The end of the calendar year is as good a time as any to reassess all the blunders, misjudgments and wrongheadedness perpetrated over any given lifetime or so. Well, maybe not all of them, but a few pertaining to kitchen equipment.
One of the glories of getting older is that it's so much easier to change your mind about things. Therefore, here are a few reassessments of opinions that once seemed so certain. Some of them are blatant reversals, some just a little waffling.
First, about nonstick pots and pans. Nonstick cookware may not be a summit-level subject, but it seems to be one that people who cook feel deeply about. I personally always hated it and didn't mind saying so. There was a feeling of alienation -- just to get philosophical about it -- that occurred with the insertion of Teflon or Silverstone between me and my pot. Aside from that, the omelets didn't brown right, the pans were tinny and the nonstick coating wore off.
The first glimmer there might be a different truth came to me with the purchase of a Le Creuset nonstick skillet. For the first time I could execute the oversized potato pancake known as a paillasson. The paillasson is nothing but grated potatoes that hang together as a cake as they are cooked, thanks only to their starch. It has to be well browned on one side, then turned over whole -- and if you've tried this with a regular pan you know something of the frustration of having the thing revert to gratings of potato right before your eyes. Achieving perfection with a regular pan requires not only skill and dexterity but also a perfectly seasoned pan -- something few of us have.
But then I started making large omelets, saute'eing vegetables and meats, and scrambling eggs in this same pan, and it all worked the way it was supposed to. After several years of fairly hard use, the nonstick surface shows no signs of disintegrating, either.
So I've changed my mind about nonstick cookware. But not all nonstick cookware. One of the glories of the Le Creuset pan is that, regardless of its cooking surface, it's a great pan -- heavy, well-balanced, made to last. So many nonstick surfaces come attached to cheap, tinny, wobbly pans, in which case it doesn't matter whether it's nonstick or not -- it's a bad pan.
Then there are cutting boards. The words "cutting board" and "wooden" always seemed to me to go together. I liked the feel of wood underneath the knife -- it's got traction and solidity. Purists dithered about its bacteria-harboring properties but after several long talks with the folks at the Centers for Disease Control about this, I was convinced that with some precautions wood was perfectly safe.
I still think it's safe, but I've come to prefer the dastardly man-made poly-something boards that you buy in restaurant supply houses. (Restaurants are required to use synthetic boards because they can be sterilized in the dishwasher.)
These are not the pristine white synthetic boards available in most kitchenware stores. The ones I'm talking about are frightful looking -- really ugly. They are a sort of weak sandy brown in color, thin and dull. But they feel steady under the knife, don't ever warp, and they provide good traction for the cutting edge as well. With a wet dish towel underneath to anchor them securely to the counter top, they are virtually immovable even under the heaviest blows.
When they first came out I thought Calphalon pots were a good answer to several problems. They are aluminum, which is one of the very best heat conductors, they are very heavy-gauge, and they are anodized so that they don't have a chance of reacting with acid foods the way untreated aluminum can.
When friends in the food business criticized Calphalon pans -- one didn't trust the anodization process, another claimed food stuck to them, another thought they were a simple rip-off -- I dismissed their cries as the picky rantings of hug-the-trees types, purists who never used the food processor, never used synthetics and always wiped off their carbon steel knives right away.
Now I think they had a point. Calphalon pots are very, very expensive. Not that there's anything in particular wrong with them -- it's just that there might be better ways to invest all that money. And it's true, fried foods do stick to them.
The other day I did an experiment, saute'eing onions slowly in a Calphalon pan and in a plain, very heavy French aluminum pan that cost about half as much. The plain aluminum did a much more satisfactory job -- the onions cooked evenly from one part of the pan to another, cooked through before they burned, and did not show the least inclination to stick.
Now, a waffle. Not literally a waffle, but a waffle about knives. Carbon steel knives -- the kind that rust -- are much easier to keep sharp and take a better edge, I always thought. But maybe this was a kind of purist's snobbism, and wrong besides. Depending, of course, on the particular knife. I inherited a Sabatier chef's knife with a stainless blade, and it's the finest example of a chef's knife I've ever used. If you love knives, this big, full-tang Sabatier, even if it doesn't rust, will make your heart sing.
So this is a happy discovery -- more knife possibilities.
Finally, and this will surely seem like a minor point, there is the matter of tinned steel cake pans. They are the classic pans, heavy-duty and beloved in serious kitchens. And it's true, they are wonderful baking pans. But recently I've found some heavy aluminum pans, even pans coated with nonstick material (what next?) that work just as well -- they bake evenly and gently -- without the temperamental side. (Tinned steel pans will eventually rust in places unless you dry them very carefully, and sometimes they'll rust spontaneously as they age. The tin coating is prone to scratching as well, which exacerbates the rust problem.)
It's not that I'm a total convert to aluminum, but as in the case of the knives, it's nice to know that there is even more wonderful cookware out there than we had ever imagined! So here's to expanded horizons in the New Year.