What’s best for your kitchen/cooker/cooking?
Because it’s so beautifully shiny and sterile looking, many people think that stainless steel is the best material for saucepans. In fact it’s not necessarily, because stainless steel isn’t a good heat conductor. However, is does have a lot else in its favour: it’s hard-wearing, easy to clean, and it’s ‘food safe’, which means it doesn’t react with certain types of food. Acidic foods and salt, for example, can burrow into other metals.
To make stainless steel into decent cookware, manufacturers do clever things with better heat conductors. The earliest remedy was to stick an ‘encapsulated base’ on the bottom – i.e. a disc of something like aluminium, encapsulated in stainless steel. Or, though this is less common now, the base can be made of copper, or a copper/steel mix. Other metals can be added to an encapsulated base in order to make it user-friendly on different types of stove tops. For example, induction cookers are electromagnetic, so pans will only work if they have a magnetic base, i.e. iron in them. Interestingly, high-grade stainless steel has a low iron content so it is not induction-friendly; whereas cheap stainless steel often is. So people with expensive new induction cookers might find that their bargain-basement stainless steel pans made in the 1990s (or earlier) work well, whereas their really expensive 1990s pans won’t work at all. (Which is one of the many many proofs that cooker manufacturers and cookware developers aren’t always on the same planet.)
Alternatively – and this is becoming increasingly common – you can get what’s called tri-ply or multi-ply, where the sheet metal has two layers of stainless steel sandwiching layers of aluminium (and/or other materials), which is then formed into pans. This technique results in a heavy-ish pan of uniform thickness with superb heat conductivity not just across the base, but up the sides too. These pans also have excellent heat retention, so the temperature won’t drop as you add foods – useful for stir fry cooking, for example.
There are lots of multi-ply pans on the market, but our favourites are Scanpan’s Fusion 5 and le Creuset’s 3-ply saucepans, and a new ‘professional’ series from GreenPan. Starting prices are about £70 for a 16cm lidded saucepan, but they are investment pieces which will last forever.
If you can wean yourself off stainless steel, it’s worth considering other types of cookware. Plain aluminium used to be the material of choice for saucepans, but it can react with very acidic foods and become pitted. It’s also considerably softer than stainless steel, so can warp or dent if it’s very thin, and it’s not induction friendly. There are a few ways round these problems. For example, pressed or cast aluminium pans can be coated with enamel on the outside and a nonstick lining on the inside, and iron can be added to the base of the pan to make it work on induction. We don’t tend to sell pressed or cast aluminium saucepans, but we have two or three frypan ranges of this genre, and a number of casserole-style pans which work on the hob as well as in the oven. Cast aluminium tends to be thicker and heavier, but also less likely to warp. In traditional nonstick some of our favourites are by Kuhn Rikon, Woll and le Creuset’s Toughened Nonstick (some of which are induction-friendly). In ceramic nonstick – a harder wearing, more environmentally friendly surface – Scanpan and GreenPan are superb.
Hard-anodising aluminium is another way of making it more practical for cookware, giving it immense rigidity and a scratch-proof surface, while maintaining the marvellous heat spread efficiency of aluminium (see the Bakeware page on this website for more information on anodising). Currently our favourite hard-anodised saucepans and frypans are made by GreenPan. They are green for lots of reasons, but primarily because they don’t contain PTFE (polytetrafluorethylene – the chemical in nonstick coatings), and they don’t give off PFOA (perfluoro-octanoic acid - the chemical released into the atmosphere when PTFE is manufactured, or indeed burnt during over-enthusiastic frying). GreenPans have a ceramic coating which is incredibly tough, astonishingly nonstick and almost impossible to destroy. We like that in a pan.
