Some things mean a lot, but some simply don't.
By ERICA MARCUS
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
"What kind of pots should I buy?" is the question most frequently posed to food writers, and most of us have come up with a prepared speech in response.
First, you do not need a matched set of cookware. No one material is best for all cooking tasks, and so the best "set" is one made up of mismatched pieces. The kitchens of most good home cooks are stocked with a motley assortment of equipment.
Moreover, many fancy cookware sets are not a good value because you're invariably paying for a large stockpot in whatever high-priced line you've chosen. Stockpots are used to boil large quantities of liquid, and there is virtually no difference between the performance of a cheap black-and-white speckleware pot and a $200 Calphalon model.
For more complicated tasks, the material does matter. Here's a rundown on the most common cookware materials and which tasks they are best suited for:
Cast iron gets good and hot and heats evenly. If you treat your cast-iron pan well -- seasoning it initially with oil and then cleaning it only with hot water -- it will develop a coating that makes it almost nonstick. Cast iron is also dirt-cheap. But it has two main disadvantages: It is heavy, and it is reactive. Reactive, in cookware terms, refers to materials that react chemically with food. In the case of cast iron, acidic foods (tomatoes, wine-based sauces) cooked in it may take on a metallic taste and they may destroy the pan's seasoning.
Recommendations: There is no better pan for frying chicken or searing a steak or chop than cast iron. I have two Lodge cast-iron skillets, a 10-inch and a 12-inch, and a tempered glass lid (from the hardware store) for each.
Enameled cast iron (e.g., Le Creuset) solves one of cast iron's main drawbacks: the enamel coating makes it completely nonreactive, and thus it's perfect for long, slow cooking. But it is still very heavy and, unlike its unenameled cousin, expensive.
Recommendations: Enameled cast iron is the perfect material for Dutch ovens, those deep, lidded pots used to make anything from beans to braises. I have two Le Creuset Dutch ovens, a big round one for stews and beans and a slightly smaller oval one, which is a better shape for braising whole chickens, lamb shanks, etc.
Aluminum is, in many ways, a good material for cookware, since it is light and a good heat conductor. Unfortunately, it also reacts with food, getting pitted and discolored in the process. In the 1970s, Calphalon introduced hard-anodized aluminum, whose gray surface has been altered electromagnetically so that it is harder and less reactive. I say less reactive because after a few years of making tomato sauce in my Calphalon saucepan, the surface did begin to pit. Also, the dark color can make it hard to judge the color of what you're cooking.
Recommendations: I think anodized aluminum excels as a base for nonstick surfaces, and if you are set on getting nonstick cookware, consider one of the anodized aluminum lines that offers a nonstick option; e.g., Emerilware nonstick, Anolon Titanium, Calphalon's three nonstick lines.
Stainless steel: Unlike aluminum, stainless steel is durable, easy to clean (often dishwasher-safe) and will not react with food. It is, thus, a good surface for cookware. However, stainless steel is not a good heat conductor, and so it must be combined with other metals (good conductors such as aluminum or copper) to make a high-performance pan. The metals are usually combined in what the industry calls a three-ply sandwich in which the outer "bread" is stainless steel and the inner "filling" is aluminum or copper.
Most stainless-steel cookware relies on a sandwich base, that is, the sides of the pan are a single layer of stainless steel but the base is three-ply sandwich. The idea here is that, since most of the cooking happens on the pan's base and not along its sides, that's where you need the even-heating properties of the sandwich.
The highest-quality stainless steel pans are fully clad, that is, both the bases and the sides of the pan are made with that three-ply sandwich. Most of the high-priced cookware brands -- AllClad, Calphalon, Viking, KitchenAid -- offer fully clad lines, as do lesser-known companies such as Tramontina. (Sam's Club is currently selling an 11-piece "Tri-Ply Clad" cookware set made by Tramontina for $128.)
Recommendations: Stainless-steel saucepans and skillets made with a sandwich base will do a perfectly fine job on almost every cooking task, but fully clad pans deliver an unequaled combination of power and control. I have quite a lot of AllClad Stainless. Not only does it perform beautifully, but it cleans up like a dream in the dishwasher.
A few words about nonstick cookware: Everyone knows the advantages of nonstick cookware: Even if you don't use any oil, food won't stick to the surface. The disadvantages are less widely known: A nonstick surface discourages the development of what the French call a "fond," the caramelized substance that forms on both the food and the pan that lends depth and complexity to any dish.
I never saute aromatics (e.g., onions, garlic) for a braise or a soup in a nonstick pan. Nor do I see the point of nonstick stockpots or saucepans where there's really nothing to stick to the surface, anyway.
Recommendations: Nonstick pans earn their keep at breakfast; I wonder how my ancestors cooked eggs and pancakes without them. And I have never made a successful frittata without a nonstick skillet.