What makes one saute pan better than another? Can you get by with just one saute pan? How many saute pans would be enough?
It took years of cooking for me to realize this, but if one were to design and construct a saute pan for each individual cooking task, each pan would have different characteristics. There would be a pan for making omelets, a pan for browning ground meat, a pan for cooking pancakes, a pan for cooking bolognese sauce, a pan for cooking salmon, and a pan for searing steaks.
Some saute pans would have stainless steel cooking surfaces, some would have enamel cooking surfaces, some non-stick, and some cast iron. Some pans would have very thick layers of copper in the middle. Others might be enamel-coated cast-iron and still others might be cheap rolled steel with an enamel or non-stick coating.
There is no single-best pan. There are saute pans that are good for one task and pans good for other kinds of tasks. In the real world, some pans work pretty well for several things, some work well for a set of completely different things, and some really don't work well for many things at all. All too often a pan is designed and constructed using techniques convenient to the manufacturer, rather than being designed to meet a specific set of cooking requirements. That said, there are many good pans that perform competently for many kinds of cooking chores.
Just a quick note on terminology:
A saute or fry-pan is called upon to perform a small collection of very different chores. A common one is browning meat. Browning requires that the surface temperature of the meat gets quite high. This just does not happen unless the food literally sticks to the pan and the pan is very hot - 350 to 500 F. The food that sticks to the pan is called the fond. And it is this part of the food that gets all the flavor. The more food sticks to the pan, the better the flavor of the sauce and the dish.
Cast-iron may be the best surface for browning: it's surface is full of undulations which means that at the microscopic level there's a lot more surface area in which the fond can form. It has a second advantage: thermal mass. A cast iron pan can store more heat than most other kinds of pans. This means that you can heat it up to a high temperature before putting in the meat, and the pan will stay hot enough to brown the meat. This thermal storage property can help to make up for the fact that cast iron does not conduct heat quite as well as does aluminum.
Unfortunately cast iron is a chemically unstable surface. Even with a well seasoned pan, it is not uncommon for little bits of the surface to spall off and end up in your food. And if one is making a sauce that contains tomatoes or another acidic food, the iron of the pan can dissolve in the sauce producing a noticeable off taste. There's no evidence that either of these problems does much harm, but it can ruin the flavor or appearance of the food.
As we mentioned, an advantage of a cast iron pan is that it is thick, heavy, dense. It stores a lot of heat. If you want a thick brown layer on your steak, you need to use cast iron cookware. You also need to heat it up to 500 degrees before you pop in the steak. Just stick it in a 500 degree oven for 20 minutes, then set it on a burner turned on high before popping in a steak. Stand back and watch it sizzle. If you are cooking several steaks, you may need several pans. Wait. Don't run away, they only cost $10 or so each.
So cast iron is ideal for searing steaks and chops, for browning tofu , and for making skillet corn bread. It is not good for making sauces.
One can get much of the benefit of cast iron with none of the drawbacks if one has an enamel on cast iron pan like Le Creuset. A potential drawback of enamel pans is that when one deglazes the pan to get the fond into a sauce, the high thermal stress can cause the enamel to spall, ruining an expensive piece of cooking equipment. In my opinion, these pans are too expensive to have to coddle. But if you cannot stand to have any metal touch your food, they are an excellent choice.
Stainless steel surfaces are good for browning. A good fond is produced and it deglazes cleanly. So for cooking thick cuts of meat that require subsequent cooking in an oven or for recipes that call for some sort of integral sauce made from the fond developed during browning, stainless steel is the best surface.
Non-stick surfaces produce no fond. If you make integral sauces from fond that sticks to the pan - you will feel cheated if you switch from cooking meat in a stainless steel, cast iron, or enamel pan to doing it in a non-stick pan. It is possible to brown meat, if you are willing to push the pan near its material limits. And the good news is that the browned material will all stick to the meat. The bad news is that y0u cannot make any sauces from the fond left in the pan since there will be no fond. For browning meat with no sauce, a good seasoned cast iron skillet or griddle might be better.
