PRECISE measurements, PRECISE mixing, PRECISE temperatures, PRECISE ingredients and the pan = SUCCESS.
BAKING SHEETS AND PANS:
Pans for baking cookies should be sturdy and non-buckling. Preferred are:
dark rolled steel, black-finished steel, tinned steel and heavy gauge aluminum.
If bakeware is pre-darkened for better heat-absorption, read instructions carefully because some baking materials absorb heat so well, a reduced temperature may be recommended and cooking times vary.
Non-stick surfaces are available but their safety is questionable.
Many pastry chefs prefer well-greased smooth surfaces or parchment paper and the same metals are preferred for baking cake and breads.
Borosilicate glass and stoneware loaf pans are also excellent. Be sure to read the instructions because these may require a 25º lower temperature to avoid darkened crusts. Heavy porcelain or stoneware pie plates are considered very good by many pastry experts because they retain heat, are attractive for serving and easy to clean.
Pan placement in the oven must consider circulation of air. Pans transfer dry heat to batter from all sides. This is why pans must not touch each other. At least one inch should be between pans as well as between pans and oven walls. Never place one pan on a rack directly above another which results in reflected and uneven heat.
Tube pans are for batters that require heat in the center of the batter. The tube provides additional surface for an airy batter to cling as it rises.
After primitive man discovered heat could separate metal from ore, he learned to melt metal and then cast the hot, liquid metal in molds to create three dimensional shapes.
Globally, casting remains a basic method of shaping metal.
Telling FIT students that casting is similar to
making a jello-mold or ‘Creepy Crawlers’,
they understood immediately.
Casting quality cooking pots necessitates avoiding and eliminating impurities in the hot metal and grinding away and polishing surface pitting. Iron cookware is usually cast and some aluminum and copper cookware is cast.
A current line of highly polished aluminum cookware is marketed as ‘sand-cast’, an ancient technique that adds character to the metal finish. Metal handles and knobs are often cast of different metal than the pots—to perform as heat breakers.
The most common technology for producing aluminum and stainless steel pots and pans is called drawing ( also stamping). The equipment to create three-dimensional shapes is highly capital intensive and involves making heavy, positive and negative steel dies.
At one of the factories I visited, pre-cut flat shapes of metal are pressed with great pressure between positive and negative dies (inside and outside shapes) that stretch the metal to assume the shape and depth of the dies. Complex shapes as domed lids, spouts and lids with deep sides usually require more than one set of dies and stamping procedures.
Metal is brittle so it must be annealed before drawing. Annealing means heating metal to ‘relax’ it—to avoid splitting.
The heavier and thicker the gauge of metal,
the heavier and more costly are the required dies and stamping machinery.
Despite the cost, production is fast; uniformity is perfect.
At a renowned Italian factory where cook and serveware for hotels and restaurants as well as international retail markets is designed and made, master chefs collaborated with factory metal experts to produce excellent cookware for the gourmet market.
The master chefs offered “knowledge of the different ways
food passes from raw to the cooked state in order to achieve
gastronomic and nutritional correctness”.
The result is a complete cookware collection of copper, aluminum, stainless steel and iron. Each metal —assigned to shapes appropriate for its designated cooking function.
Copper sauce pans are lined with stainless steel and some add a thin layer of aluminum as a bonding agent. Frying and sauté pans are black iron and a black iron casserole is enameled. Continuity of handle and lid designs unifies the collection. This atypical approach to cookware reminds me of Julia Child’s kitchen peg board of diverse pots and pans—currently on display at the Smithsonian.
A very large inventory of flat copper, aluminum, stainless steel and iron is organized by gauge and awaits transformation into diverse shapes of cook and serve-wares. Metal rods become handles as well as seals for joined edges of metal. Sheet stock is rapidly cut into disks by steel die while rolls of lighter gauged metal pass under a die that moves up and down chopping and spewing circular discs of steel in one direction while passing cut scrap in the other. All scrap is recovered and reprocessed in the metal foundry.
Skilled craftsmen solder spouts, make and affix handles and a myriad of other skills and techniques proving quality cookware production is capital and labor intensive. Costly technology for some products enables speed of production: an example of ‘economies of scale’ that make products more affordable.
Finished wares are taken to the finishing department
where small items are tumbled with pellets of
polishing agents to reduce possibility of sharp edges.
Larger cookware shapes are polished, one piece at a time, using various fabrications and polishing agents. Copper pans are polished as at home —with elbow grease! Each piece of cookware is washed, dried, inspected and boxed for international markets —where they’re destined to become hard-working heirlooms.
After witnessing nuances of quality production in several renowned factories and researching opinions of international master chefs, I’m convinced:
Good quality pots and pans are timeless investments.
They not only cook and serve well,
they’ll outlast the gas and electric stoves that provide their ‘heat’.
Determine your cookware material for heat diffusion properties.
Make sure the interior surface of each product is non-reactive to food.
And you’re ready to choose cookware to serve your needs.
WITH ENDLESS BRANDS, SHAPES, SIZES & PRICES: WHAT SHOULD YOU BUY?
