Pan of Steel

Everyone has their favorite pans. Mine are restaurant-style aluminum non-stick pans. I’ve used these for years, generally just buying another one when the coating on whichever one I had started to go south. The pans are durable (except for the coatings) and perfect for lazy people like me who don’t like cleaning frying pans. They are also really good for cooking eggs. Always important.

Lately though, I’ve started to think that maybe I’ve been too lazy if such a thing is possible. A lot of people have been expressing worries about those non-stick coatings burning off and poisoning the air and your food. I think such worries are probably overblown, but it did get me to thinking that I should perhaps restrict my use of the Teflon pans to medium/low heat work and find something better for sauté jobs and that “sear in pan then roast in oven” dance that I enjoy so much.

So I started looking around. The natural first thing to try would be cast iron, but I can’t go there. My hands are too tired and wussy, beat up as they are from twenty years of supporting my computer work at the keyboard. The weight of the iron pans is just too much overhead.

Everyone seems to love those All-Clad stainless pans. I love the medium sized soup pots for making, well, soups and stuff.

So at the last All-Clad sale I picked up a sauté pan to see how it works. It did not make me happy. What I found is that there is a curious psychological problem with stainless pans. People want to keep them shiny. So they are really designed to stay shiny rather than actually cook at high heats and in the oven. Get the oil too hot and you get a brown polymerized mess permanently bonded to your previously shiny silver pan. And unlike a nice steel pan, this brown mess does you no good. Everything just continues to stick to it and you are left to stand over the sink and scrub it off with powder so that even if the food sticks, at least it sticks to a shiny silver pan. This is too much overhead for my lazy self. I could care less what the pan looks like as long as it does its job well, and what I found is that a stainless frying pan is just too frustrating.

Then a couple of weeks ago at Sur La Table, a place you should never go if you want to keep money in your pocket, I spied a pile of those De Buyer carbon steel pans. These were mentioned by many people as an excellent tool, especially for high heat work. So after due consideration, I picked one up.

It is almost too heavy, but not quite. So I put it on the stove and proceeded to burn some oil into it. For those who don’t know, what you do with steel (and cast iron) pans is to “season” them by getting them hot and brushing a thin film of oil in the bottom. Then you let the pan smoke for 10 or 20 minutes and bake this oil into the surface of the pan. The oil bonds with the metal and leaves a very nice non-sticky surface to cook on. It also makes the pan a delicious black/brown color on the inside which projects the idea that you are a bad-ass that cooks a lot:

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For some reason, baked oil makes a carbon steel pan great and a stainless steel pan worthless. I looked into it but I don’t really know why. I assume it’s because the sticky oil just sits on top of the stainless pan’s surface rather than getting inside of it and doing some good.

In any case, after about a week of use and a few passes of seasoning I can say that this pan is nearly as good as my old Silverstone pans even for Silverstone pan stuff like eggs and omelets. And for pan-seared oven roasted steak on Mother’s Day, the thing is the perfect tool. It holds heat well enough to get the steak nice and crusty and leave the nice brown bits behind that you need for pan sauce. I could never really get that effect with my old pans, but I would usually shrug my shoulders and just live with it because I’m a lazy bastard.

Finally, since the food generally doesn’t stick, cleanup is easy. Just wipe it out with a paper towel, rinsing if needed. Then dry over heat on the stove and wipe a thin film of oil into the pan if you want.

Overall, a thumbs up. Be careful with the metal handles though. They get hot when the thing is in the oven.

Notes

If your local store does not have these pans, you can find them at Broadway Panhandler. Amazon also has pans made by an outfit called “World Cuisine” but I don’t know if they are the same. Internet opinion seems mixed.

The next thing for me to try will be the crepe pans… for pancakes and omelets.