stuck on food. Use a Scotch-Brite Non-Scratch sponge and or a scrub brush and clean with dish soap and water. Clean off heavy stains with Barkeeper’s Friend. Soak out deep stains with a solution of one part bleach and 3 parts water.
Skillet: A skillet is a frying pan that typically has tapered walls.
Sauté Pan: A sauté pan is basically a skillet with straight walls and a larger cooking surface.
Sauce Pan: Sauce pans are pots that typically sport single handles that are similar to skillets and sauté pans.
Sauce Pot : A sauce pot is a large pot that is typically larger than a sauce pan and has two handles, one on each side.
Stock Pot : A stock pot is a larger version of a sauce pot.
Roasting Pan: A roasting pan is a square metal pan used for roasting meats and vegetables in the oven.
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