What are the right tools? For each of us, they may differ.
Cookbook author Dione Lucas wrote: “Every piece of equipment that finds its way into your kitchen should pass one test: DOES IT HELP YOU DO GOOD WORK?”
Probably the most ancient cooking utensil, stock pots are made for boiling, simmering, steaming and blanching. They’re tall and relatively narrow to reduce evaporation. The cooking demand of a stock pot is only to reach a boiling point. Although stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat, its suitable for a stock pot, usually made in 8 to 22 quart capacities.
Covered casseroles are usually round or oval and come in many sizes. Very large versions are also called dutch ovens. The absence of long handles suggests oven cooking although recipes for many casserole dishes specify ‘starting’ on top of the stove. Well-fitting lids provide self-basting condensation. Heavy weight ceramic wares, copper, iron, aluminum or enamel on cast iron casseroles can be used for oven-to-table cookery.
Round or elongated for a roast, metal casseroles with two handles and a lid are perfect for braising or browning meat on top of the stove. With the addition of vegetables and stock, wine or gravy, an entrée is ready for gentle, long cooking in the oven or top of the stove. Heat is transmitted to the entire interior of the covered pot.
Ceramic casseroles (heavy terra-cotta, stoneware and porcelain) are excellent for oven cooking but cannot be used for stove-top cooking. Master chefs explain that ceramic casseroles with unglazed exteriors better absorb heat.
Sauce pans should be a heavy with excellent heat distribution for making sauces, boiling, steaming, braising or stewing foods. Sizes range from 1 to 5 quart capacity. Faster cooling is important for sauces, and for this, copper performs exceptionally well.
Sides of a sautéuse pan slope to a small diameter bottom, beneficial for foods that require frequent stirring because of unstable or delicate consistency such as butter, cream or egg sauces. Sloped sides expose a maximum amount of sauce to the air for reduction and facilitate the movement of a whisk. The metal should be a heavy gauge and one that holds heat uniformly.
Skillets are for frying, sautéing, browning, searing, braising, etc. They’re low and wide to encourage evaporation and in theory, any size or shape skillet can be used for frying or sautéing. It’s recommended handles be equal in length to the diameter of the pan for easy maneuvering.
Frying is cooking in oil/fat—but not deep-fat. The oil/fat is heated before food is added in order to cook quickly and evenly, produce a crisp outside and seal natural moisture to prevent food from absorbing fat. Oil/fat must not reach the smoking point that creates a substance having harmful effect on the stomach. Frying pans are shallow with curved or flared sides for turning eggs and crepes.
Skillets for specific foods include: Crepe skillets— must distribute and retain heat. They should be heavy yet light enough to flip. Omelet skillets –must be heavy to respond to and diffuse high heat evenly. Shallow, sloping sides aid in rolling-over omelets.
Sautéing involves shaking the pan to keep food mingling with oil/fat for browning, then usually covered to complete the cooking. Sauté pans have straight sides to contain food while the pan is kept in motion across the burner.
Frying and sauté pans must have flat bottoms of sufficient weight to prevent warping which causes fats and liquids to settle around edges of the pan. The metal of both should be a heavy-gauge that transmits heat evenly and steadily. Iron, copper and aluminum are good. Iron prevents abrupt temperature changes inside the pan but can discolor some foods. To prevent this, some iron skillets are lined with enamel.
A flambé pan is placed over a burner (a wick fueled by alcohol) intended for preparing foods at the dining table. This is a fast way of cooking so the pan must adjust quickly to a wide range of flame.
Fish fillets, medallions of meat and sweet and savory crepes are typical flambéed foods.
High or low sides?
Roasting means cooking with dry heat—yet there’s professional controversy whether a roasting pan should have high or low sides. Meat thermometers are recommended because each requires different cooking times. Roasting pans should have a rack to keep roasts elevated and may or may not have a cover. Handles must have a good grip and be securely riveted.
James Beard preferred a roaster with low sides. He placed meat on a rack to keep it out of the fat and allow air to circulate around the roast.
Complimented on her pot roast, my Mother replied, “It’s the pan”, a high-sided, heavy aluminum roasting pan, covered to create steam and a moist and tender roast.
Fish poachers are elongated covered pans with a rack that can be adjusted to different heights for boiling, simmering, steaming and braising fish. They’re also good for foods of unusual size.
Multi-task inserts are currently marketed by many manufacturers to extend stock pots and sauce pans into service as pasta cooker/strainers, steamers, hot oil fry baskets, etc. They’re practical, save space and ultimately, save money.
Classifications for pot & pans seem endless. Bain-marie, paella, griddles, wok, gratin, terrines, couscousiere, soufflés, marmites are but a few. If specific names of pans for your favorite foods are not listed, information about fabrication still applies.
Some cooking methods require moisture or fat. Some require dry heat. Some pot shapes encourage evaporation. Some discourage evaporation. Some metals heat slowly, and cool slowly. Some heat fast and cool fast. Some distribute heat better than others.
International dining, celebrity TV chefs, recreating meals at home, metallurgy technology and brand-marketing continue to expand cookware products exponentially. Because new cookware looks good doesn’t mean it is good.
