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Pots and Pans
I've written in this space before about cookware. Still, I receive lots of questions about how to assemble the best cooking equipment for people just starting to brave the kitchen. You ask:
Should I have expensive gleaming copper right away? Should I slop by with cheap pans from the discount store? Do I really need all those gadgets? Do I really need all this stuff?
No. Pioneers managed with a couple of big pots and a pan or two. People who go camping pack next to nothing, yet dine on Trout Meuniere under the stars and eggs-over-easy when they wake up.
The amount of equipment isn't the answer. The right pan for what you like to cook, and how you like to cook, is what you need. The following three categories -- pot, pan, baking pan (dish) -- are the hammer, screwdriver, wrench of the kitchen toolbox. They'll get you through just about any recipe.
If you like beans, soup, chili, and stew, and you like to cook things on a weekend for a long time over low heat, you're a lot like those pioneers. You definitely need a pot. If you also like to boil pasta, it's my opinion that you need a second pot.
This pot doesn't have to be expensive, just durable. I recommend one that holds about 5 to 7 quarts. This will see you through pasta-boiling, soup, stew, chili, beans, even a whole chicken. It's also just right for one of those expandable steamer baskets, when you'll also use this big pot for vegetables. Look for stainless steel and a pot with a thick bottom. This might cost as much as $40. A pot that's too thin will heat unevenly, which will cause inevitable scorching.
If you like to cook vegetables or portioned cuts of meat (chicken breasts, chops) in a small amount of oil over high heat, you are interchangeably engaging in frying, sauteing, or stir-frying. You probably like vegetables a little crunchy and meat juicy and tender. You most certainly need a couple of good heat-conductors. These are called pans -- or skillets.
You'll need two. One should be 6 to 8 inches from rim to rim, and the other 12 inches across the diameter. The smaller one will be perfect for eggs, a couple of chicken breasts, green beans, cut asparagus, sliced carrots, butter-fried zucchini slices. The larger one will hold an entire cut-up chicken, four rib-eye steaks or lamb chops, whole asparagus stalks, three to four large fish fillets. Even if buying pans with nonstick coatings, make sure the skillet also is thick on the bottom. A thin pan means you've got to be a mighty good cook. The thicker the bottom, the more control you'll have over this pan. A thin pan simply can't deal with lots of burner heat, and instead gets hot spots, sometimes warps and actually over-heats. Translation: the food burns.
Baking Pan (baking dish)
If you like to put chicken in the oven so you can go out for your evening walk while it bakes, you need the item known both as a baking pan or baking dish.
Baking pans come in many shapes -- square, oval, oblong. An 8-inch square is great for baking a batch of brownies, but an oval or oblong shape is best for roasting a chicken whole or cut up. Baking pans come in many materials, but I recommend stainless steel. This can go in the oven as well as over a burner. It isn't necessary to buy a baking pan with a non-stick coating. Avoid black bakeware; it absorbs heat so fast that food gets dark and overly crisp.
And what about all those gadgets? Knives don't count; they're indispensable. But here are a few extras that will streamline the preparation of ingredients and how you cook them:
Big cutting board (wood or plastic) -- give yourself a lot of chopping space.
Oven mitts that go up your arm -- you will get burned at some point; these lessen your chances.
Spatula (pancake turner) -- flips fried eggs or chicken breasts.
Spatula (rubber scraper) -- scrapes out anything in a bowl so there's nothing left in it.
Colander -- great for draining all that pasta you love to make.
Box grater -- gets the cheese grated for your pasta.
Tongs -- lifts the pasta out of the pot.
Strainer (wire mesh with a handle) -- lets you rinse vegetables and drain them at the same time, or strain out -- oops -- lumps.
Vegetable (potato) peeler -- for potatoes, carrots, apples.
Oven thermometer -- no two ovens are equal; yours will be "true."
Timer -- human clocks tempt burning; get a timer with an obnoxious ring and avoid overcooking
Cooling rack or trivet -- a hot pot leaves its history on a countertop or table.
Corkscrew -- to be applied on a good bottle of wine for your efforts.
There you have it -- a pot, a pan, a baking pan and some tools. I could go on and on -- to lemon juicer, salad spinner, ice cream scoop, but the above mentioned tools are a good start.
Photos courtesy of Chantal Cookware.
Elaine Corn is a Sacramento-based freelance writer and cooking teacher as well as the author of two books, Now You're Cooking for Company and Now You're Cooking