A Few Good Pans
Few tools of daily life are as personal as the pans you use to feed yourself. And a few good pans may be all you really need. But it depends on what you eat and how you want to cook. If you eat rice and steamed vegetables, a wok with a steaming basket and a pot in which to cook your rice will probably suffice. If you’re committed to cooking with the absolute minimum of fats, a good-quality nonstick pan is the answer to your needs.
But what if you want to brown pork chops or chicken breasts and then deglaze the pan to take advantage of the browned bits stuck to the cooking surface? Cast iron is one way to go; a heavyweight pan with a polished stainless steel cooking surface is another. And what if you fancy the occasional roast of some kind or a slow-braised stew, be it vegetable or not? And if soup is a constant theme, shouldn’t you have a pot on hand for making stocks? Even so, you aren’t necessarily looking at a range of cookware so deep, so broad, that you’ll have to knock out walls to add cabinets, pot racks, and the like.
Pan by Pan
Your basic pot. Capacity ranges from 1 to 5 quarts. In larger sizes, look for a loop on the side of the pan opposite the handle, to help balance weight for carrying. These round pans usually have straight sides, though some designs favor a slight flare. Saucepans are for heating liquids and cooking in liquids, lid on top. In a microwave-free kitchen, you would turn to a saucepan to reheat last night’s chili. Add a steamer insert and a double boiler insert for a truly multitalented pot.
- Frypan: Frypans range in diameter from about 7 inches (a couple of fried eggs) to 14 inches (eggs to order for several family members at a time). The sides of the pan flare out, and the height remains shallow. This makes for easy spatula use and for the kind of in-pan flipping and tossing of ingredients that line cooks are wont to do one-handed, working fast and furious at the stove. The fry pan is the pan to turn to when you want to sear and brown something fast, then bring the heat right down–a pan to heat up and cool off. Think minced shallots. In the time it takes to color them up in hot oil, you’ll want to be dialing down the heat to avoid browning. Frypans can be oval (fish, anyone?) or extremely flat, as in crepes. One thing they are not is too heavy to lift and move around and flip with ease. Look for a long, cool handle. Frypans aren’t about slow cooking or braising. They never have lids, because they don’t have the slow cooker’s need to seal in juices.
- Sauté pan:
Picture a frying pan with straight sides rising a couple of inches. The straight sides encourage ingredients to stay within the pan and off the floor. These are pans for browning meats, sweating vegetables, cooking rice, constructing sauces, and for braising. They have lids and long handles.
- Braising pan: For serious slow cooking with wet heat (stews and lamb shanks, for example). The oval form is a nice shape, and a heavy lid a welcome contribution, as is an all-around heavyweight to hold heat. Steep sides are always a good idea, as the heat completely surrounds and involves the ingredients in their own juices.
- Casserole: Ranges from 2-1/2 to 12 quarts. This dish is round, with steep sides and a lid; it is not necessarily heavy. Some casseroles are made of ceramic, while others are of the same manufacture as a high-end saucepan. Perfect for homemade macaroni and cheese.
- Dutch oven: Heavy’s the name and slow cooking’s the game, whether on the stovetop or in the oven or buried in a fire pit. The Dutch oven is a cross between a braising pan and a casserole; you might consider using it when baking biscuits or shepherd’s bread.
- Stockpot: Capacity ranges from 6 to 20 quarts. For making stocks, to be sure, but also for cooking pasta (finally) in enough water. A truly heavy stockpot is a wonderful way to cook large quantities of fruit for jam and chutney, or tomato sauce for the freezer. A lightweight stockpot works perfectly well for stock making and is easier to pour from when the time comes. But go heavy for any kind of cooking down or long cooking of ingredients that would easily scorch otherwise.
- Au gratin: Something of a splurge, this pan. Long and oval, with shallow height, rounded edges, and loop handles at either end. Perfect for sliding beneath a broiler, in and out of the oven. This pan has a thousand possibilities, potatoes au gratin among them.
- Roasting pan: The weight of the pan and its straight edges add to the even cooking and even browning of the roast that rests within. Chicken. Turkey. Beef. Pork. Veal. Lamb. It matters not–they all benefit. And a good-quality V-shaped rack helps, too.
- Wok: Go for either the traditional version that sits upon a ring around the burner or a modern derivative with a long handle and sleeker lines built on a sauté pan model. Designed to heat and cool rapidly, to fry and braise all in one.
- Chef’s pan: Sauté pan meets saucepan meets wok. A pan for all seasons.