Every brand extols a bias of superiority as they promote matched sets of ‘pots & pans’ which may not result in the best material or shape pan for each cooking task. ‘Set’ price incentives most probably includes sizes you don’t need nor want.
What shape pan to use? Will it conduct and hold heat? Will the metal have a chemical reaction to food? These can be as important as the ingredients.
Q. Should you buy a complete set of matching cookware to save money or buy the best pots for the foods you cook, as Julia Child, even though they don’t match?
A. Begin by choosing the best raw material for each of your cooking needs.
IRON: Iron, the Third Metal Age, is second to aluminum as a common element found in ores. Iron was used by prehistoric man for weapons and later, to make both utilitarian and ornamental objects. Iron is soft, ductile and malleable and the basic component of steel. Cast iron is an alloy of iron; carbon is added as a hardener.
Benefits: Absorbs heat evenly, excellent conductor of heat—released slowly, durable. Drawbacks: Rusts, stains, pits and is usually heavy, sometimes too heavy.
Cast iron cookware (shaped by casting) releases some iron into food—considered desirable as a dietary nutrient that produces red blood cells. Iron regulates heat and prevents abrupt temperature changes inside the pan. These pots are excellent for foods cooked slowly over even heat.
Iron pans must be seasoned before use (some are pre-seasoned by the manufacturer) and must be dried thoroughly after washing to prevent rust. Iron casseroles and dutch ovens can be used to cook inexpensive cuts of meat slowly, making them excellent for stews, succulent pot-roasts, etc.
Enamel-on-cast-iron cookware is expensive but it has heat distribution advantages of iron and hygienic advantages that eliminate problems of rust, stains and pitting and enamel finishes are attractive for oven-to-table serving.
COPPER: As the First Metal Age, copper is one of the earliest metals man employed for both ornamental and functional use. Copper is malleable, ductile, resistant to corrosion and second only to silver as a conductor of heat and electricity. A superb conductor of heat, copper is called “the jewel of the kitchen”.
Benefits: A superb conductor of heat, copper is sensitive to temperature changes, heats quickly,evenly and cools quickly when removed from heat. Drawbacks: Quality copper pans are expensive and must be lined to avoid toxic reaction with foods— although unlined copper is used for candy and egg whites. If you don’t want to polish pots and pans, copper is not for you.
Heavy gauge copper pans are preferred by chefs who demand superior heat control and are willing to pay for it. Hammered copper is exceptionally strong. Because copper is toxic in contact with many foods, it has been traditionally lined with tin for purity—but because tin is soft and eventually requires relining, better quality copper pans are now lined with stainless steel or nickel. Iron or brass handles often perform as heat breakers on copper cookware.
TIN: Used since ancient times, tin was alloyed with copper to make bronze and tin is the major metal in pewter. Tin is corrosion resistant, ductile and exceptionally malleable. But tin is soft, scratches easily and has a melting temperature of 450º, making tin a poor choice for cookware—with the exception of saucepans and fish poachers used for foods cooked at lower temperatures.
Benefits: Tin is pure. It holds no taste and does not interact with foods. Drawbacks: Tin is soft, not strong and has a melting temperature of 450º.
Tin’s purity and lack of interaction with color, taste and flavor make it a superb housing for food. (I have a tin canister set.) Exceptions to the drawbacks of tin are saucepans and fish poachers used for foods cooked at low temperatures. Tin was the lining of choice for copper pans but because tin eventually requires re-lining, the lining of choice has become stainless steel.
ALUMINUM: Aluminum, the most abundant of metals, was not isolated until the 19th Century. It is second in usage to iron/steel. Aluminum is lightweight, easy to shape, and an excellent conductor of heat.
Aluminum is harder and stronger when alloyed with magnesium, manganese, nickel, chrome, zinc, iron or copper. Producers of aluminum cookware use these alloyed variations to create finishes that cannot chip, crack, peel or rust.
Anodizing is an electro-chemical finish integrated with underlying aluminum for total bonding, which means the surface is extremely hard, durable, corrosion resistant and long-lasting. Anodized aluminum is chemically stable, non-toxic and will not decompose. Finishes of anodized aluminum cookware may be polished, brushed and ‘blackened’.
Benefits: Excellent conductor of heat—but less than copper. Affordable. Drawbacks: Can pit and interact and discolor acidic foods as fruits and tomatoes, alkaline ones like milk and sulfur rich foods as eggs.
Aluminum cookware is usually lined with stainless steel to provide non-reactive surface for all foods. Prices depend upon the thickness and weight of the gauge of the metal. The smaller the gauge number, the thicker and heavier the pan. 1 or 2 ply aluminum cookware is commonly used as a light weight substrate for release surfaces.
If pans are lightweight, warping is inevitable and if release-coated aluminum pans reach very high temperatures, non-stick surfaces can deteriorate. Multi-layers (2 to 5 plies) of sandwiched aluminum, provide heat diffusion and good weight to negate warping.
