“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all frying pans are created equal…” Wait. Actually, they aren’t. And the magic of heat transfer which transforms limp cold meat into a sweet-smelling, aromatic, browning steak, does not work just because you snapped your fingers at a random frying pand and told it to cook.
I am, vainly and happily, quite used to hearing how amazing my grilled meat/pouldry breasts/fish are from my friends who have eaten at my table. After all, who doesn’t love praise (and friends who are happy to pile into my loungekitchen for dinner to boot)? I know I do, but in the case of the aforementioned grilled meats, the pleasure from praise is tinged with a bit of guilt, since the success of the preparation in those cases rests more than half in me using the correct gear, and only somewhat in my work done with the prep, resting, seasoning and watching of the meat as it sizzles.
I make no big secret of this. I have a fantastic cast iron ridged grill pan from Le Creuset, which in my opinion ought to get most of the credit for the success of my grilled meals. Not at all because without it I wouldn’t be a good cook, but definitely because without it, I would not attempt to prepare the things it allows me to prepare at home.
And quite honestly, if I had to own just one frying pan, sob-inducing as the thought may be to my kitchenware-spoiled self, it would be a smooth-bottomed cast iron one (probably enamelled, but a plain seasoned one would also do quite well). This answer may surprise a lot of novice cooks, since the stock frying pan that everyone thinks of these days, is a non-stick one. I do not put down non-stick cooking surfaces for a variety of jobs, but in my view, they are not nearly as useful as people think they are – and due to that, think themselves the worse chef, when all they are is a lesser-informed one.
It’s happened to us all: we’ve dumped a lot of chopped meat onto our trusty non-stick frying pan in an attempt to brown it for stew or soup, only to have meat sizzle briefly before letting off a lot of juice and cooking wetly in that instead of browning aromatically. It is annoying, frustrating, and causes the meat to become tough and tasteless and dry, instead of the browned and juicy result that we’d wanted. The pan was preheated, so what went wrong?
The answer is twofold. The two factors which have affected this are: heat transfer surface and heat capacity. It may sound like so much technobabble, but in reality it is very simple:
- Heat capacity is, in layman terms, the measure of how easily the material of the pan loses heat it has gained (how fast it heats up/cools down). Some materials with high heat capacity are cast iron and ceramic, while copper and stainless steel have far lower heat capacity.
- Type of heat transfer surface is actually unrelated to the material of the pan (unless it is stainless steel and so throughout), but it does determine how well the food sticks to it, and thus how fast its surface browns and seals. A few different surfaces include seasoned cast iron, enameled cast iron or steel, polished steel, hard-anodized aluminium, and non-stick of various varieties.
In our example above, the pan was probably a thin-bottomed one, made of whatever nondescript alloy cheaper cookware is made of, and nonstick Thus, the amount of cold meat (compared to the pan surface) too large for the heat capacity of the pan to handle without cooling. If the pan cools instead of heating and sealing the meat surface properly, the meat leaks juices forced out by slight heating, with the aforementioned result – which causes the pan to cool faster, due to it being now filled with evaporating liquid, and perpetuating the problem till all the juices we’d wanted to keep inside the meat, boiled off instead. Had the pan been thicker and/or made of higher heat capacity material, the meat would not have cooled it as rapidly, thus allowing for the heat of the stove to maintain the heat of the pan, and the meat would have seared instead of steamed/boiled. Non-stick surface does not seal the surface of the meat as quickly, also contributing to the problem.
Higher heat capacity pans are good for jobs like that. Low heat-capacity (higher heat conductivity) materials such as copper are considered superior for delicate dishes where rapid change of temperature is required, i.e. those are the pans that would cool very fast if you turn the heat down, rather than remain hot even with the gas burner/hot plate turned off underneath them. They are not to my personal taste in cooking styles, but to each their own, and they do perform admirably for their purpose. Note that the heavier the pan is, the higher its total heat capacity will be regardless of material, since one of the variables here is the relative mass of the pan to the amount of food.
The second aspect of the differences between pans is, as I’ve mentioned, the heat transfer surface. What that means, in practice, is whether the pan is non-stick (teflon), stick-resistant (hard anodized aluminium), seasoned cast iron, enameled cast iron, or stainless steel. I will offer a few notes on those, but the important thing here is that while I do try to make this a helpful introduction, I also do not think one thing is “better” than another for anything other than particular tasks, and ultimately it is what is to your taste in terms of material/surface combination that you will hopefully end up using.
- Non-stick frying surfaces: This surface does not allow food to stick, and so it essentially cooks floating on a thin layer of steam which is released when food is heated, thus not needing oil to prevent sticking. Because it does not stick, there is no real high-heat dry Mallard reaction (browning), and so it is great for delicate tasks such as sweating onions, sauteeing thinly sliced mushrooms, and scrambling eggs. It is also quite good for making pasta sauces, as they won’t burn and stick even if they are quite thick. Quite acceptable for pan-frying fish and seafood (prawns, etc.). Not at all good for items that do require sticking and higher-heat searing: large pieces of meat, poultry or tuna steaks.