But non-stick surfaces are much better for certain tasks: If you want to fry an egg, you don't care too much about browning - you just don't want the egg to stick to the pan. If you make an omelet, you don't care too much about browning - you just want to be able to extract the thing in one piece. Sometimes when doing fish, you want a very lightly browned crust and in this case a non-stick pan is best- especially for fragile fish. Onions, curiously enough, are fairly fragile. If one wishes to cook onions or garlic without burning them, nonstick pans can help.
Because the pans cannot be preheated to more than about 400 F and because they rarely have much thermal mass, browning requires more patience. One can make foods brown in non-stick pans, one just cannot make integral sauces by deglazing the pan. Ten years ago this distinction would have been lost on me, but an integral sauce made from deglazing a pan is at the very heart and soul of good cooking. Learn it and you never cook the same way again.
One great problem in cooking is that even professionals seem not to be trained in how to make good choices in cookware.
I cannot tell you how many 'Great Chefs' shows I've seen in which a chef is reducing a liquid in what was, a long time ago, a non-stick pan. Non-stick surfaces are applied to aluminum pans for a variety of reasons including ease of manufacturing. And the nonstick surfaces can come off - especially if the surface is rubbed with metal utensils or scrub pads. What's underneath is aluminum. And aluminum is a highly reactive metal. It tastes really foul and aluminum consumption has been linked to Alzheimers. Don't touch food with aluminum. Period.
Three decades ago non-stick coatings did not stick very well. Today, there are non-stick coatings that, with a modicum of care, will provide decades of excellent service in a home. If you like non-stick and you need it for eggs and so on, do it. A Calphalon Commercial omelet pan treated well can be an excellent choice.
The pancake is more sensitive to small variations in the temperature of a cooking surface than any other food. If one wishes to know "Why buy a pan with a very thick bottom layer of aluminum or copper?" cook a pancake. If the browning is completely uniform from edge to edge and from center to edge, the pan you are using has satisfactory thermal conduction. But if the center is burned and the edges are tan, then you desperately need a different pan. Specifically, you need a pan with a much thicker conductive bottom.
If you cook pancakes very often, you need to buy a griddle; but the pancake test is still useful, especially if you like to cook omelets or other egg dishes.
If you saute vegetables, temperature uniformity will be helpful. Especially if you are using a gas stove, It will go a long way toward preventing the vegetables near the center of the pan from burning. It seems surprising, but onions and garlic are extremely prone to overheating, and most of the best recipes for meat sauces and vegetable melanges include sauted onions. Non-stick pans also tend to be more gentle with onions and garlic.
I once purchased a non-stick Calphalon Commercial wok. It is one of my favorite pieces of cookware, but as a wok it is a failure. The stove I have does not have a flame big enough to heat the wok up to stir-fry temperature - a fault of the stove more than of the wok - but if it did get hot enough, it would melt the non-stick coating. And if it did not melt the non-stick coating, then there would be no fond, so the sauce would not be as good as with a steel wok.
The chef's pan is a good alternative to a wok. It is perfectly suited to makeing single serving batches of stir-fry - which is about as much as a non-commercial kitchen burner can support.
If you alre looking for the ideal pizza stone, look no farther. Lodge makes a large diameter cast iron pan that is ideally suited to making crunchy pizza crusts. I have been using cast iron griddles for years to get crunchy crust and nothing can work better.
Non-stick has its place; and it is an important one. Every kitchen should have a non-stick pan eight inches across and one ten inches across. But every kitchen should also have a very thick stainless steel /aluminum /stainless steel omelet or fry pan ten inches across, a cast iron griddle ten inches across, and a cast iron fry pan ten inches across. You just cannot cook everything the right way without some of each.
If you have a small family and are looking for the best and cheapest way to go, get a cast iron griddle, a 12 inch cast iron skillet, and a 10 inch stainless (three ply) omelet pan. You can get by for some time on this combo and not run into any serious limitations.
We hope this has given you the information you need to choose the pans that best fit your style of cooking.
Eat well and prosper.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.