It is definitely worth putting some time and money into your pots and pans. However, I think there is quite a bit of money saving that can be accomplished, depending on the kind of effort you’re willing to put in on maintenance.
One of the problems Zach ran into when he finished college was deciding what sort of pots and pans to buy. His first set was made of cladded stainless steel because it’s what the guy at the Kitchen Collection recommended. They’ve served us well over the last few years, but he’s learned a lot about cookware since then that he wishes he had known when he first set out on his own. So he’s going to share that knowledge with us!
If you’re heading into a situation where you are newly on your own, there are plenty of essential tools you’ll need to make life easier. Budget is always a concern, however, so it would really help to boil down the list of things you need to buy into some essentials. For me, it’s an easy choice. I need some plates, glasses, bowls, forks, and spoons. I need a can opener. All of those things can be acquired quite cheaply, especially if you don’t care about looks.
The final two sets of tools that I find essential are also worth actual investment: knives and cookware. The knives I won’t talk about today, but in our neck of the woods it is so common a practice to go to Walmart, pick up a $20 set, and try to cook with it. Perhaps I’ll go into more detail why I think this is a borderline travesty. But today I want to talk a bit about cookware.
It’s obvious we need pots and pans to survive on a budget lifestyle. Nothing gets cooked without them. Unfortunately, when you step out and try to find what you need, you’re crushed under a torrent of options. Stainless steel! Cast-iron! Cheap! Expensive! How can a newbie possibly know what’s going to function best at a reasonable price?
Like with knives, I think it is worth putting some time and money investment into your pots and pans purchase. Unlike knives, however, I think there is quite a bit of money saving that can be accomplished, depending on the kind of effort you’re willing to put in on maintenance.
For this post, I’m going to focus on cookware that is made mostly of metal. Ceramic and glass dishes are also important, but there’s plenty to cover in the world of metal. That said, I think you do have a much better chance of surviving without the non-metal dishes. When I was on my own, I don’t even think I owned a glass dish, and I got away with it with little trouble.
The majority of metal cookware you’ll run into is made mostly of iron in some form. There are many varieties herein, but I’m going to talk today about stainless steel, cast-iron, cladded, and non-stick. Most of these are made of steel, the relatively cheap alloy of iron and carbon. This gives the metal strength and resistance to rusting.
1. Cast Iron
Cast iron is ubiquitous in the country kitchens of the Ohio Valley. It calls to mind the heavy pans my grandmother used to make breakfast on when we visited her on weekends. She also used these pans for everything else, it seemed. There are some people I know who just swear by the use of cast-iron as a material for many reasons, some traditional and some more practical. For one, cast iron is slow to heat, due to its thickness. This can be good or bad, since a pan that heats more slowly is one whose temperature can be controlled more accurately. At the same time, if it heats slowly, it will cool down slowly. This is important for a lot of dishes where you need to pan fry ingredients. Losing the heat in your oil, for example, can mean the difference between a nice and crispy dish and insipid, oily mess.
Cast iron is also pretty cheap, when considering the lifespan of the dish. For example, you can get a set of three different skillets for $25 on Amazon. Considering they’ll last forever if you take care of them, that’s a fine deal!
There are some issues with cast iron, however. First and foremost, it requires significant maintenance. You must hand wash only, never in the dishwasher. If you do a bad job of seasoning the pan or don’t use enough lubricant, you’ll have a major, burnt mess on your hands. Sauce pans are also not very common in cast iron, so it is unlikely you’ll be able to meet all your needs with this material alone. I think it’s also worth mentioning that these things are HEAVY. You’ll find the useful sizes (12 inches or so) can weigh more than 10 pounds. This may not sound like much, but when you are trying to manipulate the skillet with one hand, you probably won’t have as much flexibility. For example, tossing, that technique where you whip the pan upwards to stir small things, is basically out of the question. You need some muscle to handle cast iron with ease.
2. Stainless Steel
Similar to cast iron is stainless steel. However, a major difference here is that steel is far, far lighter and comes in a larger variety of shapes than cast iron does. Cleanup tends to be easier with steel, as well, since you can put a decent-quality pan into the dishwasher. Unfortunately, steel is one material I’ve found where money is a concern. You can easily find cheap steel products, and some of them are good, I’m sure. However, Chelsey and I found that it is helpful to put some money into this material. We bought a stockpot made of thin steel to have an extra in case we wanted to make popcorn or soup. We went cheap, and this pot is practically useless with our electric stovetop. It heats mostly in the center, making it take far longer than necessary to cook things. On top of that, it burns everything. It ruins popcorn. It BURNS SOUP, which should be nigh impossible due to the chemistry of cooking. However, this junky stock pot has managed it, and I hate it.
