*Note: Use care when handling nettles. Their little stingers are not terribly dangerous, but they can cause a great deal of discomfort. I like to wear rubber gloves or use tongs to handle them...
Kitchen Notes: Yay for the Large Sauté!
Griddle, make-shift wok, fryer, high-volume egg poacher, sauce pan, braising pan, roasting pan, blunt-trauma weapon, shield against small-caliber munitions… regardless of what is thrown at you in the kitchen—whether its breakfast for 10 or an assailant’s roundhouse kick—the large sauté is ready to serve. In a pinch, you can toast and grind spices and dried chili peppers with it, pound out cutlets, use it as a water reservoir for keeping an oven moist, the list goes on. Indispensible in the oven, on the stove, or even over a fire, a good 5-6 quart sauté with straight sides and full, triply construction is the single most versatile, long-lived, and relied-upon tool in our kitchen, with the possible exception of an accurate digital thermometer and a nice, sharp chef’s knife… and a sturdy pair of tongs… a wide metal spoon… a microplane… or maybe a nice chisel-edge spatula…
Okay, we have many “favorite” tools (which we will be sharing over the coming months), but at least among the dizzying array of pots and pans available to consumers, we feel very strongly that a 5-6 quart “sticky” stainless steel sauté pan should be the first item on anybody’s equipment wish list. I cannot count the number of delicious meals my Father has cooked solely with the use of thisremarkably versatile style of pan. I am now the proud owner of this very same pan, and the endearing signs of wear after over four decades of use has not diminished its usefulness or performance in the slightest. I use this pan every day.
I wish this was unnecessary, but I feel like I need to justify my advice to get a “sticky” pan for those who like non-stick. To my mind, there are only a few tasks in the kitchen that really benefit from a non-stick pan. The biggest item on this list: egg cookery. Frying and scrambling eggs is so much easier with a non-stick skillet and to this day I wonder how people got along without them (answer: large gobs of butter or oil). Extremely well-seasoned cast iron will do the trick, but eggs tend to wreak havoc on the pan’s hard-earned layer of seasoning. If you use one for eggs often, you will need to season it often, and until I get a truly well-ventilated kitchen that can disperse the smell of seasoning cast iron, I will use a cheap non-stick frying pan (no more than $20) with a wood/plastic spatula because spending more on a pan that will eventually wear out is downright silly. I can’t emphasize this enough: just because they charge a lot for a non-stick pan does not mean it will last longer. It might have better heat distribution, but egg-frying does not sufficiently benefit from this. Spend accordingly. Some of the newer ceramic coatings scare me less (teflon flakes are apparently not a healthy seasoning) and seem to be more tolerant of high heat (teflon, unlike the new ceramic materials, starts smoking with curious vapors at medium-high heat and above). But again, the coating will not last forever, regardless of what manufacturers claim (luckily you can find them in the sub-$20 price range now).
Okay, my non-stick tirade is over until the next appropriate equipment blog post. Back to the tool at hand: the amazing large sauté. Though many manufacturers like to describe their larger sauté pans as “family-size,” we have found them to be perfect for low-yield cooking and invaluable for entertaining the occasional handful of dinner (or brunch) guests. I suppose this is why high-end manufacturers will try to charge you a month’s salary for them. Luckily, after testing several pans in different price ranges—from a family-heirloom All-Clad to a no-name Chinese knock-off sold by a local kitchen store—over the last year and a half of testing recipes for JOY, I can honestly say that the cheapest of them (clocking in at $45) easily matched ninety percent of the performance we observed from the highest-quality stainless tri-ply money can buy ($250).
Disclaimer: a few manufacturers have taken the men’s razor approach to product development and begun to offer $300-$350 five-ply and seven-ply sauté pans, which claim to be up to 20% better at evenly conducting heat. I remain unconvinced by the steep cost-benefit calculation involved in justifying such a purchase, but would wager that the extra layers of aluminum and stainless probably add little more than a slight advantage over lesser pans. I suppose the prestige might be worth it for you, but at almost twice the price of an already over-priced product, I suggest you pass. Ditto with copper.
A few things to look for: if the side of the pan has a seam or gap of any sort toward the bottom, the aluminum core—which distributes heat more efficiently than the stainless steel exterior—does not go up the sides of the pan, which creates a “hot spot” ring along the outside. This can scorch pan juices and lead to uneven cooking of sauces… Not a complete deal-breaker. If you find an awesome deal on one that does not look like it’s been spot-welded, this might be the way to go (the pan will last much longer if the handles are actually bolted on). Always get one with metal handles, as half of the joy of owning the pan is that it is completely oven-safe, thus ready for pan-roasting and long braises. Just keep in mind when weighing your investment that, unlike non-stick pans and other, less sturdy cookware, a stainless sauté pan will last you forever and change. Just to repeat, the pan I use everyday has seen four decades (and counting) of constant use in four states and at least five different kitchens by two people who are not the best at maintaining or babying their tools.
