Article By MARIAN BURROS
LIKE many home cooks, I have sent my nonstick skillets to the moldy recesses of my basement, where they have joined the 1950’s aluminum pots and the Dru casseroles (Dutch enamel coated cast iron, now eBay collectibles).
What led to this step were unsettling reports that an overheated Teflon-coated pan may release toxic gases. DuPont, the manufacturer of Teflon, says that its pans are safe and that their surfaces won’t decompose, possibly releasing the gas, until the pan’s temperature reaches 680 degrees. Some scientists say that an empty pan left on a burner set on high reaches 700 degrees in as little as three minutes. All pans with nonstick coatings are subject to the same problems, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental research and advocacy organization.
I banished the skillets last year and spent months dithering over what to buy while making do with the pans I had left: a large Revere Ware skillet with a concave bottom; a small, warped hand-me-down from my mother; and a medium All-Clad in fine shape.
A few passes at online pot sellers made matters worse: there are too many choices. Finally, after consulting the ratings from Consumer Reports and Cook’s Illustrated and calling several experts, I decided to do a test of my own, using the most highly recommended pans, along with a few of my own choices.
While Teflon lets manufacturers make inexpensive pans usable, uncoated cheap pans have hot spots, so cheaper pans — other than cast iron — were never considered.
The most important characteristic was how close the pans came to having the nonstick qualities people love about Teflon. Can they sauté and brown, even without oil? Almost as important, how easy are they to clean?
There were eight pans in the test, most of them 12 inches in diameter: All-Clad with an aluminum core, All-Clad with a copper core, Bourgeat copper; De Buyer carbon steel; Calphalon anodized aluminum; seasoned and unseasoned Lodge cast iron and Le Creuset enameled cast iron.
All-Clad was one of the top choices of most experts, but did not do well in my tests because sometimes food stuck to the pans and cleaning them was difficult. Top chefs with whom I spoke agreed. “All of my All-Clad sauté pans have brown spots on the sides and outside, too,” said Scott Conant of L’Impero and Alto. “And eggs always stick.”
That’s the nature of stainless steel, said Harold McGee, author of “On Food and Cooking” (Scribner, 2004) and the scientist who can explain everything that happens in the kitchen. “Things stick to stainless,” he said, “and polymerized oil is one of them.”
For the two sets of tests, I cooked 6 dozen eggs; 24 pounds of chicken breasts with and without skin; 10 pounds of onions; and 10 pounds of potatoes. In one set of tests, pans were coated with one tablespoon of oil; in the other just a thin film of oil was applied with waxed paper. All the pans were preheated, the oil added and allowed to get hot enough to ripple; the food had lost its refrigerator chill.
With a tablespoon of oil, all of the pans cooked well and evenly. The chicken was nicely browned, the potatoes were crisp, the onions were meltingly sweet and the eggs were nicely done. The difference between cooking in All-Clad with copper and with aluminum is not significant enough for most cooks to make the more expensive copper pan worth the higher price. The Bourgeat copper pan, of course, cooked quickly and evenly, too, but the differences are too subtle in most situations to be worth the extra money.
But with just a film of oil, neither the All-Clad nor the Bourgeat pans cooked chicken or onions without sticking badly. But then, they don’t claim to be nonstick.
The remaining pans cooked well with just a film of oil.
The Le Creuset pan and the two cast-iron pans produced amazing results. Nothing stuck, including the eggs, and it was quite easy to roll up omelets. There were almost no eggs to scrape up. I don’t recommend browning potatoes or onions with a film of oil because they won’t have much flavor, but these pans could do it.
The chicken, on the other hand, was moist and browned beautifully, a result you wouldn’t get with Teflon-coated pans.
Calphalon did not do as well with just a film of oil: the chicken was nicely browned, but an awful lot of scrambled eggs stayed in the pan.
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