STEEL: Steel is 85% iron alloyed with other elements. High carbon steel is 12% carbon and similar but harder than cast iron making it good for wok cooking but, like iron, can rust. Nickel steel and aluminum steel are lightweight steels commonly used for baking. They provide better rust resistance.
STAINLESS STEEL: Stainless steel is stain less—not stain proof. An alloy of iron, chrome and nickel, stainless steel was developed in England in 1913. Different formulas have varying tensile strength. 18/8 and 18/10 means iron is alloyed with 18 parts chrome and 8 or 10 parts nickel. 18/10 is superior.
Stainless steel is an excellent contact surface for food because it is non-reactive. In fact, stainless steel is the least reactive of any cookware metal, making it a superior lining for aluminum or copper cookware which diffuse heat very well.
Benefits: Non-reactive, hygienic, easy to clean, great tensile strength, non-porous and durable. Drawbacks: Very poor heat diffusion, uneven cooking, discolors from overheating.
Because of its strength and durability, stainless steel is often used as both an interior and exterior surface in multi-ply cookware having an inner core of aluminum or copper to provide uniform heat distribution throughout the entire pan.
This is called sandwich construction because 2 to 5 flat single layers or plies of a metal or a mix of metals as steel, aluminum and/or copper are fused by electricity and pressure into a solid sheet before a pan is shaped and provides the desired heft which is not likely to warp.
Cladding means that a layer or coating of aluminum or copper has been applied by electrolysis to the bottom of the pan. Some stainless steel pans are ‘cladded’ with copper or aluminum but the cladded layer is usually too thin to provide a diffusion benefit and the temperature of the pan wall is inconsistent.
PORCELAIN ENAMEL ON METAL: A vitreous, ceramic-glass coating fused to steel or iron with intense heat.
Benefits: The enamel is non-porous, imparts no taste to food and is oven-to-table presentable. Usually colorful. Drawbacks: These can be an investment purchase—especially enamel on cast iron. Large sizes are heavy and enamel can chip.
Cooking performance: Enamel on steel: cooking properties of steel–meaning poor heat diffusion.
Enamel on cast-iron: cooking properties of iron—meaning superior heat diffusion.
CERAMIC: Ceramic cookware can be porcelain, stoneware and terra-cotta.
Benefits: From bean pots to casseroles to roasters, ceramic cookware is nonreactive and won’t change the taste and color of food. It diffuses and retains heat well. Labels should specify if they are ‘oven-to-table’. Drawbacks: Meats must be browned first in a metal pan on top of the stove and transferred to a ceramic dish for continued cooking in the oven. Ceramics are breakable.
GLASS: Borosilicate and tempered glass. In1915, Corning introduced a clear, low-thermal-expansion borosilicate glass for laboratory glass and kitchenware; trademarkedPYREX;(each letter is uppercase).
Tempered glass is glass changed by thermal or chemical processes to resist breakage. Many metal pans currently marketed have tempered glass lids, (an advantage of visually checking the cooking progress). Glass doesn’t leach harmful ingredients or chemicals into food.
Benefits: Borosilicate glass products are suitable for oven and microwave cooking and some may even be used for stove-top cooking. (Prior to the 1940’s, Pyrex was borosilicate glass; but no longer….see above). Read all labels before using glass cookware. Drawbacks: Glass is not freezer-to-oven and can shatter.
MICROWAVE CONTAINERS: No metal product or product with metal ornamentation should be placed in a microwave oven. Microwaves cannot enter through metal; they’re reflected back into the magnetron causing damage.
Safe microwave containers include glass, Pyrex, porcelain, paper and plastic. These must not have metal findings and ornamentation…. including metallic glazes. Because some clays have high iron content, it’s important to verify which ceramic dishes are safe for use in a microwave.
Read how cookware originated and is artisan and mass-produced today, from raw materials to finished products. I’m privileged to share criteria of quality for these everyday products entrusted to me by international experts at renowned factories where I became an EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY!
Brand names change, styles change and prices change, TIMELESSCRITERIA OF QUALITY FOR EVERYDAY HOME PRODUCTS
DO NOT CHANGE.
Man learned to control and use fire over four hundred thousand years ago! History and Science museum vignettes feature primitive peoples cooking fish and wild life over an open fire and near-by, heating clay pots of grain. Millenniums later, we still cook this way, but most of us use matches.
Eventually, fire was contained indoors in tiles and brick and foods were cooked at the hearth. Stoves appeared in the 17th Century and a patent was issued for a ‘cast-iron-even-heating-range’ with a flue in 1802. These were only for warming and baking; pots of food were still cooked in the fireplace. Stove-top cooking began when coal burning stoves were developed mid-nineteenth century. Gas cooking was developed in 1802 but thirty years passed before gas stoves were safe. Electric stoves appeared in 1890.
And the POTS:
Chronological Ages of man’s development are: COPPER 5,000 B.C. BRONZE 3,000 B.C. ( an alloy of copper/ tin ) IRON 1,000 B.C.
Archeologists labeled these ages because of surviving decorative artifacts crafted by metalsmiths using fire for extracting metals from ore, fire for developing alloys and fire for creating shapes. Historians know that metal weapons and utilitarian objects followed but an accurate time-line for cooking wares has not been established.