3. Cladded Pans
A lot of steel dishes that are actually worth something have undergone a process called cladding on the bottom. Iron and steel don’t tend to conduct heat quite so well, as evidenced by the fact that it takes cast-iron skillets so long to heat up. This challenge can be averted in one of two ways. First, you could make your pans out of a more conductive metal like copper. Copper, however, is incredibly expensive. As in, a single skillet or saucepan can run you into the $200 range. Because they’re so expensive, I don’t have any experience with them. All I know is that they heat faster and more evenly than other types.
The second and more economical strategy is to make a steel pan and line the bottom with the conductive metal. The set of pots and pans I bought when I started graduate school is like this. They are stainless steel and have a thick aluminium cladding on the bottom. This provides a little heft to the pans and also allows for more even heating of ingredients. Chelsey and I still use these pans. In fact, she prefers them. They’re simple to clean, because they can be put in the dishwasher, and if anything gets stuck on them we just scrub them with a piece of steel wool. Easy! They also cook food really nicely once you’ve figured out how to use them properly.
Finally, we have the dreaded, controversial non-stick pans. For my sake, I think a non-stick skillet or two is very helpful to have around. You can be more cavalier with the amount of oil you use and the heat you apply while generally not worrying about things getting burnt to the pan. You can also find decent skillets on the cheap, around $15-$20. That’s the amount I paid for my first non-stick in 2008, and it is only now on its last legs because I haven’t been too careful with it. I’ve thrown it in the dishwasher (which you’re not supposed to do), used it for nearly every meal I cook, used metal spatulas on it (again, not supposed to do), and have generally been pretty mean to it. Now it doesn’t work so well, and it may be time to consider a replacement. Chelsey wants to just throw it out without replacing, because she’d prefer to switch permanently to stainless steel. We’ll see!
For my sake, I think going for a full set of pots and pans in non-stick is excessive. A stock pot, for example, rarely requires you to cook in a way that should need non-stick. This is helpful because a good set of non-stick pans will probably not run cheap (around the $200 range for a nice set), and there is the ever-present boogeyman of chemical contamination of your food.
What is Teflon and how does it work?
The coating used to make non-stick pans non-stick is called Teflon, as nearly everyone knows. To get the non-stick plastic to stick to the metal, first you sandblast the pan to create a bunch of tiny holes and cracks in the metal. Then, a primer coating of Teflon is applied to fill these gaps. Once a thin layer is placed down, more Teflon can easily be stuck to the pan, since Teflon has no trouble essentially sticking to itself. As you can imagine, this is a tenuous process. The Teflon can be scraped off if you use too much force, especially with metal utensils. In addition, if you are careless with your heating, you can cause trouble. Overheating of Teflon (above 500 degrees Fahrenheit) can cause the plastic to break down, releasing fluorocarbon fumes. While these fumes are not extremely hazardous to humans, animals like birds can be severely affected. In addition, burning the Teflon off your pan is going to ruin the non-stick superpower!
Now, to be fair, you have to be pretty negligent to get your pan this hot. The temperature required to get oil smoking (a pretty common way of knowing your pan is hot enough for certain cooking procedures) is generally in the 375-450 degree range. This is well below the 500 degrees you might need to cause damage, so NORMAL cooking procedures should be pretty safe. The greater danger is leaving an empty pan on a hot burner, but I hope you can find a way not to be that inattentive.
What about those plastic flakes that can come off with abrasion? Are they dangerous? In essence, no. The plastic itself is very non-reactive, so even if you ingested it you would just pass it through the body with little effect. A safety sheet for a certain form of Teflon put the median lethal dose at 3700 mg/kg in rats, which means this substance, when ingested, is less toxic than table salt. So ingestion of Teflon doesn’t particularly worry me, and I make sure not to dramatically overheat the pan.
So that’s a quick rundown of the various pros and cons of common, budget-friendly materials used to make pots and pans. In my mind, I like to have a mix of each. Spend 100-150 to get a set of stainless steel, clad pots and pans to get essential saucepans and a stock pot. Then spend another 50 or so to get a decent, cheap non-stick skillet and a cast-iron skillet. These will cover a huge variety of dishes you might need to prepare, and they should last you many years.