29 August 2012
Top tools for your first kitchen, Part 2: Stovetop
Last time we took a look at the key tools for food prep. Great! Now all we have to do is actually cook.
Top tools for your first kitchen
PART 2: STOVETOP
Wide sauté pan
The next thing you need is a shallow pan 10 inches in diameter, preferably with a lid. Personally, I prefer a sauté pan to a frying pan. Sauté pans have straight sides at least 2 inches high instead of sloped sides, so they can hold more and are therefore more versatile. They also usually have an additional grip opposite the main handle, which is especially useful for moving a full, hot pan around.
Sauté pans are good for cooking damn near anything. You can make pasta sauces, refried beans, stir-fries, simple sautéed vegetables, or seared meats. You can fry up a frittata. You can boil an inch of water and blanch a bunch of cut vegetables. You can add some liquid to your veg or what have you and produce a soup. You can even heat an inch of oil and deep-fry some tempura or fritters. And if you get a pan with high heat resistance and a metal handle, you can finish dishes under the broiler, no problem.
Things to look for in a sauté pan include a thick heavy bottom that will resist warping over high heat, and a long handle that will lose heat conduction the further you get from the main body of the pan. The thick bottom will give you more even heat distribution and therefore more evenly cooked food; the long handle means you're less likely to burn your hands while cooking.
I recommend a stainless steel finish for your basic, everyday pans. Nonstick pans can be problematic--teflon requires specific equipment for both cooking and cleaning, and shouldn't be used over very high heat. The coating also flakes off over time, which means you'll have to buy a new pan sooner rather than later. Cast iron, on the other hand, is great if you like it--but you do need to take good care of it.
We have a really nice stainless steel sauté pan with a copper core, but it's not necessary to go for the super high end to get a good piece of equipment. Mid-range brands like Cuisinart or Calphalon are a good place to start.
Next comes the 3-quart saucepan with lid. I use this pot mostly to cook liquids. Boil pasta; steam grains; make a big pot of soup; boil potatoes; make oatmeal; whisk bechamel; simmer a big vat of sauce. I usually have this pan on the back burner while I'm making a sauce or a sauté in my other pan. Sauce in one pan; pasta in the other. Vegetables and tofu in one pan; rice in the other. The wide sauté pan and the 3-quart saucepan make a perfect team for cooking almost any stovetop-based meal.
Since a pan like this will mostly end up filled with liquid, you could easily start out with a lower-end model like T-Fal or Farberware. However, if you have a few extra dollars to spare, it's worth investing in a mid-range piece that heats more evenly and is less likely to scorch.
Before you buy, go through the department store pots and pans section and actually touch and hold all the different candidates to see what you like best. After that, I'd go to the thrift store for an initial pass, just in case someone has decided they don't like using the very pans you want. You can always scrub and soak all the history off stainless steel or cast iron pans; they're metal. However, since good pans aren't exactly common thrift store treasure, you still may want to buy new. In that case, it's a good idea to take advantage of discounters like TJ Maxx or Marshalls.
If you end up buying both your sauté pan and your saucepan new, consider getting a set of pans--preferably a smaller set of mid-quality pans, such as Cuisinart Chef's Classic line of stainless steel. They're usually pretty reasonably priced, considering the amount of equipment you get.
Of course, if you're making things in pots and pans on the stove, you need to use something to move the food around in them. This is where the wooden spoon comes in.
I love wooden spoons above all other stirring, manipulating, or shifting equipage. They don't conduct heat, so they don't require any silicone or meltable plastic handles. You can use them with any pan at all, since nonstick coating and stainless steel alike are undisturbed by contact with wood. They're easy to find at any kitchen store in the land, not to mention ordinary groceries, drugstores, and bargain bins. You can find a wooden spoon to suit you, because they come in every conceivable shape and size. Best of all, they improve as they age. A wooden spoon used for fifteen or twenty years is a beautiful thing.
My three favorite wooden spoons came in a set from Pier 1. I got them as a gift from similarly fund-lacking friends at age sixteen, and I have used them ever since. So my spoons are eighteen years old, and yet they are still not only fulfilling their roles but doing so with grace and aplomb. One spoon has developed a crack across the bowl, it's true, but that's ok, especially after eighteen years of use. Even slightly higher quality spoons just won't have this problem.
Honorable mention: steamer insert (doubles as a pasta strainer!), 6-inch frying pan for your morning eggs, spoon rest, teapot, whisk, ladle.
Next up: taming the wild oven.
The whole top tools for your first kitchen series:
- Part 1: Prep
- Part 2: Stovetop
- Part 3: Oven
- Part 4: Cleanup