I think the most commonly used cooking pan nowadays is probably a non-stick coated pan. People love that food, especially mushy stuff like eggs or rice, don’t stick to a pan. No doubt a non-stick pan can be used by even an inexperienced cook, but did you just accept without questioning that it is the best for cooking? Often times, it is actually useful for food to be stuck to a pan – the charred and burnt part of the food. That’s right, if nothing gets stuck to a non-stick pan, even the charred and burnt part of the food DOESN’T get stuck and you’ll be eating all that carcinogenic stuff!
One fine day i was wondering, what kind of pan is the best for cooking. In general, there are 4 types of pans – non-stick (with a few variations), stainless steel, cast iron and ceramic (not the coated type). I won’t go into details, but if you Google for it, you’ll find tonnes of information telling you about how toxic a non-stick coated pan is. Well, perhaps some day i will completely do away with non-stick pans, but for the time being, i will still use it, with extra care not to scratch it nor subject it to high heat. From forum postings, i found my answers to my curiosity about stainless steel and cast iron pans. I think i have mostly avoided using them due to the sticking issue, but in actual fact, they’re non-stick enough for cooking most food.
The trick with using a stainless steel pan is said to be heating up the pan and pouring cold (room temperature) oil onto it before cooking. Whether the aforementioned method works (i always did as suggested), i’m not so sure, but I found out that the stainless steel pan is actually more non-stick than i always thought it isn’t. The advantage of using a stainless steel pan is even heat distribution, durability (use of metal utensils is fine), plus it is truly completely safe. It works fine for general cooking, is useful for preparing sauces by doing deglazing – specifically, scraping up all the charred or even burnt bits at the bottom of the pan. This is something i am unwilling to do even now, but i’ve come to realize that those charred parts are not as bad as they look. Certainly, they are not as burnt as they would be in the case of using a non-stick pan. This is even more so in the case of a cast iron pan – i found that whatever you scrape from the bottom of a cast iron pan is never burnt, which is why i’m loving cast iron. What sticks to the bottom of the pan is the most tasty part, and this is the whole idea behind deglazing. Scrape as much as you can from the bottom of the pan and mix it with the food you’re cooking.
The single downside of using cast iron is the weight. It is almost impossible to lift the pan (especially with food inside) with a single hand, so you basically have to leave the pan on the stove all the time when cooking and scooping out food. A cast iron pan requires performing seasoning every time you’re done with using it, whereby you have to heat it up and apply oil, to keep it from rusting and to keep the pan non-stick. Since this takes only a few minutes, it doesn’t bother me at all.
Overall, i love using a cast iron pan. It is perfect for searing meat and cooking tasty stuff using the deglazing method. It is also a means of getting Tze Char (stir fried) style Wok Hei (caramelizing) at home, because the cast iron can store up a lot of heat, and so simulate the high powered gas stoves in a real Tze Char kitchen. It is more non-stick than a stainless steel pan and is very forgiving – you can hardly get burnt food out of it.
Cast iron pans are not so popular in this part of the world (actually a wok is made of cast iron, but it’s not quite the same idea) and it’s cheaper to get them from from Taobao or Amazon. I got mine from Taobao (shipped via sea freight of course), at RMB 113 (S$25), since it’s decidedly cheaper on Taobao than on Amazon, and basically i didn’t think there would be much of a difference in terms of quality, since cast iron is cast iron afterall (the surface will be rough no matter what). I’m happy with what i got.