Anyone that cooks, from your seasoned foodie to the college student making mac’n cheese, has to choose a pan to cook their nightly meal. A few weeks ago I wrote about cooking the perfect steak at home using your oven and a saute pan. When choosing what type of pan to cook a steak on, there are pros and cons to each choice. It is worth mentioning that nonstick is generally unnecessary for steaks, because in any steak searing scenario, the item being seared will tell you when it is ready to flip. If the steak is still sticking, simply allow it to cook a little longer until it releases naturally from the pan. If its still stuck, it isn’t seared yet! This will hold true of most seared foods, although delicate, flaky fish will require more care than others.
Heavy cast iron pans are an excellent choice for searing in any scenario where we don’t plan on making a pan sauce. A cast iron pan has extreme heat retention and will provide an excellent sear on any piece of meat, from beef, lamb, or pork to chicken and any other protein. In general, cast iron pans are heavier than their stainless steel counterparts and have more physical metal. This increased mass causes the pan to have a higher thermal mass or heat capacity. This means that at a given temperature, the heavier pan generally holds more heat energy than its lighter counterparts. Of course, different metals have different heat capacities, but for our purposes the most important factor here is the weight of the pan. In other words, heavier is better. Of course this heaviness comes at a price; a heavy cast iron pan can take as long as 20 minutes to preheat over high heat.
As hinted at before, cast iron pans are generally a poor choice anytime we want to make a pan sauce. The reason for this is that as our steak cooks, we will likely end up burning the golden brown bits, called fond, on the pan before we can make it to the deglazing part. Furthermore, cast iron pans will react with highly acidic ingredients, which will heavily hinder us in making a steak sauce that complements the steak.
For my taste, I prefer cast iron with dry-aged or otherwise particularly high quality beef, where the meat is naturally so tender that a sauce would simply take focus away from the quality of meat. For extra credit, sous vide first, then flash the steak with the torch post sear.
Stainless steel pans are preferred when planning to make a pan sauce. Their non-reactive nature combined with their tendency to not burn our fond (golden brown pan bits) makes them an excellent selection for anyone planning to make pan sauce for their steak. Stainless steel pans are generally lighter than their cast iron counterparts and will often heat a bit faster. As with cast iron weight is key, so a heavier pan will take longer to preheat, but will also sear better. When taken to extremes such as with a 7-ply pan, the extremely heavy stainless steel sears quite similarly to cast iron. In addition, you get the added benefit of non-reactivity.
For my taste, I prefer a heavy stainless steel pan if I intend to make any form of pan sauce. Reduced red wine with demi-glace and sliced chives or peppercorn cream sauce are both favorites of mine which can be finished in a matter of minutes while the steaks rest before serving.
Aluminum pans are fine, although nonstick should be avoided for searing meats. Nonstick coatings are not the best choice when we are planning to make a pan sauce, as they tend to prevent the very golden bits that stainless steel pans make use of. Furthermore, these coatings are generally not recommended to be taken to extreme heats and in searing we want to get our pan as hot as possible. it’s also pretty unlikely that most nonstick pans would give off fumes at the temperatures achieved over most home ranges, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
In general aluminum is not my first choice for a searing pan because my aluminum pans are generally my non-stick ones. Aluminum pans do have a better thermal response than their counterparts, meaning they heat and cool faster as the cook desires making them excellent for higher finesse procedures like sautés and egg cookery, but not ideal for searing.
It is worth mentioning a few details about cladded pans or multi-ply pans. These are pans which are generally stainless steel in the outer most layers, with cores of aluminum or copper. Certain brands contain as many as 7 ply’s, of various metals sandwiched together for their thermal properties. These pans have excellent thermal mass due to their heavy weight with very good thermal response due to their cores and are non-reactive like any stainless steel pan. The major downside here is cost with many costing several times their single metal counterparts.
Now that you know my thoughts about pans…are you happy with your grocery store pans or are you sporting some serious culinary hardware?
Alex Dunlevie is a sous chef with Savory Celebration hailing from the northern San Francisco Bay area. Alex has been a serious foodie his entire life and staged at restaurants around California including the award winning Michael Mina. While mentoring under Chefs Robbie and Samantha, he was given the skills necessary to further his growth as a chef and hone the finer points of his culinary knowledge. Alex loves cooking protein of all kinds, particularly beef, and is interested in both modern and classic approaches to technique.