Non-stainless steel (known as ‘steel’) is ancient, but it kind of went out of fashion with the advent of the dishwasher. It’s creeping back partly because people like the retro look of enamelled steel, partly because it works on all stove tops – including induction – without being hideously expensive or impossibly heavy. Most steel pans on the market today will be coated in a hard enamel, which can be pretty much any colour that is currently popular (Hahn have some beautiful black, white, red and green casseroles), or speckled like ‘vitreous enamel’ (think old-fashioned black roasting trays with white specks). Steel has reasonably good heat retention, but it can still get hot-spots, which might cause buckling, especially in the thinner, cheaper pans. This is more of a problem on gas where a ring of intense heat hits the pan base, whereas other heat sources spread the heat more evenly across the bottom of the pan.
‘Black iron’ or ‘blue steel’ pans are much more cheffy. These are usually much thicker steel (so better for heat spread on gas), and are completely uncoated and otherwise untreated. Chefs will season them, sometimes by baking salt onto the surface, but often by simply not cleaning them, and regularly swiping them round with oil. Seasoning is the process of burning fats into the pores of the pan, creating a natural nonstick surface (see Cookware Care). The downside of steel pans in domestic kitchens in that they can’t go in the dishwasher, and if not seasoned they will get rusty, which tastes pretty foul (although it gives your blood a good iron boost).
Woks are traditionally made of uncoated thin steel, sometimes called ‘carbon steel’, but it is harder these days to find plain woks without a nonstick coating in British shops. A specialist cookware retailer might stock them, and could certainly find a supplier, but make sure you check first that you know what you’re buying. It’s important that you don’t scrub a carbon steel wok in soapy water or put it through the dishwasher. (Most woks will have a wooden handle anyway, which is a big clue they’re not dishwasher-safe.)
Copper is an excellent heat conductor. It is also (a) expensive, (b) soft and (c) highly poisonous. For reason (c), when used in cookware it will be lined with either tin or stainless steel. Look for the proportion of stainless steel to copper: Mauviel’s 10% stainless steel to 90% copper is clearly going to be a more efficient pan than 30% stainless steel to 70% copper. Don’t even bother with a pan that has simply had its bottom sprayed with copper, the only discernible difference will be that it’s harder to keep clean. Lining copper with tin is traditional, and perfectly safe. However, you should use wooden utensils on tin linings, as metal ones will scratch the tin off.
For slow-cook one-pot recipes you can’t beat traditional cast iron casseroles. Properly looked after, they will last a lifetime, and will work on any stove top: gas, electric, range and induction. You can even bung them on the BBQ, if you’ve forgotten how much they cost (or can afford not to care).
Originally, like steel, cast iron would be uncoated and would require seasoning. The older, blacker and more seasoned it was, the more nonstick the surface. These days we tend to buy enamelled cast iron, because it’s easier to clean (and prettier). Chasseur and le Creuset are both French made enamelled cast iron. Chasseur is a bit heavier (though there’s not much in it) and has a ‘drip back’ lid. Le Creuset’s volcanic orange is instantly recognisable, but both do a range of stylish colours. Both also make saucepans in cast iron, but as cast iron takes a while to heat up, it’s not the quickest way to boil an egg. On the other hand, once hot, cast iron holds the heat very well, so it’s perfect for grill pans (ridged, for searing steaks), and griddles (flat, for cooking drop scones).
Cast iron is excellent on gas and Aga-style hob tops. Cooker manufacturers might recommend you don’t use it on ceramic hobs, but that’s because it’s so heavy. Just make sure you don’t either drop it on, or drag it across, the hob top. Always make sure the hob and the base of the cast iron pan are both clean, as any burnt food caught between the two will almost certainly scratch the hob.
Another thing we’ve recently discovered about cast iron is that you’ve got to take a little extra care when you use it on induction hobs - even if you’ve already been using a piece for years on another heat source. Although technically cast iron should work very well on induction as it is mainly iron and therefore strongly magnetic, in fact the induction hob itself heats too quickly for the cast iron to adjust - it prefers to heat up more slowly. If there are any miniscule air pockets in the cast material, if the pan is heated too quickly, these can expand and cause cracks in the metal. The sound of cast iron cracking is rather like gunshot, and the crack is irreversible, so most alarming on all counts.