One of the best ways to get a great set of pots is to register for them, which also may be the most economical way. That’s because pots and pans are now are status symbols and can cost some serious coin. They’re investment pieces worth investing in only if you really enjoy cooking or are serious about taking it up. As Joan Cusack said to Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl,” “Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn't make me Madonna. Never will.” A set of nice pots won’t make you Wolfgang Puck, but if you’re an okay cook, they’ll help you become a better one.
Culinary professionals and foodies love the form-follows-function industrial aesthetic and near indestructibility of truly fine pieces. Pittsburgh-based All-Clad Metalcrafters produces what many consider to be the ne plus ultra of high-end cookware.
Bill Groll, All-Clad’s VP of Product Development, lives for maximizing his cookware’s strength, ductility and thermal conductivity and getting “the most optimized performance.” Take stainless steel. His “304 stainless steel” has to meet specifications in terms of grain size, texture, alloy content and other physical properties and also has to meet “National Standard ISO 9000 (International Organization for Standardization) and ASTM A240 (testing and standards) for all 304 series stainless steel intended for use with food.” All-Clad’s domestic sourcing and manufacturing, he says, is the key to their quality and innovation. “If you’re not daily touching and feeling the product you lose a connection with it, where it’s from and where you can go with it,” he says of a product that is touched by eighty hands along its journey to becoming a pot or pan.
Composites are the secret to the company’s cookware. All-Clad founder John Ulam realized that by selecting metals for specific properties, manipulating the ratio of those metals and bonding them together he could create a product greater than the sum of its parts. “The ratio of materials yields performance,” explains Groll. All-Clad is a metallurgist’s utopia, one that’s confusing if you aren’t or have never been a metal enthusiast. Thankfully, Groll is an excellent teacher.
Conductivity is essential to great cookware. Picture a scale, Groll says, with non-conductive ceramic at zero (conducts no heat) at one end and copper at the other end at 100 percent conductivity. Silver and gold are more conductive but are impractical, he says, while copper is the most conductive, commercially available metal. Then, look at various metals’ properties.
Copper at 100% is highly conductive but also very expensive, hard to maintain and doesn’t retain heat. Aluminum at 60% conductivity is lightweight and “has nice thermal behavior” but it’s soft, scratches easily and has a reactive surface. Stainless steel provides a great non-reactive surface that resists wear but its 4% conductivity means some spots are red hot, some you can touch with your finger.
The ideal pan combines them: a copper core, which generates rapid and efficient spreading of heat energy, sandwiched between aluminum disks which have “high latent energy” or the ability to hold heat, all wrapped or “clad” with stainless steel alloys (one for the outside, a different one for the inside) that are thick enough to withstand normal wear, but thin enough to not add weight or impede energy flow. Stainless steel rivets, which never loosen, secure the handles. Aluminum rivets wear out, he explains, and don’t ask about glued-on, screwed-on or spot-welded handles. He can’t even joke about them. He’s all about functional, durable elegance, about pots for posterity.
“All of our pots have this basic bonding process,” say Groll though some lines use an aluminum core rather than a copper one to reduce cost. “We invented, created and perfected this method and we’re constantly innovating and improving on it,” he says. Their cookware is hugely expensive but All-Clad points out that they offer a lifetime guarantee and that pieces can be passed down to future generations, amortizing costs.
Barbara Dougherty, VP of Product Development for Macy’s Merchandising Group, agrees that All-Clad and other “aspirational” brands make some of the market’s finest products. And if you have an unlimited budget, are an accomplished cook or want everything in your kitchen to match, she says, go for a full set. If you don’t fall into those categories then Dougherty suggests asking yourself these questions before you buy.
Do you cook every night? Then consider investing in one or two “workhorse” pieces that will withstand constant use. Are browning and searing important? Then don’t go non-stick. Is easy clean-up important or do you cook a lot of fish? Then non-stick is for you. If you’re an accomplished cook and want the best, invest in copper. If you have an aversion to polishing then for heaven’s sake, avoid copper. “There’s no right or wrong when picking cookware, no should or shouldn’t,” Dougherty says. If you make a lot of casseroles, use a crock-pot or are an avid griller who’s outside even when it’s 20 degrees, then don’t invest in a set of expensive pots, pick only the ones you need. Buying cookware is a lifestyle choice that is less about cost and more about how you cook.
Dougherty is in charge of Macy’s private label cookware which is competitively priced and she says gives the high-end lines a run for their money, proving that you don’t have to spend a fortune for good cookware. “We make good stuff. Cookware can be less expensive and still be excellent and still be as beautiful.”
Should you decide to invest in high-end cookware keep in mind that these pieces are optimized for heat distribution and conductivity, meaning they work best with low to medium heat. Crank up the gas and you’ll ruin your food. Using high-end cookware is an education process, like driving a high-end car. A good pan is like a Ferrari. It’s takes a while to figure it out but once you get the feel of it, you find you get better results by finessing, not flooring it.