Okay, it lasts a long time. What makes this pan so much better than a large frying pan/skillet? What’s wrong with the smaller 3-quart sauté that manufacturers are always including in the cookware sets they sell?
You can fit a whole chicken in one: There are many reasons why the larger size is best, but perhaps the most compelling to me is being able to brown and then braise or roast large cuts of meat without getting two pans dirty: try pan-roasting a whole butterflied chicken or braising a decently-sized chunk of brisket in a 3-quart sauté… better yet, don’t. A butterflied game hen might fit comfortably in one, but anything bigger will start to get cramped. Same thing goes for fried chicken: why have a pan that will crowd a chicken’s-worth of pieces? Think of it this way: have you ever heard anyone complain about a pan being too big? I thought not. Too heavy, I’ve heard, which brings us to why you should purchase a sauté that has a second, “helper” handle.
The second handle is half of the reason why sautés have a substantial advantage over large frying pans, some of which are at least partially up to the task of dealing with whole chickens and brisket-size cuts. The frying pan’s sloped sides and lack of a “helper” handle make them cumbersome, even dangerous, to take in and out of the oven without pan-juice mishaps (or, god forbid, a full-on meat fumble). Plus, sloped sides—a true asset in an omelet pan—actually decrease the amount of usable space, both in terms of liquid volume capacity and surface area for browning, sautéing, and shallow-frying. For those who like to toss their stir-fries in the air just so, I feel for you, but the straight sides are not completely prohibitive… you just have to adjust your technique.
Presto! Your own flat top: A large sauté pan’s straight sides and large radius offer the maximum amount of cooking surface you can reasonably expect to get from one large burner. Though the aluminum core really helps spread the heat around, ingredients do brown quicker toward the center of even the priciest pans (this problem is hopefully mitigated by the 5- and 7-ply construction of new, top-tier pans). This means you will probably need to trade outside pieces with ones toward the center when turning them. Caveat aside, when you purchase a sauté pan you are also buying a convenient alternative to a flat-top griddle. Short-order fare—bacon, sausage patties and links, burgers, corn fritters, hot dogs, and steaks—can be done in quantity as long as you have a warm oven to hold everything in until you are done. Where’s the grease trap? By sacrificing a tiny bit of the cooking surface and slightly tilting the pan (I rest mine on a pair of all-metal tongs), you can even reproduce the way many griddles slowly draw rendered fat away from food (this of course only works if you are not using a fancy induction range). Just carefully ladle the drippings into a coffee mug with every other batch and you’re golden.
Another pan-tilting tip: next time you want to stir-fry, pan-fry, or sauté something in oil with garlic or ginger, you can avoid the sharply bitter burnt bits with an extra 5-10 minutes’ effort. Over-browning garlic and ginger will often impart off-flavors to everything that enters the pan. You can always add fresh, minced garlic toward the end of the cooking, but if you want to add a deeper layer of these flavors—or just don’t want to add raw garlic toward the end—try infusing the oil before frying. Tilt the pan, add large smashed (or half-slivered) chunks of ginger or garlic, and infuse the cooking oil with them over moderate heat until they start to color (around 10 minutes), reserve, go about your frying, chop them up, and add toward the end of the cooking process or as a garnish. Bonus tip: If you aren’t determined to add them back in, remember that thinly sliced and lightly-fried garlic cloves are a flavorful substitute for salad croutons.
So, the large sauté potentially duplicates a number of pans. Sure, some of them can match or better its performance in any one task: skinny, taller pans are better at conserving oil for deep frying; some sauce pans are better at maintaining temperature during reductions (but the sauté will reduce sauces faster!); dutch ovens are better at stewing (and, depending on the shape of what you’re cooking, braising); cheap non-stick skillets have their place, as do woks, roasting pans, egg poachers, and stock pots. But for whatever reason, I have reached for my sauté pan to dispatch most of the jobs these other pans are designed to perform at one time or another, and been rewarded with good, dependable results. A true desert-island pan.
Summer traveling tip: If you are driving to a vacation destination where you know you will have access to a kitchen (which you should always assume is stocked with abused non-stick pans and no sharp knives), shove this pan in your trunk, pack a good chef’s knife (plus sharpener) and a thermometer. You will be thankful!