Senior Week, Kitchen Basics: Three pans to know

This week, the Food Literacy Project offers basic tips to graduating seniors on how to prepare for a new world of pots and pans, cooking ratios, and grocery shopping.

Today, pans. There’s a whole host of pans out in the hardware store, but basic cooking only calls for three. Which is lucky, as a good pan isn’t cheap.

Three Pots/Pans to Know

10”-12” skillet (10” for stir fries, small cuts of meat, pancakes, eggs / 12” for larger cuts of meats)

2-3 qt. saucepan (for heating up one can of soup, for melting butter, for making sauces, for steaming rice)

large soup pot (8 qt for a big pot of pasta or soup)

Three Pan Materials to Know

Pans are made out of every type of material, and the cost varies wildly. The following materials aren’t the cheapest materials out there, but neither are they the most expensive; they will last a long time if you take care of them and food is less likely to burn or stick if you use a good pan. Here’s what to look for:

Non-stick: usually coated with a layer of Teflon. Non-stick pans do not require oils or fats to prevent food from sticking to the pan.

How to take care of non-stick: Be careful not to use metal spoons or knives against the surface of a non-stick pan, as it will damage the coating. Non-stick pans can be washed with soap and water. Avoid using steel wool, as it will damage the coating as well.

Cast iron:Iron is a rather poor conductor of heat, so cast iron pans take considerably more time to heat up. They absorb more heat, hold it for a long time, and give off a steady, even heat. Iron corrodes fairly easily — you might notice that your pan is rusting or getting pot-holed. Be careful not to pour cold liquids into a hot cast iron pan, as the pan may break.

How to take care of cast iron: To avoid corrosion, season your cast iron pan: wipe a thin layer of neutral oil (grapeseed, canola, vegetable) on your pan. Heat the pan in a 400-450 degree oven, bottom side up, for 30-40 minutes. Repeat 4-5 times. After use, cast iron pans should be wiped clean with a mild soap or salt, rather than detergent or steel wool, to avoid destroying a well-seasoned pan. Avoid soaking cast iron in water or leaving water in the pan, as cast iron is prone to rusting.

Why does seasoning work? Harold McGee explains:

“The oil penetrates into the pores and fissures of the metal, sealing it from the attack of air and water. There may also be an effect analogous to the behavior of the drying oils, which are largely unsaturated, prone to oxidation, and which polymerize to form a dry, hard layer when exposed to air (On Food and Cooking, 621)”

Stainless steel: Developed to avoid the corroding in cast iron and steel. Stainless steel is chemically stable but a poor heat conductor. Stainless steel pans with a coating of copper or aluminum improve the conductivity of the pan (both copper and aluminum are more conductive than steel) and require less care – but they are more expensive.

How to take care of stainless steel: To bring back shine of stainless steel, apply a small amount of baking soda to the pan and scrub with an abrasive brush. Wash.

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