Pans are the primary cooking device in most kitchens and mine is no different. I have three primary pans and some special use pans. And though they are called “saucepans,” they are really more like pots than pans (and aren’t good for saucemaking either), so I’ll leave those out. I’ll be skipping roasting pans as well and sticking to the general class of stove-top pans.
All-Clad 5112 Stainless 12-Inch Fry Pan
This is the oldest member of my kitchen and my primary workhorse, picked up at the bi-annual (June/December) All-Clad factory sale near their plant in Canonsburg, PA, held at the Washington County Fairground. It’s certainly a fairly pricey pan at about $140, but totally worth it. It is the most versatile pan in my kitchen, able to cook all but the most delicate foods with ease.
The All-Clad has a three layer construction consisting of a stainless steel / aluminum / stainless steel sandwich of metals. Why is this good? Well, the stainless interior is non-reactive, which means that acidic sauces won’t chemically react with the the metal (as with aluminum and regular steel) and add color or a metallic taste. In addition, while stainless heats relatively slowly, it holds on to heat quite well. Good heat capacity means that when you put food in your (preheated!) pan, the temperature won’t drop as much and slow down cooking, which can be the difference between browning and just steaming your food. This pan is excellent at browning. Now if the pan were made of just stainless steel, it would suffer from hot spots and slow heating. This is where the aluminum core comes in – this layer conducts heat very quickly and efficiently, and allows the heat to spread evenly through out the steel layers, even up the sides, and also makes the pan more responsive to changes in heat from the stove. So if your pan is too hot and things start burning, you can turn down the heat and the pan will cool down. Oh, and if you have an induction range, the stainless steel is magnetic and will work great.
Now having a bare metal pan means that yes, cooking delicate things is going to be difficult and messy unless you’re very careful. However, it also means that you get superior browning and fond development compared to nonstick, both of which are critical for good flavor development. You see, some “stickiness” of the pan is good, as it allows for small bits of the meat you’re cooking to adhere to the pan, and that layer is called fond. When you later deglaze the pan with a liquid and/or onions, those bits dissolve into the sauce. Through the magic of the Malliard reaction, that fond is composed of hundreds of different flavor molecules. No fond == bland sauce. Also, you don’t have to worry about a potentially poisonous non-stick layer flaking off into your food and you can use metal utensils! Finally – the pan is oven-safe. You can sear a piece of meat on the stove and directly finish it in the oven.
Size – 12″ is about as big as you want to get with your typical stove heating element. Pretty roomy and cooks quite a bit of food. This is certainly a weighty pan, but I don’t toss food much with this guy. Low, flared sides makes it fairly easy to get in there with a spatula and flip things.
This pan, treated well, should last a lifetime. I highly recommend the Cook’s Country special issue, Skillet Suppers, for a great set of (mostly) single skillet recipes.
Lodge Logic L10SK3 12-Inch Pre-Seasoned Skillet
The Lodge is a relative newcomer to the RoboGourmet kitchen, but it’s quickly become a regular. Cast-iron means that this sucker is really heavy, but if you want to sear a piece of meat, it’s really hard to beat. It’s also great for shallow frying, cornbread and even making deep-dish pizza. 12″ makes for lots of room to cook. Once well-seasoned (it’s marketed as being pre-seasoned, but the factory seasoning isn’t that great and needs some additional love), it’s pretty non-stick and still oven safe! Pancakes work out pretty great! Slow to heat, though, and not very responsive to heat-level changes, so expect some hotspotting if you try to heat this up quickly on high heat. Slow preheating is the way to go. Fond development is also tricky to judge due to the black color. The handles are not great, but at least there’s a helper handle which is really necessary for this weighty beast. Cheap as all get-out at $20, this is a great addition to any kitchen, as long as you’re willing to spend some time maintaining the seasoning (a future article on this to come). Cast iron is reactive, though, so avoid cooking acidic foods in this!
10″ Aluminum Nonstick “Saucier”
This is some random-Korean-brand hard-anodized aluminum pan that I own that gets used mostly to quickly saute/stir-fry vegetables for side dishes. I’m not exactly sure what category of pan this falls in, but it’s roughly shaped like a saucier, with a rounded bottom and relatively high sides. The aluminum disk bottom helps holds some heat, but I end up blasting this pan on high heat all the time. The combination of the lightweight aluminum and high sides makes this a great pan for beginners working on their saute toss technique where you flip the pan to redistribute the contents for even cooking. The hard-anodized coating is better than Teflon and other polymer coatings, health-wise, and doesn’t flake, though I still avoid using metal utensils with this.
Those are the main three pans – I own a few others, including a small non-stick omelette and a grill pan, but those are used infrequently and are too specialized for my taste.