The first cooking pots were made of clay and many cultures still cook in clay pots. Sometime after the Bronze and Iron Ages, bronze and iron cooking pots were made by blacksmiths—similar to the early clay pots and to the pots we use today. It’s recorded that a copper sauce pan was used in the 14th Century.
As metallurgists developed and perfected alloys and shaping methods, great cuisines developed in many cultures, especially the Chinese, Italian and French. From these cultures, specific pots were shaped to cook specific dishes. Blacksmiths were the first in America to create and sell cooking pots in all shapes and sizes. An iron cooking pot was introduced in 1644 in Massachusetts where one of Paul Revere’s ventures was a copper rolling mill.
The Industrial Revolution spawned a Middle Class who filled their homes with amenities as pots and pans made of cast iron and later, aluminum; typically sold by peddlers from horse drawn carts. Copper pots were in the homes of the wealthy. Stainless steel, an alloy of iron-chrome-nickel, was developed in 1913 and by the 1930’s was used for cookware experiments. Steel, harder than previous alloys, required modification of machinery and new technology.
After World War II, stainless steel became the dominating metal used for mass-produced pots and pans. Because steel is a poor conductor of heat, a heat diffusing cladding of aluminum or copper (too thin to be beneficial) was added to the bottom of each pan. Brand manufacturers marketed complete sets of these shiny wares and promoted benefits of easy cleaning, durability and hygiene. These styles were repeated for decades with little change.
When my mother replaced our dull aluminum pots and pans with the ubiquitous stainless steel pans with copper-clad bottoms, polishing copper became a daily routine.
I wondered why there were scorch spots inside the shiny pans when I heated milk—even though the milk wasn’t hot enough to melt the cocoa.I didn’t understand heat diffusion, but these‘not-very-good’ pans looked pretty, especially after polishing.
GASTRONOMY MEETS TECHNOLOGY:
The 1960’s chronicled dramatic lifestyle changes in America. Lack of domestic help, television and international travel awakened our interest in cooking and dining and aligned all elements for the triumph of Julia Child’s public television cooking show.
Julia Child didn’t originate French Cooking: she made it accessible to millions who watched with delight as she taught us about ingredients and cooking techniques. With new vocabulary and great authority, we ordered and critiqued ‘her’ foods in restaurants. Following is my favorite quote from Ms. Child:
“Theoretically a good cook should be able to perform under
any circumstances, but cooking is much easier, pleasanter and more efficient if you have the right tools” . Julia Child
After each of her shows, desire to emulate her recipes created instant demand in our Gift Gallery for the specific implements used by Ms. Child. Because selections of French cookware from New York importers were limited, authentic cookware— indigenous to each country— became a major quest for my next European buying trip. Experts in every artisan studio, atelier and mass-production factory demonstrated: quality is a synthesis of raw materials and production methods.
Searching for the ‘right tools’ in Paris, I selected soufflé dishes in countless colors, patterns and sizes; all round, straight-sided and porcelain. Cravings for cheese soufflé drew me to the dining room of the Plaza Atheneé where visions of a tall, puffy savory were interrupted by the presentation of a rectangular, slope-sided, silver loaf pan…filled with my tall, puffy, savory!
Maitre d’:“Is zere something wrong, Mademoiselle?”
Me :“I thought soufflé was made in a round, straight-sided porcelain dish?“
Maitre d’:“Ah, Mademoiselle, ze secret of ze soufflé is ze temperature
of ze oven—-and—EXPERIANCE”.
Introduced to porcelain as cookware in Paris showrooms, I chose fruit and flower designs for porcelain saucepans and other utilitarian wares hoping they would call attention to all of our new cookware. Within days of putting them on display, all were sold: many customers already knew the delight of cooking in porcelain pots and were surprised to find this classic French cookware in Buffalo.
Our French commissionaire also brought me to the historic meat packing district in Paris—and home to restaurant supply houses furnishing implements for French chefs. Ogling cavernous metal pots, I asked who needed such pans? Jean Pierre asked “Have you never heard of rub-a dub-dub?” He grinned and added that when he was in the army, many-a-day he could have filled them with potatoes.
From France and Italy I ordered copper egg-beating bowls, sauce pans, roasting pans, gratin and flambé pans, and after enjoying beef fondue in Zurich, ordered authentic copper fondue pots in Switzerland. Charmed by presentations of products in the Food Halls and Cookware Departments of Harrods in London, I realized their displays didn’t look commercial!
I bought an antique hanging balance scale for the Gift Gallery to showcase French whisks and other small essentials. Customers squealed as they pinched rolls on our table settings: they were fresh! Newspaper publicity generated traffic and sales of our international cookware began to escalate. Similar stories must have unfolded in every retail store in the developed world as gastronomy and technology began to converge.
Young or old, male or female shoppers in today’s cookware departments are overwhelmed by similar products with inexplicable price differences, multiple brands of duplicate products (each extolling superiority), no label transparency and misinformation from untrained salespersons. WOW!
