Pots and Pans: The Art Of Culinary Craftsmanship

Le Creuset Cookware, without lids
My first real set of pots and pans were cobalt blue Le Creuset cookware that we purchased almost 30 years ago. I loved the stuff, but over the years, there were chips and discoloration of the insides. Even though Le Creuset is thin cast iron, it is, nevertheless heavy. And so, a few years back when my son moved into his first apartment, I decided to contribute my pots and pans. I thought at the time that there must have been advances, lighter materials, even non-stick surfaces to which I could upgrade. And so I became the proud owner of a set of Calphalon non stick pots and pans, along with the proper resin non-scratch utensils that are required to keep from damaging the nonstick surface. The point of this history is to explain why now, only 3 years later, and due to the disappointing performance of nonstick coating, I have undertaken research and testing to replace the nonstick pans whose nonstick surface has become unstuck.

My first inclination was to ask that my son return my old Le Creuset cookware. I was soon disavowed of the notion. I felt that the next best option was to obtain representative samples of high quality cookware, use it over a period of weeks in my kitchen, and after a thorough testing, judge the relative strengths of each brand tested. Having already determined that even top-end nonstick surfaces tend to become unstuck, I choose not to include them in the study. Admittedly this study was not scientific.

Three manufactures were kind enough to provide me with samples of their current lines. Le Creuset sent not only their traditional enameled cast iron, in the form of a cream colored sauce pan, but also a blue French oven, an enameled steel stock pot (all with lids) and a bright red skillet. The folks from All Clad sent 1 qt. and 4 qt sauce pans and 6 and 9 inch sautés. Cuisinart kicked in a 4 quart sauce pan and a 2 quart sauté. I have used these pots and pans, day in and day out, for a little more than a month. They have been used side by side on the same commercial Garland range, boiling water and sautéing chops. What better way to compare than daily use?

Before we get to the functionality of the pans, let me address the issue of appearance. There may be some of the readers who really don't care how a pan cooks, as long as it looks nice hanging on the pot rack. So for those of you into appearances, all three of the manufacturers look good. While I miss the teakwood handles that used to grace the Le Creuset cookware, without question, the beautiful glazes and colors available can be a focal point in the kitchen. Likewise, the stainless steel finishes of both the Cuisinart and the All Clad are attractive, even if in a more commercial vein. In short, they all looked good. So, to the meat of the matter, how well did they weather the rigors of daily use?

The All Clad products feel substantial. They are heavy duty; enough to be considered commercial grade, but with an appearance that fits well in a serious cook's home kitchen. Handles are sturdy, with lids that fit well. All Clad cookware has an inner core of aluminum that extends all the way up the sides of the pan, giving it a thick edge. While the handles generally stayed cool enough to use without protection, the same isn't true of the side loops. If two handed lifting is required, so too is a hot pad or mitt. The pans all were excellent in the distribution of heat, the result of the aluminum core. Even when my commercial gas range was on high there were no hot spots. Heat transmission was also good and liquids reached a rolling boil with delay. Even though the pans were NOT non-stick, cleanup was never particularly cumbersome. The line which I tested was polished stainless, and with normal pan cooking motions some scratching did occur on the bottoms. This didn't affect performance or cleanup, but did mar the otherwise mirror shiny surface. All Clad does make a line which has a brushed stainless steel bottom if this is of concern. This high quality cookware is not inexpensive. It can be bought in sets of various sizes, and frequently catalogs or web sites will offer further deals. A basic 8 piece set available for around $420.00, on sale. But, given the construction and quality, you would only need to ever buy your cookware once. And you could probably hand it down to your grandchildren. All Clad is American made.

The Cuisinart cookware was considerably less expensive than either the Le Creuset or All Clad. The basic set can be found, on sale, for around $150.00. The Cuisinart is a budget version of stainless steel commercial cookware that still uses the high quality 18/10 stainless steel used in the higher priced All Clad pans. It is not quite as heavy or beefy, geared more toward strictly residential use. It does perform well, although I did experience some hot spots. Clean up was not a problem. The bottoms of the pans have a brushed finish, so the issue of potential scratching present with the All Clad pans is minimized. Two handed lifting will require a hot pad, although the handles generally remained fairly cool. If there was a drawback to the Cuisinart cookware it was the finish of the edges. The Cuisinart cookware has an aluminum core on the bottom of the pan, and because it does not extend up the sides, the edges are considerably thinner than the All Clad pans. While the All Clad cookware edges are finished flat, the Cuisinart edges are rolled over, and the result is a semi-sharp rim around the top of the vessel. The purpose of the roll is to provide a "lip" for easier pouring, but I think that benefit is outweighed by the less finished appearance. The Cuisinart cookware is made in China.

The Le Creuset cookware hasn't changed much from the first set I owned 25 years ago, with the exception of resin handles replacing the aforementioned teak. Le Creuset offers both excellent heat retention and conductivity, due to its thin wall cast iron construction. This is the type of cookware that not only performs very well, but also demands to be displayed as a part of the kitchen décor when not in use. Indeed, there are special tiered shelves available to display the owner's graduated collection of colorful French ovens, which go from stove to table without detracting from your dinner table's appearance. Le Creuset's thin walled cast iron is, without question, the heaviest of the cookware tested, although the enameled steel stockpot is a welcome addition to the line that eliminates the weight issue that was otherwise present when using the larger French Oven. The enameled interior of the pans allows for easy cleanup. The skillet's performance in pan grilling, searing and preparing "blackened" meats is exceptional, although the integral handle does tend to become hot. Le Creuset falls in between the All Clad and Cuisinart in terms of cost, with a basic set available, on sale for around $300.00. Le Creuset cookware is made in France, and their line also includes matching stoneware casseroles which were not tested.

So, the question remaining is which of the lines tested is the "best"? And to that question, there is no definitive answer. Each line presents certain strengths and drawbacks. If cost is not an issue, and you are a serious cook, I would, without question, give the All Clad, my enthusiastic recommendation. If, on the other hand, cost is of some concern and kitchen décor an issue, the Le Creuset cookware is a great choice. And lastly, if you're on more of a budget, but still want cookware that is well constructed and entirely functional, Cuisinart is a good option.
Read More on Chef Geoff
Volume 2, Issue 24, Posted 11:11 AM, 11.19.06