This is the first in a series of articles geared toward helping you take your home cooking to a higher level. This series will focus on individual ingredients, techniques, and styles that can take good food and make it great. I will mix these articles in along with the type of articles and posts that usually make up this blog. There will also be another new series beginning soon, as my wife is working on some photo essays based on some of our wine adventures together. Look for that soon. In the meantime, here is the first step on our quest to become a Superstar Home Chef.
Great cooking requires knowledge, fresh, high quality ingredients, skill, patience, a little ADHD, and good tools. Today we will start with the most important, and basic tools a great home chef needs. All the skill and quality ingredients in the world won’t overcome low quality pots and pans. In this article we will focus on the three pans I consider to be essential for great cooking.
The first is a good, heavy, high-quality stainless steel frying pan. I use the 12″ All-Clad Stainless-Steel Fry Pan. A pan like this is essential for getting the all important crust that elevates meat entrees from good to great. It is also a necessity when creating pan sauces. Both techniques will be featured in later articles. Neither a quality crust nor a good pan sauce can be created in a cheap pan. Low quality pans do not distribute or diffuse heat properly. Instead of a crust, you get burnt meat, and instead of the good browned bits that pan sauces are made of you will have bitter burnt bits. You don’t want your bits to be burnt and bitter, do you? I didn’t think so.
These pans are stainless steel with an aluminum core that can take a lot of heat. They can go from the stovetop to the oven and are rated up to 500F. They are pricey, but with proper care will last a lifetime. In addition to their quality, these are beautiful to look at, and can go right from the burner to the table as a serving vessel. Along with the next pan, I couldn’t cook the way that I do without it.
The second pan that I think is essential is a great, thick, high quality non-stick skillet or frying pan. I use the Calphalon One Nonstick 12-Inch Fry Pan. Besides it being the most respected maker of non-stick cookware, they are also made in my hometown of Toledo, Ohio. Like the stainless pan discussed above, this is not a low priced pan. However, it not only will last a lifetime with proper care, it is also guranteed to last that long. Both of these pans are investments in your reputation as a great cook for as long as you need them.
A good non-stick pan is necessary for cooking fish, seafood, and anything else that is delicate or tends to stick. It also works with burgers, pancakes and a lot of other everyday type cooking. They also look great and clean up very easily. Some top chefs even recommend that they only be cleaned by being wiped out with a towel. I won’t go that far, but there are plenty of times that is all that is required.
Our third pan, thankfully, while also something that will last a lifetime, is actually relatively inexpensive. The Lodge 12-Inch Cast-Iron Skillet is already pre-seasoned and is ready to use right out of the box. Nothing holds heat like this old war horse. Cast-iron is the superior choice for both heat retention and diffusion, not to mention durability. This is my go-to pan for frying. French fries, fried chicken, or any other item that requires oil to remain at a constant temperature gets cooked in this pan. Clean up is as simple as scraping any stuck bits off under hot, running water, a good wipe with a paper towel, and another quick wipe with some vegetable oil.
If you are serious about woodworking or carpentry you will need high quality tools, and the same goes for cooking. I attended culinary school, cookbooks are my porn, and I can happily spend my entire day watching quality cooking shows, but I was not a great home chef until I started to invest in my tools. A pan in all three styles listed above should be in the kitchen of everyone that aspires to cooking great meals. However, the reality is that times are tough, and the first two are not cheap. If you have to temporarily choose between the non-stick and the stainless steel pan, the non-stick wins by a very fine hair. It is more versatile in a lot of ways, but does not perform as well for browning, crusting, or sauces.
Quality tools are the foundation upon which your cooking will be built on. Many of the techniques that I was taught in culinary school, or learned along the way failed for me when I attempted to use them at home over the years. Once I got to the point that I could afford to invest in quality cookware it became apparent that it wasn’t my skills that were lacking, my tools were failing me.
The techniques and skills discussed in coming articles will assume that you have the right tools. Without them, as they say, results may vary.