Consumers know what styles they like;
they just don’t know how to differentiate product quality.
Some consumers buy expensive products; assuming they’re best. Some consumers buy ‘bargains’; assuming they’re a good deal. Some consumers buy brands favored by parents; ………….assuming the brand is still good. BUT: GOOD QUALITY CANNOT BE ASSUMED!
Timeless, unbiased, generic principles of quality from international experts convinced me: no one can judge the quality of cookware without knowing and understanding the materials and production methods used to make it.
The breadth and complexity of raw materials and production methods used today is extensive; not all have merit. However, when new: all cookware looks good!
I give you the lowdown on the cooking performance of each fabrication and potential uses for pot sizes and shapes to help you buy only what you need. One ‘size’ doesn’t fit all! Everyone who needs new pots and pans and everyone who regrets past purchases of pots and pans can benefit from this information.
Julia Child chose diverse brands and shapes of diverse metals because she demanded performance for each food. Her pegboard of cookware is on permanent display at the Smithsonian.
Today, cookware marketing is a biased-brand-name game.
Brand names are meant to build confidence and consumer loyalty, earned by product performance : not expensive public relations and promotion. Some brand-name cookware manufacturers do maintain a standard of excellence but many coast on a good reputation —no longer deserved. What manufacturer admits their products are less-than-good?
We must stop being programmed by ‘brand-marketing spin’and we must demand labeling transparency for all cookware in order to consciously assess raw materials and production methods used to make each cookware product.
The age of dinnerware provides a clue about the risk of lead poisoning.
Dishes produced before 1971 are more likely to contain dangerous levels of lead even though many dishes produced before 1971 do not contain lead.
If you can identify the manufacturer and pattern name, you can contact them to learn more about the glaze used and the possibility of lead.
Even if dishes originally did not leach lead—but are now chipped or scratched by steak knives—or if the pattern has begun to wear off, using them is not worth the health risk. The FDA recommends using a home test kit to determine lead content.
Most suspect for lead are: folk pottery, hand-crafted dishes and patterns made prior to 1971 when the FDA set standards for lead usage in dinnerware.
Is the glaze in good condition?
If glaze is crazed or crackled, the dinnerware might have been stored in a hot attic or damp cellar. Temperature and humidity affect the contraction and expansion of earthenware clay bodies and glazes which in turn causes crazing and crackling. Crazes, cracks and chips in earthenware may hold bacteria and should not be used for food.
How long does dinnerware last?
All dishes break, yet many of us use dishes belonging to our grandparents. Good care, minimal usage and excellent storage keeps ceramic dinnerware looking good for several generations— although it’s advisable to test old dinnerware for lead. Daily usage and constant swishing of dishwasher detergents takes a toll on the glaze and pattern decorations of ceramic dinnerware.
Do you know the generic name of the clay?
Each kind of generic clay imparts characteristics of delicacy and/or sturdiness which affects purity and durability. Most dinnerware has a manufacturer’s logo stamped and fired on the bottom of each piece. So if you’re not sure of the generic name of the clay— (experience has taught me not to trust the seller’s opinion),check the manufacturer’s website.
Where was the dinnerware made?
Most developed nations have mass-produced and exported reliable dinnerware for the last 200 years. However, there is possible danger of lead leaching into food from contemporary folk pottery dishes from developing nations. It’s suggested these wares be used only as decoration.
Is the dinnerware well-finished?
All edges of ceramic dishes, including foot rims, must be smooth and there should be no visible mold marks on a top surface. Spouts, handles and finials must not look ‘added-on’, they should appear seamless.
Is the pattern a decal or hand-painted?
Just because a pattern is hand-painted, ‘sloppy’ is unacceptable. All patterns, whether transfer or decal, must appear seamless. If an applied pattern shows excessive signs of wear, pass.
Never fall in love with a dinnerware pattern without learning the generic name of the clay. Is it earthenware, stoneware, bone china or porcelain? If dinnerware is decorated, determine the type of glaze: underglaze—overglaze, and be sure the glaze is lead free.
This information should be available in the retail store but if your answers are unsatisfactory, contact the manufacturer. Any ceramic dishes with metallic decoration, should NOT be used in a microwave oven or dishwasher.
You can’t simply ‘look’ at dinnerware shapes and know what kind of mold was used to make each piece— because all finished pieces must have uniform wall thickness. All flat surfaces must be smooth—without excesses of glaze or pin-point holes in the glaze. Pin-point markings beneath each plate are the result of stacking pins used to separate dishes during firing and are unavoidable.
Visible mold marks and visible joinings as cup handles or
rough edges anywhere—including foot rims—indicate
care was not taken to perfect each piece in its greenware
or bisque state. This is sloppy ‘craftsmanship’.
Determine the care with which patterns have been applied. If a decal, seams must be invisible where the ends of each decal are joined. If hand-painted, execution must be excellent.
Examine the following elements to judge if production quality is good.
GENERIC NAME OF THE CLAY:
The generic name of each clay provides direction
for the care and durability of dinnerware.
