KITCHENALIA

THE SAUCEPAN
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The Independent Culture
Two Copper saucepans auctioned at Sotheby's last year fetched almost pounds 400. This princely sum was partly due to what Americans call "starshine rub-off" - the saucepans had belonged to a famous chef. Similarly, the sale of the contents of Elizabeth David's kitchen a year earlier attracted astronomical prices for perfectly ordinary wooden spoons and mixing bowls. Perhaps we believe that, through possession, we inherit the talent of the previous owner. If only that were so. We might become a nation of magnificent cooks simply by treasuring the culinary chattels of the past.

Few old saucepans merit being handed on to the next generation; battered and burnt, they have little magic. Copper pans lined with tin or stainless steel are an exception. They are expensive to buy, but can last for centuries, and are often preferred by professional cooks for their rapid response when heating and cooling. This makes cooking with them highly controllable, especially compared with cast iron, which takes longer to reach a correct cooking temperature and stays hot after removal from the heat.

Cooking pots were made of iron, heavy and black and of cauldron shape, until sometime in the Middle Ages, when the smaller posset or pipkin was produced. Cauldrons had either a cur-ved base and a handle for suspending the pot over an open fire or - like the pipkin - were fitted with three feet so that they could stand. When the cast-iron kitchen range was introduced, cooking pots required a completely flat base for more efficient contact with the source of heat. Though still made in heavy black cast iron, but now with long tubular handles, these saucepans came in a wide variety of sizes and shapes and were so successful that many designs were still in use on ranges and gas stoves until a generation ago. But by then, light- weight enamelled steel pans - introduced in 1870 - and cast-aluminium saucepans, dating from early this century, had become popular. Stainless steel has now joined these materials as the principal metal for saucepans.

Mrs Beeton opined that saucepans, "are among the most important article in the kitchen". So what kind would she choose today? It would depend, of course, on her cooking stove and how she used it.

Enamelled cast iron, though beautiful, is heavy and better suited to slow cooking. This makes it preferable for skillets rather than saucepans. Alu- minium has the advantage of being lighter than cast iron, but untreated aluminium reacts with food acids and this is now thought to be a health risk. Recently, a new black anodised aluminium has been introduced; the manufacturers claim that anodised aluminium is harder than stainless steel with a non-porous scratch-resistant surface. In experiments with one of these pans, I have found that the base of the pan has not remained completely flat, which makes it of limited use on an Aga or other solid-plate cooker. The inside has developed a grey bloom, although this does not affect its efficiency. Some anodised aluminium pans are not dishwasher safe.

Although there are cooks who like using enamelled aluminium and enamelled steel saucepans, I find them too flimsy for my needs and with a tendency to catch. This leaves stainless steel which, in my experience, is the best material for saucepans in domestic cooking. Modern stainless steel is manufactured from an alloy which includes 18 per cent chromium and 10 per cent nickel, commonly described as 18/10 stainless steel. A high- quality pan should have an energy-efficient, smoothly-ground base usually composed of two layers of steel enclosing another of copper or aluminium, giving a total thickness of at least 6mm. This makes the pan ideal for use on a cast-iron range; for solid or ring-plate electricity; and on halogen and gas hobs. The best quality stainless-steel pans carry a 25 to 30 year guarantee.

Fortunately, stainless-steel sauce-pans have come down in price since they were first introduced. If you are setting up a new kitchen or replacing old pans, it often pays to look for an offer on a set of three or four pans - sometimes with a steamer - which are cheaper than when bought singly.

Always handle a pan before buying, checking the grip, the weight and the balance. I prefer hollow steel handles because they remain cool when cooking on the hob, yet the whole pan also withstands the heat of an oven - some plastic handles are not oven-proof. When possible check how well the pan pours - a good kitchenware shop should be happy to provide a jug of water. Look for a pan with a convenient ratio of depth to circumference, and a smoothly curved inside profile that is easy to stir and clean.

Finally, I am not a fan of non-stick coatings, except, perhaps, for an omelette pan which is unlikely to be overheated. The best saucepan, used properly, does not stick or misbehave and is simply a pleasure to use.

BEURRE BLANC

The classic French sauce for serving with poached or grilled fish, and cooked asparagus, globe artichokes and Florence fennel.

Serves 6

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

3 tablespoons dry white wine

I medium shallot, peeled and very finely chopped

1 bayleaf

3 black peppercorns

200g/7oz unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces

salt

1/4 lemon or 1 tablespoon creme fraiche

In a small stainless-steel or copper saucepan, simmer the wine vinegar and wine with the shallot and peppercorns over low heat until the liquid measures just under one tablespoon.

Remove the pan from the heat and discard the peppercorns and bayleaf. Place the pan on a folded cloth to maintain its heat. If its temperature drops too much, briefly replace the pan over low heat.

Use a balloon whisk to add the butter, a piece at a time. The butter must soften but not melt totally. When all the butter has been incorporated into the sauce, whisk the mixture until light and quite thick. Season with a little salt and adjust the flavour with either a squeeze of lemon juice or the creme fraiche. Serve straight away.

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