Everyone knows that nonstick cookware is junk. Literally disposable. I guess some people think they’ve invested big money in a nonstick cookware set, and it’s gonna last forever. Have fun with that. The rest of us are going to learn about metals and seasoning, spend less on our cookware, and be ready to educate them when their Williams Sonoma nonstick cookware set gets as scratched as the wood floors in a whorehouse, and turns into a stick skillet.
Here’s the heart of the thing: How much should you spend on cookware? Obviously, that depends on how much you have to spend. If, like me, you’re struggling into a second low-paying career, you don’t want to just head down to Sur La Table and blurt, “gee whiz guys, what does Thomas Keller use in his kitchen?” Because let’s face it, no matter how much cash you throw at it, you’re never gonna be Thomas Keller anyway. Mediocre home cooks who throw lots of money at their cookware and cutlery remind me of those wanna-be rednecks whose $40,000 Ford F250 super duty pickup trucks have seen less action than my little Suzuki four banger.
So I’m gonna let you in on these secrets and hope that my upper crust readership doesn’t get gentrification all over the restaurant supply store. Vollrath’s Tribute line 8″ skillet is tri-ply (steel-aluminum-steel) and retails for $67.50 on their site. The same pan from All-Clad is $95. You cook at home. The Vollrath is gonna stand up to whatever you can throw at it. It sees more abuse in a week in a professional setting than it might see in a lifetime at your house. The pan comes with or without heat-resistant (up to 450° F) silicone handle.
Matfer-Bourgeat is a French company that I’d always associated with mandolin slicers, but they make great black steel skillets too (In the course of writing this I also learned about DeBuyer brand, much nicer-looking than Matfer, but about twice the price.) Black steel, a type of carbon steel, is the French analog to cast iron. Now, you know I don’t fetishize the French, but a black steel skillet has a certain suavity that cast iron lacks. Cast iron has it’s place in my kitchen, no doubt. Oftentimes I want that heft, but they’re hard to pick up, they take a long time to heat up, hold the heat for a really long time, and always have straight edges. I hate straight edges, you can’t flip anything, and they don’t allow the moisture to dissipate as quickly. On the other hand, if you need to fry some chicken or hush puppies, or sear a steak over your crappy gas range, just leave that Frenchy on the shelf, he don’t know nothing about that.
Vollrath makes some carbon steel skillets too, I don’t recommend them. I made the mistake of thinking they’re the same, and they are not. The Matfer is a little heavier, and a little more compact. The Vollrath, like many of the professional brands, is slightly lighter, and its handle is absurdly long for home cooking. A thinner steel is fine for pros who are cooking over serious heat, and want the skillet to heat and cool quickly. Long handles make for easy retrieval of skillets that have been pushed to the back of cavernous ovens. These are not problems faced by the home cook. Instead, the home cook often faces a lack of heat and a lack of space, so weight and compact size are assets.
You know about seasoning. Maybe you have a cast iron skillet or something. Maybe it’s even well-seasoned. Maybe it’s not. Maybe you’re staying at a vacation rental they got nothing to cook with short of a couple of old, scratched-up, stick skillets and a rusty old wok. That’s where we were, and we wanted to fry eggs.
To make matter worse, the place didn’t have a decent steel scrubber. No problem. Get the pan hot and scrub it out with some oil and salt. If you have a good, sharp scrubber or some steel wool, you could use that. The point isn’t to get the surface all gleaming and clean, just to get it smooth. Rust, flaking bits of previous seasoning, and stuck on food, including the “shadow” that beans and/or rice sometimes leave on the inside of cookware, need to go. Ideally, you don’t use soap, but water is fine. Best of all is to scrub it hot with some oil and coarse salt, sometimes that don’t cut it though. If the pan is a real mess with stuck on food and uneven layers of charred seasoning, burn it. Either put it over a high flame, or in the oven on the cleaning cycle until everything turns to carbon and flakes away.
Then we just rub some oil on, heat it up, hold it just below the smoke point for as long as we have, and turn it off. Let it sit. When it’s cool, we just rub off the excess oil, heat it up, and fry some eggs like Roy Plunkett‘s our uncle. And that’s it, that’s seasoning. This applies to stainless steel and aluminum too. You want to fry some eggs—
- Oil the skillet
- Wipe the excess oil
- Heat the skillet
- Turn it off, just as it wants to start smoking
- Let it cool down
- Wipe it out
- Heat it again with some fresh fat
- And now you fry eggs.
Heat accomplishes two things: it opens the pores of the metal so that they will accept the oil, and it polymerizes the oil. Polymerize is a fancy way of saying “solidify.” So, basically, you just make a solid little layer of oil between the food and those bad old skillet pores. The first seasoning will be the hardest—you might have to do it two of three times to get good coverage.
Here’s a popular blog post from a few years back, it got almost 500 comments!
Basically, the lady recommends baking half a dozen very thin coats of linseed oil onto your cast iron or non-stainless steel cookware. Each coat takes 2 hours in the oven at 500°, after which you turn off the oven and let it sit in there till it’s cool.
I dunno, this sounds like way too much work. And 500° sounds way too hot; I would go for like 350°-375°. At 500° the oil is burning and breaking down. You could practically clean the skillet at 500°. Some commenters said that the seasoning flaked off, and that the lady was a scientific dum-dum. She did go on and on about “toxins” and “free radicals” and such. Still, you get an idea as to what might constitute a “perfectly” seasoned pan. However, I feel that seasoning isn’t a thing you do, it’s way of life. Which sounds like work too, but it really isn’t. You basically have to learn to leave the oil film on things rather than vigorously scrub it away with copious hot water and soap. Occasionally, you need to touch up, especially the dutch oven.
Lots of people think the cast iron dutch oven shouldn’t be used for high acid foods, since the iron reacts with the acid and the seasoning comes off. That is a load of balls. The extra iron will only be good for your frail, vegan constitution. The seasoning does come off, so just season it again. Put some oil on it after you clean it, heat it up, and let it cool down. How hard was that? Hard enough to justify spending $200 extra on a Le Creuset? It’s your money, do what you like. Just don’t think your gonna be a better cook for it.