All generic clay as earthenware, stoneware, porcelain and bone china contains elements that impart characteristics of delicacy and/or sturdiness and also affect purity, firing temperature and durability.
Several catalogs recently identified dinnerware made of ‘chip-resistant white clay’; a specious phrase to create an impression of durability and not the name of a clay.
All glazed ceramic surfaces must be unblemished and void of warping, porosity, and pit marks. The thickness of clay must be uniform. All ceramic products having handles, spouts or any part molded separately and ‘pasted-on‘, must have no indication they were ‘added-on’. Finished products must appear seamless.
Crazing and crackling are fine lines in a glaze usually caused by non-fitting glazes or a wrong firing temperature or they may be deliberately forced by a factory to sell as ‘instant-antiques’. Extremes of temperature causes crazing and crackling in glazed ceramics because clay and glaze contract and expand at different rates. This may happen if dishes are stored in a cellar or attic. Request assurance that any lead in the glaze of the dishes you like, meets consumer standards established by the FDA.
Mold marks must not be visible on dinnerware. These should be removed in the greenware stage prior to firing. Marks from small stacking-pins used to separate wares during firing are hard to avoid but should be present only on the bottom of each piece.
‘Foot rims’, the ridge upon which every piece of dinnerware ‘sits’, must be smooth. Manufacturers may grind them smooth or they may be glazed to avoid damaging the table top as well as tops of other plates if dishes are stacked upon each other.
HAND PAINTED DESIGNS:
Insist upon excellence. The beauty of hand work is the lack of perfect uniformity, not the lack of standards. Hand painted dinnerware will be more expensive, as Maiolica or Delft.
I chose hand-painted Italian maiolica dinner plates in a
NYC department store and wanted twelve. After examining
several dozen, only nine were acceptable. The hand-painting
was sloppy and careless— and both sales and management
personnel rationalized the poor quality saying, “but they’re hand-painted”.
Yes, badly hand-painted. The plates should never have been
shipped by the factory —and should have been rejected by the
store—and I should not have been dismissed with such a shoddy
excuse for such shoddy merchandise. The plates and the store
were poor ‘quality’.
DECALS OR TRANSFER DESIGNS:
All designs must appear seamless. Just as you would not purchase clothing
if a pattern did not meet at the seams, this standard applies to transfers or decals on dinnerware.
CUPS AND SAUCERS:
When I helped couples select dinnerware in the Gift Gallery, grooms were most concerned for the comfort of the cup handle. And if a teaspoon easily slid from the rim of the saucer into the cup well as the cup was lifted—the pattern was immediately rejected.
Metallic decorations are the last thing ‘fired’ in a kiln because they require a low temperature. Metallic trim is also ‘soft’ and eventually wears away so metallic trimmed dishes should never be washed in a dishwasher: the combination of swirling hot water and detergent is too abrasive.
Nor should metallic trimmed dishes be used in a microwave oven
because microwaves cannot pass through metal: they damage the
oven if reflected back into the magnetron.
Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY
My next post is: JUDGING VINTAGE CERAMIC DINNERWARE
Every culture has produced ceramic dinner ware in shapes and sizes to enhance special culinary skills. Unusual shapes include flowers, shells, cabbages, asparagus, corn and even playing cards. Currently, round dishes prevail, although square and rectangular are increasingly popular.
RIMMED PLATES have flat outer rims higher than the center of the plate. Rims serve as a picture frame for plated foods. COUPE PLATES are gently sloped and have no rim. EDGES of any shape may be plain, ornate, or fluted.
In the United States, a five-piece place setting of dinnerware includes one cup, one saucer, saucer, one bread and butter, one salad/dessert plate and one dinner plate.
Some manufacturers include a soup/cereal bowl instead of a bread and butter plate. Casual patterns may include a mug instead of a cup and saucer, which makes it a four-piece place setting.
In countries where coffee or tea are not traditionally served
with or after a meal, matching cups and saucers are not part
of a place setting. When a pattern is sold as open stock, an
advantage is that each place setting piece and serving piece
can be purchased separately.
Traditional shapes for coffee and tea cups are derived from their indigenous origin. Non-traditional shapes are also made by quality dinnerware manufacturers. COFFEE CUPS: straight sided in sizes up to lattѐ. TEA CUPS: low and wide with a rounded profile. AFTER DINNER CUPS: smaller than regular sizes. DEMITASSE CUPS: very small.
BREAD AND BUTTER…….6 ½ ” – 6 ¾”also hors d’ouvres or side plates. SALAD OR DESSERT.…….7 ½” – 8 ½” LUNCHEON.……………….9″ DINNER……………………10½” – 10 ¾” BUFFET…………………….12″
CONSOMME CUPS: ‘cup sized bowl’ with or without handles. SOUP/CEREAL BOWLS: 6 – 8” bowl without handles. SOUP/PASTA PLATES: 8 – 10″ shallow bowl usually rimmed. CREAM SOUP BOWLS: 5 – 7” bowl with double handles and saucer. Double handles are more expensive than single handled bowls because it’s difficult to achieve two ‘perfect’ handles.
