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Shitty Tools

May 25, 2016

Perhaps my most cherished possession is my well-seasoned cast iron skillet. I’ve had it going on twenty years at this point. And in the right hands, the thing is glorious. They are gentle enough that I can cook omelets in the thing without them sticking to the bottom, they are heavy enough that I can put a sear on just about anything, and they are sturdy enough that I can use metal tools on them with almost reckless abandon.

Of course, you do need to know how to use them. In the wrong hands a great cast iron skillet might as well be a cheap and flimsy stainless steel saucepan.

Over the years I’ve amassed quite a great collection of cookware. From large stainless sauté pans to enameled cast iron dutch ovens. I’ve got a chinois for straining my delicious dinners, and I’ve been getting more and more comfortable with my relatively new pressure cooker.

By now I’ve jettisoned all the anodized aluminum from my life. I’ll blame the idealism of my early 20s for investing in those pots and pans.

Anyhow, this past weekend, I found myself in my sister’s small Manhattan apartment. The kids were hungry for eggs, and the best thing I could find to cook ’em was a flimsy stainless steel saucepan.

No joke. And do you know what? I rocked those freaking eggs.

It’s always a challenge navigating around someone else’s kitchen. You never know where anything is, and my goal was to produce as few dirty dishes as possible. So I warmed up the pot, used a spoon to break off a chunk of butter, threw the butter into the pot, broke the eggs directly into the pot, and scrambled them in the pot using the very same spoon.

One pot. One spoon. One plate.

The trick with thinner pans is that you really have to keep an eye on them. Thicker, sturdier cookware is far more forgiving and can help to moderate the heat from the flame. You really have to work hard to burn something in a thick pan. In a thin pan things can go from raw to burnt in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Of course, thinner pans are also lighter. Which makes them much easier to manage. Large curd scrambled eggs were out of the question, but I figured if I could keep moving the eggs around in the hot butter, everything would be fine.

So that meant a fair bit of stirring, and moving the pan on and off the flame to slow down and speed up the process as needed. As soon as the eggs had set on the bottom, I’d scrape them with the spoon, and make way for the raw eggs above.

By the end, the eggs were creamy, custardy, and buttery. My sister said they almost tasted cheesy. It’s critical to take them off the heat and plate them a shade under done, so they don’t overcook on the plate. As soon as the eggs are no longer snotty, they’re done. The whole thing probably took about two minutes at the most.

And even though this was a full stick pan, clean up was pretty darn easy. A shot of dish soap, hot water from the sink, and a few passes with a scrubby sponge, and it was done.

Part of the success involves not being afraid of butter. Scrambled eggs are butter. If you don’t want butter, you should learn how to poach. The other part is in keeping the heat relatively low. Not so low as to slow the cooking process to a crawl, but using a bit or restraint so that food doesn’t scorch on the bottom of the pan.

What’s funny is that I think that shitty tools are probably best for accomplished cooks, while the better tools are probably best for amateurs. However, amateurs are less likely to invest in expensive cookware, and those with cooking skills rarely want to mess around with the cheap stuff.

It’s just another reason why I think everyone should own cast iron

But should you ever find yourself frustrated with your own attempts at cooking, and think, “I’m such a bad cook I could burn water,” the issue might very well just be your cookware. Seriously, if I were using flimsier pans, I’d most likely be burning food left and right.

With the scrambled eggs it was easy. It was one pot, and it could have my full attention for the minute or two it needed to cook. But get distracted, even for a moment, and cheap pots can burn you.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. -R. permalink
    May 25, 2016 10:19 am

    If anything, you’ve demonstrated how important technique is, as well as focus and understanding your tools. I heard a story yesterday regarding the purchase of a brand new, good quality chef’s knife which was meant to replace the dull aging set currently in use. After surveying the sharpness of this new implement, the young lady then set out using the new blade, chopping an onion. She nearly cut the tip of her finger off in the first thirty seconds of use, due not (necessarily) to carelessness but rather unfamiliarity with the weight, balance and effortlessness of the new blade. After merrily hacking and sawing her way through meats and produce with knives no sharper than a butter knife, now she was suddenly wielding a 6″ long scalpel. In my work, I’m often confronted with new tools, both manual and powered – always cautiously respect the unknown.

  2. May 25, 2016 10:20 am

    On the topic of cookware… My latest obsession — vintage Descoware. I’m currently trying to track down a nice specimen of the wooden handled skillets… Working on the wife to let me blow some dough.

  3. Daniel Naylor permalink
    May 25, 2016 10:57 am

    My Cast Iron Skillet and Dutch oven were the only tools I moved down to NYC with. May I add the the cast iron skillet will make the perfect personal size pizza, I usually buy the dough from the great pizzeria outside my subway stop and divide them into 4 balls.

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