30 March 2011

One Great Pan vs. One Great Knife

I've got a pretty well-stocked kitchen, but often get questions from folks who want to know where to spend money when they're expanding beyond the basics. Of course, the two most basic pieces of kitchen equipment are the knife and the cooking vessel. (Well, before that, the heat source, of course, but you're less likely to have much choice in that matter.) So, if you're going to spend-up on only one, which should it be? And what should you get. Well, it starts with three levels of equipment: OK, good, and great.

The OK Level

This is the province of the Ikea starter kitchen set, and the place where most people end up. It's fine for those who think more about what they're going to eat tonight than what they're going to cook tonight. Or for those who don't really think about food at all. If you're one of those, you're probably not reading this.

The Good Level

It seems like the first level of kitchen equipment hovers around $60-70. I noticed back when I got out of college that I was quickly going into debt, and most of the purchases that were sending me there were in the $60 range.  Anything in the high $70 range sort of gets rounded up to $100, and it's easy to see where an extra $100 might mean making your rent that month or not. But what's sixty bucks?

In my 20's, I accumulated a lot of cookware and other stuff in the $60 range. Here's the thing about it: It looks like the Great level of cookware, and performs at the OK level. It's almost always a waste of money. As long as what you're cooking with is not actually flimsy or poorly made, you're fine sticking at the OK level.

The Great Level

Okay, so you're going to shoot the moon. You've committed to spending $200 or more on a piece of kitchen equipment. What do you do?


Japanese. All the way.

German drop-forged knives are the standard in American kitchens, but they're usually too chunky to comfortably chop vegetables, which is the most frequent task they'll be used for. The standard chef's knives are ridiculously large and heavy for the skill level of the people who typically use them. They're also usually sold as part of an expensive set, which appears to come with a bunch of extra knives that might be useful, but really just costs money for something you'll rarely if ever use.

Misono 440 Molybdenum Santoku
Go to Korin Japanese in lower Manhattan or korin.com. Japanese knives are really amazing. They're sharpened on a bevel, so that one side of the knife cuts straight, and the other side pushes the food away from the cutting edge. Much more stability and safety. The Misono santoku is my favorite all-round knife in my kitchen. Light, nimble, but substantial enough to work with. Holds an edge forever, but is relatively easy to sharpen.

I'm also a huge fan of virgin carbon steel, too. I have two knives, a gyotou and a petty. One from a stall outside the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, the other from Korin. You have to be a bit careful with carbon steel, because it's brittle (no frozen food) and not stain- or rust-resistant. But, man, does it take an edge. It looks ugly, but gets sharper and stays sharper than anything else. The only downside is the marital strife it causes when my wife uses one to cut a lemon, then leaves it rusting in the lemon juice. Aaargh! (But, of course, she goes for my carbon steel knives every time because they're light and sharp and a pleasure to use.)

One of the most obvious disadvantages is that the knives need to be sharpened a specific way. Luckily, if you don't want to invest in a water stone and developing your sharpening technique, there are plenty of specialized sharpeners at reasonable prices.

What to use while you're saving up

If you're not going to go Japanese, go Victorinox. You'll spend $67, with shipping on these three knives, and they should be enough for most kitchens. Victorinox knives are priced at the OK level and they perform at the Good level.

Knife care: Invest in a block or magnetic strip to hold your knives. If you're going to put them in the dishwasher, expect to sharpen them (a pain) a lot more often. Keep them sharp to minimize accidents. Take a knife skills class; it'll save you time in the kitchen... and maybe an injury or two.


Copper. Sorry. That's just how it is. Preferably Cuprinox. This Mauviel saucier is my favorite.

This is it. This is the desert island pan. I use mine every day. Oatmeal, sausage, marinara, steak, stew, stir-fry, braised short rib, frittatas, stuck pot rice. It just never gets put away. It stays on the stove.

I easily have a dozen other pricey pots and pans (many handed down from my Mom), and you can keep all of 'em. I almost never use them. I wish future-Rich had been around the first time I bought a piece of expensive cookware and told me to get the Mauviel saucier instead. That Le Crueset bouillabaise pot was great for my 20's, when my most frequent big cooking project was a gumbo or a big chili for a party. Now, I want something light and responsive, which copper is. I find the shape so easy to work with for many different uses. These sauciers are getting hard to find, which is a shame.

Side note: I seriously wouldn't ever have gotten this pan if it hadn't been for a mistake. I was testing out different wedding registries in 2008, and put this on my registry. My very generous and kind uncle John was searching for my registry online the same day. I put the saucier on thinking "I wish," never really intending to put it on the registry because what kind of filthy yuppie spends $300 on a single pan. Uncle John snapped it up and it arrived later in the week. Back then, it was way more gift than I'd ever have thought to ask for. Since then, I've given Mauviel copper for wedding gifts more than once.

Having owned this pan for three years, watching the Le Creuset and the All-Clad gathering dust, I'm kicking myself for not having bought one sooner. There's just nothing in my kitchen that performs anything like this pan... unless it's the oval copper roasting pan my old boss got me as a wedding gift.

It took me a long time to become a copper convert, but here I am.

What to use while you're saving up

I don't have any, but Lodge enameled cast iron is very reasonably priced and pretty much has to perform well. If you can hack the care regimen, their regular cast iron is the best deal in cookware. I had a bit of a discovery with my Fagor pressure cooker. I use the pressure cooker about monthly, usually for brown rice or chickpeas. But I use the pot that came along with it all the time. The 8 quart one is a great pasta pot and would make a very good stew pot.

So, which one?

Get a Cuprinox pan and Victorinox knives, then start saving for the Misono santoku.