Platters of all sizes and shapes • Vegetable dishes with or without covers • Casseroles • Tureens • Gravy boats • Relish dishes • Salad bowls • Creamers and sugar bowls • Salt & Pepper shakers …..and for some patterns, the list goes on and on and on…………
Left-over platters and casseroles from sets of broken dinnerware are reasons to forego matching serving dishes. Tables can look more interesting with enamel, steel, silver or oven-to-table serving dishes.
Traditionally, 20 piece starter sets are four 5-piece place settings. Contemporary and casual patterns may include soup bowls instead of bread and butter plates.
16 piece starter sets may include four each of mugs, soup/cereal bowls, salad/dessert plates, and dinner plates.
Dinnerware manufacturers usually offer set savings when purchasing service for 8 or 12. Sets may include serving pieces which are considerably more expensive than place-setting pieces. If you subtract the retail value of serving pieces, savings may be negligible—and you may own serving dishes you don’t want or need.
Open stock means any single piece of a pattern is available to consumers. When a pattern is sold only as a set, single pieces might not be available. But ceramic dishes break. It’s said cups break first but breakage is not reserved for cups; we also break salad plates, soup bowls, saucers, etc.
While a pattern remains open-stock, any piece may be added or replaced. It’s also an opportunity to add unusual sizes and shapes for your favorite foods. Patterns are usually produced as long as they remain popular.
An executive from a prestigious dinnerware company
couldn’t understand why brides felt compelled to
choose formal dinnerware,” it’s incongruous for the
way most of them will entertain”.
Company dinnerware does not have to be delicate or formal bone china or porcelain. Julia Child used Arabia of Finland’s robust dark brown RUSKA stoneware to plate French cuisine.
Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY
My next post is: JUDGING THE QUALITY OF CERAMIC DINNERWARE
The following relief designs can be hand-crafted by removing or adding clay motifs to the surface of greenware (dry clay shapes not yet fired) before firing and glazing. Mass-produced relief designs are created as part of the mold. • Sgraffito: Designs are incised or scratched into clay—the origin of ‘graffiti’. • Raised design: Clay is applied to greenware as if decorating a cake. • Pierced design: Perforations made in greenware before firing to a bisque stage.
APPLIED TO BISQUE OR GLOSTWARE:
Transfers were the first successful mechanization of uniform decorations for dinnerware. Drawings are engraved or etched on a copper plate. The design is printed on tissue paper with oil-based color and rubbed or transferred— on bisque wares and fired. Colors are transferred one at a time.
Lithograph designs are screened in full color onto film-coated paper with china paints. Decals are soaked in water allowing the design to ‘slide’ onto bisque or glost wares.
Skilled workers press each soaked decal in place seamlessly on each shape and hand sponges it to make sure the application is perfect before firing. Paper burns off in the firing.
This is time consuming and requires skilled artists with standards of excellence.
Pigments are mixed with ‘fat oil’ and aniseed for consistency. Some designs require several firings because different colored glazes require different temperatures. Designs may be embellished with enamel colors and/or metallic paints but must be fired again.
SEQUENCE OF GLAZES AND DECORATIONS:
After clay shapes are dry, they’re ‘cooked’ in a kiln, glazed and fired. If decorated with a decal or hand painted pattern, they’re fired again. Clay bodies and glazes must ‘fit’ ’ each clay body. This means shrinkage and firing temperatures for both clay and glaze are compatible.
Unlike earthenware, porcelain, bone china and stoneware are high-fire clays that vitrify in the bisque stage and require glaze only to provide a glassy surface for cutting and avoid stains from food. Although these clays can be dried, glazed, decorated and fired in a single sequence, some factories prefer to first apply and fire a transparent glaze (glost) prior to decorations for easier application of patterns. During a second firing, a hand-painted or decal decoration penetrates through the fired glaze to become very durable.
Glazed and fired dinnerware without decoration are called blanks.
Blanks are marketed as white dinnerware or they are decorated with glazes, decals and/or hand-painted patterns. Labor costs increase each time a clay body is handled for shaping, glazing, decoration and firing which makes complex designs more expensive to produce.
White dinnerware is and should be cheaper because production and labor costs are less. This changes the price; not the quality.
Many couples shopping in the Gift Gallery preferred the simplicity
and versatility of white dinnerware. They were puzzled because
plain white dishes were much less expensive than patterned dishes.
They’d ask, “But are they good?
I’d select different patterns at different prices in their preferred
brand and shape and place the bread and butter plates upside-down
so the bottoms of each plate were identical.
Asking the couple to select the ‘best’ brought quizzical smiles. They realized quality was identical: more costly plates are more costly decorated.
Metallics, a final touch:
Because metallic ornamentation has a low melting point and must be fired at a low temperature, it’s applied after all other ornamentation has been fired. Specialists apply metallic edges, bands and borders to circular ceramic shapes placed on a whirler —which they rotate with one hand as they hold a paint brush loaded with metallic pigments steady with their other hand.
As if by magic, the artist, the whirler, the brush, the paint and plates add up to painted bands of perfection! After cooling, these designs require hand-burnishing with agate or other materials to enhance the metallic shine.