Kitchen Upgrade

Back in the fall of 2008 when I made a commitment to cook from scratch more regularly, I began upgrading my cookware.

At the time, I owned only 2 teflon-coated frying pans (one with a lid), and 2 teflon-coated pots (a large one for cooking pasta, and a smaller one for sauce). Everything was at least 4 years old, and the larger pot was beginning to peel on the inside. I was also using a dull chef's knife, and a flimsy, plastic-handled paring knife. Cooking was not fun.

I decided to replace my cookware and knives for two main reasons: safety, and pleasure.

I was concerned about safety after noticing the teflon coating flaking off from the inside of my larger pot. I had previously thrown out another cheap set of cookware that had the same problem a few years prior. I was also worried about using dull, cheap knives to cut produce. Not only was I afraid of slipping and cutting my hand, but my paring knife blade was so thin, I was afraid it might actually snap!

I try to be cautious about accumulating too much stuff, particularly after downgrading to a very small apartment. However, if I were truly going to cook more often, I needed better equipment. The second reason for my upgrade - pleasure - factors in here.

I had noticed that at a friend's house, cooking was fun. This was mostly because she is an experienced cook, and whips up a lot of delicious, exciting dishes. But I also noticed that her matching, high-end cookware and knives seemed to make the process easier. I'm sure this was mostly psychological, but nevertheless, I thought that investing in better tools might make cooking more pleasurable for me.

I would not advocate that anyone go out and spend a lot of money on gadgets that are just going to sit around an accumulate dust. I upgraded my kitchen piece by piece, after doing a lot of research.

In particular, I found a few articles from National Geographic's Green Guide to be helpful. Apparently, teflon coatings degrade over time, and flaking is not uncommon. Even if they don't peel visibly, they can give off toxic fumes. I decided that to play it safe - and to avoid having to constantly replace my pans - I would go for a different material that would hopefully last a lifetime.

I decided on Calphalon's tri-ply stainless line, and Lodge cast iron pans, and accumulated pieces one by one.

Calphalon tri-ply is made of aluminum (for heat conductivity) sandwiched between two layers of stainless steel (for lack of reactivity with food), not only on the base, but all the way up the sides as well. It is considered by many to be a more reasonably-priced, but high-quality alternative to the pricey All-Clad brand. In addition, Calphalon's lids are glass instead of the metal lids that come with All-Clad, which is nice so you can see what's going on without lifting the lid.
The set shown below is very affordable compared to buying the pieces separately, but I decided not to get the set. I didn't need all the pieces included, and don't have the space to store the items I wouldn't use very often.

In fact, I didn't end up buying anything that comes in the set. I used 20%-off coupons at Bed Bath & Beyond to buy the 8-quart stock pot (the set comes with a 6-quart pot) and the 3-quart chef's pan. At a Linens 'n Things store closing, I also bought the 5-quart sautee pan. I don't use the sautee pan very often, as it's quite huge, but it comes in very handy for stir fries. The stock pot and chef's pan are used several times a week, and I couldn't be happier.


Then I bought some Lodge cast iron cookware, which have become my every day pans. I first acquired the "combo cooker" from the Sport Chalet camping department. It includes a deep 10" pan and a shallow pan that also serves as its lid. They were great, but a bit too large for 1-2 eggs, which looked very lonely cooking on just one half of the pan. So I bought the tiny 6-1/2" diameter skillet from amazon.com, also available at Sur la Table. The mini-pan is AMAZING. It gets used almost every single day for eggs - it's perfectly sized to fry one to two.

If anyone doubts that cast iron can really substitute for the ease of teflon-coated pans when cooking eggs, trust me - it really works! I've had my mini-pan for only a couple months, and it's already well-seasoned enough to not only make fried eggs that slide right out of the pan when cooked with only a tiny smear of butter, but can also create omelets that will flip easily without leaving any residue.

I did make a few early mistakes in my experimentation with cast iron cooking. Acidic foods should generally be avoided, as they strip the "seasoning" that forms on the pan that prevents foods from sticking. I cook pasta sauce in my Calphalon stainless steel chef's pan instead. At once point, I did have to re-season the deeper Lodge pan (I found an article in Mother Earth News), but that's the beauty of cast iron - if you mess it up, you can renew it. No more tossing out cheap, busted teflon pans!

Below is a turnip dish I whipped up in the shallow 10" Lodge pan, as I described in another recent post.

I also upgraded my knives after finding a killer deal on a set of Wusthof "Culinar" knives. Unlike pots and pans, knives don't take up much space, so even though I don't use every single knife in the set very often, it made sense to buy the set. I think amazon made some kind of pricing error, because I bought it for only $250 in December. After shopping around a bit, I realized that this price was way too cheap to be believed, so I bought it immediately! Good thing - now it's at a more realistic (though beyond my price range) $500.

The two main brands in this price range are Wusthof and J. A. Henckels. After reading reviews, I haven't determined that there is much of a difference in quality - it's mainly personal preference for the feel. A female friend of mine told me that when she tried out some Henckels while building her wedding registry, the handles felt too large for her hands, so she went for Wusthof. Based on that assessment, Wusthof seemed like it might be a better fit for me, too.

I am very pleased with my new knives, and my boyfriend agreed that I had made a sound purchase. Everything is easier to cut now, including onions. And the set even has a bread knife, which many knife block sets do not include.

I have no complaints about any of the cookware I've acquired in the last few months. Everything works well, and seems to be of solid quality. I think investing in better equipment was well worth the cost. I didn't spend an insane amount - about $540 total - which would have been $890 if I hadn't searched for the cheapeast retailers and used coupons. Hopefully these pieces will last me a lifetime. Plus, I did end up cooking much more frequently after upgrading my tools, so the per-use cost will soon be next to nothing!

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