Pots and Pans and Harold McGee

There’s an examination in the Times today of some pans. Harold McGee looks at 3 nonsticks, a cast iron, aluminum clad with stainless and a copper lined with stainless.

I have to say I think it’s a good look at some of the differences in the pans, and his thoughts on oil are a great insight.

“The hot areas near the pan center end up with thinner and thinner coatings of oil. And the combination of high heat and thinning oil means food is more likely to stick. But the thinning and sticking are unpredictable: they depend on the burner heat, how the pan is placed over it, how much oil you start with, how much you even out the oil by stirring and scraping.”

“Add enough oil to coat the pan surface and the food completely. As little as a half-teaspoon of oil will coat a medium sauté pan (for fat watchers, that’s just 20 calories) for cooking eggs and pieces of fish; for chopped vegetables, triple that to coat the additional surface area of the little pieces. Heat the pan until the oil ripples. Then turn the heat down, tilt the pan to even out the troughs and ridges, and wait until it cools just enough that the oil layer stays mostly flat. Then add the food, and let it cook for some time before turning the heat up again. If possible, keep the food and oil moving around.”

I think though that one thing he fails to mention is that the size and distribution of your burner will have a lot to do with how your pan performs. Bigger burners will heat more evenly, induction heats incredibly evenly for iron based pans but will not work with non-magnetic metals such as copper and aluminum.

Copper will always heat the most even. The efficiency comes from the same free electrons that make copper the best choice for carrying electricity. As the copper heats, the free electrons in the copper molecules move around very easily and bump into each other, passing the heat around quickly the same way that electrical charges move through copper wire.

McGee says that Cast Iron doesn’t heat evenly, in my opinion this is only partly true. It heats very even in the oven, and can be used for baking and roasting, as well as under the broiler without any worry of damage from high heat. On the stove top it does heat evenly but can develop the hot spots he shows, I find that these are less pronounced when braising over low heat, especially when using a lidded skillet or dutch oven.

I wish he had compared the heat and boiling time with a tin-lined copper pot, like the Hammersmith Brooklyn-made pans. I think it is telling that while the copper heated the most evenly, it took as long as the Cast Iron to boil the water. I believe this is due to its stainless lining. The copper heats even, but any speed and control of heat is greatly reduced by the stainless lining. Tin or Nickel lined copper heats even and super fast.

His final analysis:

“So what to do about getting pots and pans that work best? Choose the ones that you like, for their heft or their lightness, for cachet or economy, for finickiness or ease. Mind the rippling oil. And cook with them often.”

I couldn’t agree more. If you buy a quality pan that will last, the more you use it the better it gets, no matter what the material.


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