Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Absolute Beginners Guide to Learning How To Cook for Survival: Part 7 Pots and Pans: General Recommendations

Now that the materials are out of the way we can start to talk about pots and pans.
I am sure you know what a pot and a pan is but in general terms a pot is taller then wider and often comes with a lid and a pan is wider then taller and may have a lid but usually not.
If you look at the catalogs there are a lot of different type of pots and pans, I am just going to cover some of the major types. I am putting down some definitions so we can talk and most of the time these will hold but sometimes manufactures go a little nuts with naming for marketing purposes.

Pans come with a straight out handle. When looking at a pan get one with an oven-safe handle so you can let a not quite done dish finish in the oven or just let it stay warm. They are differentiated by diameter.
The most basic pan is the griddle, it can be as simple as flat rock, but usually is a round, square or rectangular slab of metal with no or very minimal sides. This is designed to make it easy to get under the food being cooked with a spatula and flipping it. Things like pancakes and hamburgers.
Grill pan
If it has ridges along the bottom it's a grill pan and is designed to allow excess fat to drain away, like if your hamburger meat is very fatty and you don't want to deep fry your burger in its own juices.
If the pan has sloped or flared sides it is called a skillet, frying pan, frypan or omelette pan. The sloped sides are designed to allow you to slide you food out of the pan in onto your plate or serving piece.
Sauté pan
If the pan has straight sides it is a sauté pan. It is designed to allow steam to escape  for faster evaporation to allow pan sauces to concentrate before the previously cooked food gets cold. The straight sides also allow you to toss the food and help it land back in the pan, with a little practice. Sauté pans often come with lids so you can steam foods. 
Chicken frier 
This is a large pan that usually has an extra loop handle on the opposite side of the straight handle.

Pan recommendations
What pan you need depend a great deal on what you cook and how big your family is. 
What we use as a family of three is a small 8" nonstick skillet for eggs and pancakes. A 10" anodized aluminum skillet for general use and a 12" cast iron skillet for searing meats and pan frying chicken. 
Knowing what I now know -- I would stick with the 8" nonstick skillet, a 10" cast iron pan and a 12" stainless steel sauté pan with a glass lid so we can see how its cooking, because a 12" cast iron pan is pretty darn heavy. 

Pots are at least as tall as they are wide and are not always called pots, as we'll see. They are differentiated by volume. The lids should also be designed so that the steam that condenses on them runs back into the pot. It is also good if the lid sits well upside down for stacking. 

Pots smaller then 6 Quarts are generally called saucepans or sauce pots or soup pots and come with a lid and a straight handle.
The funny thing is, is that sauce pots are not very good at cooking sauces, for actual sauce making a saucier which has rounded sides or a Windsor pan with sloping sides is better as they are designed to allow a whisk to get into the corner of the pan.

Stockpots are larger then 6 Quarts; come with lids and two loop handles on the sides. Taller is better then wider to minimize evaporation. Since you usually cook food in pots for a long time make sure the handles are big enough to grasp while using pot holders. 

Dutch ovens are made heavy with heavy lids often with teeth or ridges designed to cause the condensed steam to drop back into the pot uniformly. Foods cooked in a Dutch oven are often started on the stovetop and then moved to the oven for a long slow braise.

If a Dutch oven has legs and a lip around the lid it's also known as a camp stove. It works great in a campfire where you can put it in the fire with coals on top and it'll act like an oven for baking.

If a pot is made from ceramic it is usually called a beanpot or bean crock and lots of people have them in a standalone electric version more commonly called a slowcooker or Crockpot(tm)

A braising pan is just like a dutch oven expect that it is shallow. It specializes in cooking tough pieces of meat in a small amount of liquid for a long time, generally in the oven. You can also find these made out of clay, called a Römertopf.

A roasting pan is what you use for cooking roast beast in the oven. It may come with a rack to keep the roast from stewing in its own juices and it may come with a lid if you want to steam it. The most important feature to pay attention to are the handles: will they fit into your oven and can you grab them with pot holders, because it will be hot and heavy.

A wok specializes in heating the center to a high heat while using a minimal amount of fuel. While Westerners generally only think about using a wok for making stir-fry, it is a large pot that you can use for steaming, boiling and deep frying with the right accessories. I like the straight handle, it is easier to manipulate that way. We use ours all the time for boiling our pasta and popping popcorn. This is such a useful pan I couldn't leave it out.

A Pressure cooker is a pot with a locking lid that makes a seal to increase the interior pressure allowing for a higher cooking temperature, making food cook faster. Get one designed without a rubber seal so it will last long after civilization has crashed.

There are a number of accessories for pots like steamer baskets, and deep fry baskets that can be useful.

Pot Recommendations
What pots you need depend on what you tend to cook and how big your family is. 
Our most used pot is a 3 Quart pot stainless steel it's good for about 80% of the jobs we do; soup, short pasta, macaroni & cheese and crispy rice treats. 
We have found that a 6 Q steel wok we use for cooking long pasta, stir fries and popcorn (yum). 
And a 8 Q enameled cast iron dutch oven for pot roast, deep frying, and stock making, but those are expensive so a regular cast iron dutch oven will do fine.