Navigating Cookware

Navigating Cookware with Jane, Your Kitchen GPS

Have you noticed that your favorite nonstick pan isn’t so nonstick anymore? Do you avoid cooking with those beautiful shiny stainless steel pans because the food always sticks? What about cast iron? Do you own a heavy, rusting frying pan and wonder what everyone is raving about? Using the wrong pan or using the right pan wrong can add a lot of (unnecessary) stress to your culinary adventures. Navigating your way around cookware can be confusing, frustrating, and expensive. Let’s start by identifying and removing the common roadblocks.

Cast Iron, Nonstick and Stainless Steel – What to use?

Nonstick cookware is wonderful! It’s probably the easiest of all cookware to use and perfect for quick-cooking proteins, like salmon, scallops, and eggs. It’s also great for sticky foods like oatmeal, rice, and custards. Unfortunately, it never seems to last very long. I mean, it still works – well, sorta — it just requires a whole lot of oil, butter, or a generous shot of cooking spray…  

STOP!  Do you use nonstick cooking spray (Pam, olive oil spray, or any oil aerosol that prevents food from sticking?)  

We just identified the most common reason why nonstick pans don’t properly do their job – it’s cooking spray. This was a hard concept for me to grasp, but nonstick cooking sprays cause your nonstick pans to stick. Sad, but true and very well documented. Nonstick cooking sprays leave a residue on your pans that adheres to the nonstick surface that’s tough to remove. Over time, that buildup of propellant reduces a pan’s performance, and food will start to stick to it.  

Cooking spray isn’t the only culprit that will render your nonstick pans ineffective. You’re not going to like these reasons any better than the cooking spray! The dishwasher is another key contributor to ruining nonstick pans. While glass, enamelware, and stainless steel all do fine in the dishwasher, your nonstick pans need to be hand-washed. (I warned you weren’t going to be happy!).  Even if marked dishwasher-safe, the heat from the dishwasher, along with detergents, will cause the coating to degrade. The other common cause for ruined nonstick pans is cooking at high heat. ARGG! Unfortunately, nonstick pans are designed for low temps. Most manufactures advise cooking on anything higher than medium. Not only will high heat damage the coating over time, but it can also cause the release of harmful toxins, depending on the type of coating (this is only an issue with cheap or older nonstick pans.) When you need to sear or brown food, it’s best to use a stainless steel or cast iron pan. Even with the best care, however, nonstick pans don’t last forever. The average lifespan is about five years. Once nonstick gets scratched, warped, or discolored, it’s time to let it go.  

Stainless steel pans are much more durable and a better choice for browning, braising, and searing. They can go from stovetop to oven, unlike nonstick pans. They are also practically indestructible (no chipping, staining or rusting and dent, scratch, and ding resistant) and offer excellent cooking performance as their construction and material provide quick and superior heat distribution. They are dishwasher safe – a big plus! I also appreciate their shiny, attractive appearance and lightweight. When used properly, a stainless steel pan will also keep food from sticking. It’s the “used properly” part that throws a lot of cooks off balance.

Stainless steel pans are notorious for creating a sticky, nasty mess when making eggs and other “sticky” foods. There is a learning curve involved! Stainless steel pans should be preheated (hot enough for a drop of water to form a perfect bubble and glide along the pan.) Oil can be added to the pan while it’s heating or once it’s hot. Dry food (excess moisture patted dry) and food brought down to room temperature are also important when using stainless steel cookware. Unlike nonstick pans, you absolutely can use nonstick cooking spray! (YAY!)

Cast iron pans are a kitchen workhorse! It’s suitable for so many cooking methods, including frying, baking, searing, roasting, slow cooking, and it’s great for outdoor cooking (like when camping). Cast iron pans are durable, inexpensive, and naturally nonstick (when seasoned). They are prized for their ability to get hot and stay hot, making them perfect for high-heat searing, baking, and shallow frying. Given the proper care, cast iron pans can be handed down from generation to generation. Caring for cast iron isn’t tricky. It’s just different than the care your other pans require. Cast iron thrives with an oil coating. Most new cast iron pans come pre-seasoned, meaning they have already been baked with a thin layer of oil, giving them their nonstick qualities. If you are a recipient of a pre-owned cast iron pan, it’s highly recommended that you coat it with a layer of shortening or vegetable oil and bake it at 375° for an hour, letting it cool in the oven.

Clean your cast iron with a chainmail scrubber – it works like a dream!

Unlike the old wives’ tales, you may have heard, you can use soapy water to clean cast iron. However, you can’t soak the pan in water, nor can it go in the dishwasher. I found the easiest way to clean my cast iron skillet is with a chain mail scrubber – another concept that took a while for me to wrap my head around. I found mine on Amazon, and it works like a dream! Once clean, it is CRITICAL the pan is promptly and thoroughly dried. I always pop my pan in the oven, which is still warm from dinner, and set a timer for 20 minutes. After I removed it, I rub a light layer of oil (vegetable, canola, or grapeseed) onto the surface before putting it away. This prevents rusting and keeps the nonstick properties in tip-top condition.

There are a couple of drawbacks to cast iron cookware, including the weight. Cast iron is HEAVY! Not only can it be challenging to lift into or out of the oven, but if dropped, it will smash ceramic tiles and toes. It is reactive to acidic foods, like tomatoes. And, as discussed, they require special care in cleaning and maintenance.

There’s no one perfect pan to handle all your cooking needs. Nonstick, stainless steel, and cast iron all deserve a place in your kitchen, each type addressing specific cooking needs. For me, most of my saucepans and skillets are nonstick. I have a couple of stainless steel skillets and a large cast-iron frying pan. This combination meets all my cooking needs. Knowing the advantages and limitations of your cookware is an essential element in creating meals that are sure to Impress, Not Stress! 

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