November 7, 2010

Pots and Pans 101

Since I love cookware, I jumped at the chance to interview the owner of Broadway Panhandler, Norman Kornbleuth, who’s been in the business of outfitting New York kitchens since 1976. He knows a thing or two about pots and pans, since he’s been surrounded by them since the early 1940s when he was a five-year-old at play in his father’s institutional kitchen supply store on the Bowery.

Some of the more inside-Kitchen-Stadium details I picked up during my tour of BP with Kornbleuth didn’t make it into my Edible Manhattan Story, Worth the Trip. So for those of you who live for discussions about the conductivity of aluminum, copper, or cast iron, this blog post is for you.

The cast iron corner of the store (65 E. 8th Street) is given over to Lodge Logic brand pots, pans and other specialty items, such as molds for baking biscuits and corn-shaped cornbread. The company has been around for over 100 years, and Kornbleuth loves the fact that it’s still family owned, as are many of the businesses with which he maintains decades-old ties. The Pittsburgh, Tenn.-based company’s griddles have been a staple of military kitchens through many a foreign war, can take heat at full blast and leave impressive grill marks. Plus, as they become seasoned, they develop a non-stick quality without the chemicals of treated surfaces. If you think plain old cast iron is too campfire for your kitchen, French maker Le Creuset dresses it up in colored enamels, akin to throwing a sparkly jacket over your jumper to go from office to evening out.

It is copper, however, that is the king of conductivity, if expensive (a 3-piece starter set will run you $900) and high maintenance. It heats up with lightning speed and cools down almost as fast, so delicate foods and sauces don’t overcook. It’s so conductive, in fact, says Kornbleuth, that first-time users often burn foods. The Bourgeat brand that Broadway Panhandler carries is lined with a very thin layer of stainless steel; when copper comes in direct contact with food it emits harmful chemicals. Unlined copper, however, Kornbleuth told me, is extremely good for the non-reactive processes of melting sugar and beating egg whites. In the old days, copper was tin plated on one side, and nickel plated on the other, which meant that you had to re-tin your pots periodically. Two other drawbacks are that copper is a very soft metal and scratches easily, and that with use, it oxidizes and turns a dark, greenish hue.

The next best thing in kitchen conductivity is aluminum. BP sells inexpensive, straight aluminum cookware to restaurants. Yet since it also is reactive (for example it can discolor a white sauce and impart a faint metallic taste), most aluminum these days is coated. In the late 1960s, an American named John Ulam patented a bonding technology that used heat and pressure to create a non-reactive sandwich of stainless steel and aluminum. His invention became All-Clad, which is manufactured in Pittsburgh and now includes a copper core line. It’s great at delivering heat evenly and efficiently, and is one of my kitchen standbys.

Although he looks at every new pot and pan on the market, Kornbleuth remains old school in his preferences. Except for delicate fish filets and egg dishes, he asserts, there is no need for treated surfaces if you bring cooking oil up to the proper temperature before sautéing or frying and avoid cooking foods straight out of the refrigerator.

“We don’t’ believe strongly in coated surfaces,” he told me, “but we have started to sell ceramic coating, which Is an excellent substitute for non-stick.” Although it seems to me most chefs turn a blind eye to the evidence that Teflon emits toxic gases (after all, these are the people who bring all their imagination to bear on pork belly and turn humble ingrecients into cassoulet; they’re devoted to making the life we have enjoyable, not necessarily longer), it is good for us home cooks to know that newer ceramic-coated pans use none of the chemicals found in Teflon. Kornbleuth says the Swiss-made Swiss Diamond line features the best of the non-stick surfaces (its surface is actually infused with diamonds and it comes with a lifetime guarantee). He also carries non-stick lines from Cuisinart and Tramontina, and two new Italian lines from Bialetti and Mepra.

Happy cooking!