I was having dinner recently with a couple who was planning to move in together for the first time. While sipping sake and nibbling on bits of fried things with chopsticks, we talked about the pleasures of boxing up belongings, dealing with rental trucks and movers, and because things always seem to turn toward food, we eventually discussed the best way to outfit a new kitchen. They were both ready to upgrade from the cheap non-stick pans they'd acquired in a boxed set from Target, and they wanted to know what kind of pans they should buy to get started.
I was hesitant to even advise because I already knew what kind of pans they would buy. I could extol the virtues of inexpensive, functional cookware for these two young, fledgling cooks, but even though they were asking for advice they'd already decided they were going to buy one of those shiny new stainless steel sets that cost hundreds of dollars at Williams Sonoma or Sur La Table.
Pans like these look good, are easy to take care of, and feel right at home on a wedding registry. They also make us feel like we're big shot chefs, or at least that we're better cooks than we really might be when we light a fire beneath them. The problem is, chefs and other pros rarely use All-Clad, Mauviel and other luxury brands. In fact, most of those brands are a waste of money.
If you want to cook like a chef, pick up a blue steel pan like the one pictured above. This is the type of pan you'll see on most lines around Dallas, and at professional kitchens around the world. An 8-inch skillet will set you back 40 bucks and will outlive your own culinary aspirations. A comparable All-Clad pan will set you back $120 and give you a fraction of the performance. Good luck frying an egg in one of those "beauties." What you're paying for is aesthetics.
If you don't believe me, ask your favorite chef. Brian Luscher says blue steel is used at The Grape exclusively, and that he values the pans for its high heat conductivity -- the property of steel that helps you put a super-crunchy sear on your fish or chicken skin, and lets you delicately control temperature on the fly. Luscher also cited the seasoning you can get on pans that have been used a while.
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Think you need Teflon to turn an egg without ripping it apart? "I am so old we use to make omelets in them in French restaurants in the late '70s," says John Tesar of Knife. A well-seasoned steel pan is just as non-stick as those synthetic coatings, and the surface won't flake or peel and contaminate your cooking.
Lucia's sous chef, Justin Holt, worships blue steel. "They last forever, heat well and are easy to clean," he says, before pointing out that they're also nearly indestructible. "They're heavy duty enough to drive nails," he says. Matt McCallister at FT33 also praises their durability.
If you have a cast iron skillet for steak searing and cornbread making, you already know how wonderful a well-seasoned, natural metal surface is to work with. Imagine a cast iron skillet you can lift comfortably with one hand that is delicate enough to sear fish without cooking it away into oblivion. You also already know everything you need to know about caring for and seasoning a blue steel pan. The process is identical to cast iron.
Blue steel isn't perfect -- it will rust if it stays wet or in a humid environment. That seasoning thing can be a bitch, too. If you're not firing 40 lamb chop orders in one pan every night it can take some time before something as delicate as an egg won't stick. But the pan above is evidence that blue steel has its place in the home kitchen. And with such a low cost, you're a sucker if you don't try blue steel, or as Brian Luscher refers to it: "the trusty workhorse of the hot line."