Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pot Luck

Yesterday I made another batch of lard. I picked up a three pound bag of fat trimmings from my local meat shop and now have a tub full of premium homemade lard. Still no cracklins though. Haven't figured that out. Now I'm ready to be a biscuit and pie making fool.

But the process got me to thinking about equipment. You can find a lot of information out there, read books, read reviews, but nothing is more informative than experience. Being a more serious home cook than the average person, I thought I would take the time to relate some of mine.

Generally people have a slew of pots and pans. Maybe they were given a set as a wedding gift. Chances are most of them sit and gather dust. Chances are most of them are junk also. In the past five years or so I started to get a little more serious about the equipment I use. But unlike most others, my perceptions are colored my the fact that I am an engineer, and specifically a metallurgist. A dangerous combination when it comes to kitchen equipment.

If I could pass on one and only one mantra it would be:
All you need to be successful 80% of the time is ONE good knife and ONE good pan.

So focusing on pots, what have I learned?

I have several pots. I do not have any copper pots because they are extremely expensive and they are time consuming to clean and I'm not interested in all of that maintenance.

For boiling pasta and potatoes I have a tall aluminum pot, which I can't seem to find right now. In my opinion, only use aluminum for this purpose. There's some hype out there about aluminum being linked to Alzheimer's, (in conclusive in my opinion) but the bigger issue is that aluminum is reactive, meaning it reacts with acids in foods and can leach in to them. This will cause some off flavors and discoloration in light colored foods. Because aluminum conducts heat so well, it it perfect for bringing large amounts of water to boil. But because it conducts so well, I find it is difficult to fine tune the heat and things burn easily. I consider having a pasta pot to be a luxury so there's no need to have this pot if you don't have one.

I have several large stainless steel pots. These are all pretty big stock pots and I only use them when I need a big pot like for big batches of stew. Since I don't use aluminum pots there really is no other option for material. Yes, there are large anodized aluminum pots out there. I don't like anodized aluminum any more because 1) most are made in China, 2) most have riveted handles and I hate cleaning around rivets, 3) anodized aluminum is hand wash only. You can't run it through the dishwasher.

So the one pot I grab over and over, my Staub Round Cocotte (Dutch oven). I bought mine cheap from the Amazon Friday Outlet Store, patience paid off. Because I wasn't picky about the color, I got a good price. Mine is a nice green. Growing up, my parents had a set of Copco enameled iron cookware, made in Holland, which I would love to have now, chips and all. I have a bunch of Lodge cookware. You can buy it cheap from their factory store, but you have to make the trip to South Pittsburg, TN. But Lodge ware is not enameled and so you have the reactive issue. DO NOT BUY Lodge's enameled line. It is made in China and you risk lead contamination. Same with any Food Network line and the Mario Batali line.

I think Le Crueset is just as good as Staub, but it is pricier. I also like the dimples on the Staub lid that returns condensation back to the pot.

Reasons I always reach for this pot: you can boil and simmer at much lower heat settings on your stove. The enamel is non-stick. You can easily go from the stove to the oven with this pot. However, Harold McGee showed that cast iron is not a perfect distributor of heat, so it is possible to burn to the bottom of this pot, but it is just a matter of practicing lower heat settings. Oh yeah, no rivets! Yes, it is heavy. Get over it. Heavy is good because it won't warp and if you have a heavy boil, the pot doesn't move around. The more you use this pot, the less heavy it seems. And you can really do anything in this pot. There's no need to brown your meat in a skillet and then transfer to the pot to make a stew. You can brown the meat right in this pot.

If you could have only one pot, get a 5-7 quart enameled cast iron pot. Doesn't matter if it is called a Dutch oven, French oven or Cocotte. Just make sure it isn't made in China. I'm serious about that. China does not regulate their lead levels in their iron.

It's my favorite pot and I'm sure it would be yours too.

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