Choosing the proper cookware for your dish is the single most important thing you do before turning on the stove. Even the most gorgeous and delicious ingredients don’t stand a chance if cooked improperly. Selecting the proper cookware can make a huge improvement — even to the most everyday of dishes. Here are the four things to keep in mind before you begin preparing a meal:
Glance over your recipe and estimate the total volume of your ingredients. If you have a recipe that calls for 8 cups of sliced mushrooms, chances are you’re going to need some large cookware. This may seem obvious, but once you’ve started cooking and have generated heat in both your pan and your ingredients, transferring to another pan is both tedious and detrimental to the outcome of your food. Alternatively, cooking a single chicken breast in a 12-inch frying pan is equally inefficient. Heat + cookware + ingredients = cooking. Heat + cookware + no ingredients = smoke and burning. (The excess space in your pan results in burned oil and a very splattered cooktop.)
To demonstrate the importance of scaling your recipe to your pan, I ran a small experiment:
I added 1 cup of water to a 12-inch saucepan and 1 cup of water to a 6-inch saucepan. Placing them both over a high heat to come to a boil. It took the 12-inch pan 3 minutes and 5 seconds to come to a rolling boil. It took the 6-inch pan 5 minutes and 42 seconds to come to a rolling boil. A large but understandable difference. More significant than that was the amount of time it took the water to evaporate. In the larger pan, the water boiled away in 7 minutes and 43 seconds whereas in the smaller pan it took 29 minutes and 18 seconds! If you are making a sauce that needs to be reduced, or a soup that needs to be simmered, this is a significant difference.
There are a variety of materials used to make “stick” pans, such as stainless steel, copper and cast-iron. Non-stick pans, on the other hand, are a metal pan that has a surface coating to prevent anything from sticking to it, making it more user-friendly. Whenever possible, I opt for “stick” pans out of a desire to build flavour. Pans that have a stick-factor retain bits of food and flavour as you cook. They’re also a must for browning meat, braised dishes and, most importantly, dishes that have pan sauces. It’s those flavourful bits that stick to the pan (plus deglazing) that are crucial to a pan sauce. So when is it good to use a non-stick pan? I use one every time I cook eggs, delicate fish, baby spinach (or other delicate greens), scallops (shh, I’m blushing) as well as skin-on chicken breasts when I’m looking for the skin to stay intact.
We’ve already discussed shape in terms of scale, but the shape of a pan can affect the outcome of your dish in other ways. The depth of a pan, or the height of the sides, determines how quickly things will evaporate. Therefore if you are making a soup, and you want flavour to build (by simmering for a long time without rapid evaporation), you will need a very high-sided pot. The same is true for rice or pasta, where you want a rapid boil to cook the starches without the water evaporating. A lower-rimmed saucepan will be ideal for sauces where you want some reduction.
Probably the most important of all. Our pot collection is like our closet, we know what works and what doesn’t. Get to know your pots and pans and use those with the best quality and best success rates. Do away with pans that let you down — it may seem wasteful but they will be the demise of your hard work and good ingredients.
Originally published April 28th, 2015.