Another important thing to remember about non-stick surfaces, is that most of them are not suitable for very high heat cooking, and should not be put into oven unless they are specifically rated for it.
As an aside, I do not understand the need for non-stick surface inside pots which are meant for wet cooking: nothing should stick inside your soup pot anyway. And if it boils out completely, then a non-stick sufrace won’t help any, either. The only thing non-stick inside of pots accomplishes is disallowing the use of metal utensils, which is a pain in the posterior, in my not at all humble opinion.
- Stick-resistant hard anodized surface: Less good for very delicate dishes such as eggs. Far superior in terms of browning. This surface is usually made on a base of cast aluminium, and is a near-ideal one for griddling burgers, cooking risotto, and sauteing vegetables and mushrooms. Unlike non-sticks, this surface is very tough and can have steel utensils used on it. I’ve washed mine with steel wool when I’ve abused it, which did it no harm, but it generally cleans very easily with just a bit of water poured in and soaked. Provided the handles on this type of pan are oven-safe, it can be heated to very high temperatures without danger to the pan, or to the food (it does not break down when heated).
- Stainless steel: similar in properties to the above, due to being polished, tends to have food stick less with a small amount of oil, and is my favourite surface for stir-frying and making fried rice because of how slippery it can be when used well-heated and with oil and the fact that you can attack it viciously with a steel spatula to un-stick the rice, and it takes it without a wince, and also for inside of soup and stockpots. Polished stainless steel also has the advantage of looking very beautiful, which to my kitchen-vain self is obviously a plus!
- Seasoned or enameled cast iron: Great for multi-purpose cooking, as high heat retention of cast iron means it can be used for delicate cooking so long as it is heated slowly and at low temperature, and also for high-heat searing, since at high temperature the food will stick and brown, releasing after it has browned. Both surfaces are reasonably stick-resistant, with the former becoming more so with use. Enameled surface can be washed with soap. So can the seasoned one, but it is not recommended, as doing that may require re-seasoning the pan afterwards.
Because it heats slowly, but when heated high, releases food upon searing, it is a very versatile (if not that forgiving for a novice) surface. But it is its versatility and durability that would make it my pick if I had to only choose one.
Stovetop safe ceramic (as opposed to ovensafe ceramic, which is far more common), mentioned above, is a special case, as it is not metal, and thus differs very much both in surface and material properties, and usage directions. It would take too long to discuss, but I should likely write about it on another occasion. The linked site does have a good summary and care suggestions section.
A note regarding ridged grill pans. I am rather baffled by the very existence of thin, non-stick coated ridged grill pans. The point of a ridged pan is cooking the food at very high temperature by allowing it to stick in strips to the grill ridges, allowing very high heat to be transferred through the searing points, and steaming the rest of the food from the inside, while the surface that is supported without touching the pan (between ridges), is cooked by radiant heat. The non-stick frying pans cannot and should not be safely heated to the temperatures required for grilling food on stovetop. Furthermore, if the pan surface is non-stick, the food won’t stick (duh!), and will also let off steam, making it just another non-stick frying pan, with inconvenient bumps on it to boot.
The only conclusion I can come to regarding the existence of those, is that people buy them in ignorance or trust of manufacturer (“they wouldn’t make it if it didn’t work” logic), and greedy manufacturers make them for the ignorant. It is a sad symbiosis of dysfunctional cookware. The people who buy those, are then disillusioned in their purchase, and write the amazing invention that is a ridged grill pan off as useless, without ever having tried a real cast iron one. But then, so it is with many things, that the cheaper versions are not simply less good, but often are rendered useless due to lacking an essential characteristic which makes them useful as what they are (cheap makeup that slides off in smears an hour after being applied, or cheap boots that break when you are wearing them for the second time are prime examples of this), and thus defeat the purpose of their existence. But, I have digressed into philosophy again.
Regarding the choosing and acquisition of frying pans – like anything else, buying a cheap one is generally not worth it (unless you are a poor student and it is all you can afford… but even then, a mid-priced one would last many times as long without becoming useless), but a lot of mid-priced ones are more than decent quality these days, and if you are passionate about cooking, then investing in a few pricier toys is of course always an option, even if you have to save for those (I have built my collection of kitchen toys over the course of years, not one shopping trip). For those willing to try the traditional way, unseasoned cast iron can be often bought for very reasonable prices and then seasoned at home to give a very good result for little money and more effort, but paying off in an heirloom piece (cast iron cookware is likely to outlive you if treated properly… or even if not!), and the satisfaction of slowly getting it seasoned and making it yours.
Whatever your price range, however, the important thing to remember is that like with any tools, frying/grill/griddle pans do the job best if used for their intended purpose. I wouldn’t try to hammer nails in with a screwdriver, nor drill holes with a hammer. With enough effort it might work anyway, but you’ll end up with one hell of a lot of bruised fingers and crooked nails, and likely huge hunks missing from your walls. And it is up to you to determine whether you are more likely to want one or the other, depending on whether you are a rocket-and-egg-white omelet, or a 500g T-bone steak type.