All-Clad - Is it "All-That"?
In any activity, using the best available tools is ideal. That pursuit is almost always tempered by budgetary restrictions. Still, budgeting for and spending what is necessary on quality tools, in food, is almost as crucial as what is spent on ingredients. I was reminded of the importance of quality tools while preparing dinner at the home of my friends Rick and Erica.
I had decided steaks were to be the main ingredient so I grabbed a somewhat thin, but serviceable, pan from their cupboard, cranked up the heat on their electric cooktop (notably identical to the one featured in the Brady Bunch), and parked the pan on those familiar glowing coils for a good preheating.
As I seasoned the meat, an odd and downright eerie sound began emanating from the stove, almost as if the metal was moaning. While searching for the source of the sound, the pan slowly began to bend, like something out of "The Terminator", gradually warping toward me as if coiling up and preparing to strike. I must admit (having seen too many "liquid metal" movies) that I took a step back, uncertain what was about to happen. Suddenly, the pan leapt about an inch off the stove and landed in two pieces; the thicker bottom steel plate and the thinner main part of the pan. I was left with one very hot steel disc, and a warped, shallow steel "bowl" with a handle. I was a bit embarrassed, to say the least. I'd abused many a pan before, but never someone else's, and never in such a dramatic way. I apologized profusely.
This is obviously an extreme example, but there are more subtle ones. I recall owning a pan with a loose handle which made the process of flipping its contents look like the work of a drunkard. I had also experienced a spot-welded handle come completely off of a stock pot I was carrying while it contained, fortunately, cold rather than boiling water.
It had been a long time since I had first stumbled upon my first All-Clad pan and I'd forgotten what a difference quality cookware can make.
Three years ago, I would have said All-Clad is, hands down, the best cookware you can buy. For blossoming food geeks, there is a dull ache that accompanies not owning “the whole set”. It calls to you through store windows and a twinge of jealousy surges when you spot a set at a friend’s house. (This is especially true when you know their skills don't quite match the cookware.)
It is, however, expensive. Compared to similar pans, as much as three times the cost of the closest competitor. Given its beauty and high sticker price, it makes me wonder just how many people even dare to cook on it. I still wonder how many All-Clad pans never see more heat than that from the recessed light shining above them and rarely touched by human hands much less scarred by metal utensils.
The good news is that there are, inevitably, duds that roll off the assembly line. I’ve no idea how many mistakes they produce but it’s enough to make them worth selling - at a hefty discount I might add. All-Clad “Seconds”, as they are known, are a bargain. (In the same way that, say, 20% off of a Rolls Royce can be considered a “bargain”.) The only real difference between the prime stuff and the seconds is a blemish of some kind on the pan as well as an “S” indelibly stamped into the underside of the handle.
Rest assured that these "Second" pans don't look like they've been hit by a locomotive. Rather, it is literally a cosmetic flaw that demoted the piece. I use the word cosmetic specifically to convey how small a defect is required to disqualify a pan for prime status. It may have bumped another pan on a conveyor belt or maybe the riveting machine grabbed it the wrong way, sometimes the handles have a few pits in them. But unless you're planning to have it engraved as an award for culinary artistry, the flaws will soon be masked by the dings and scratches that any well-loved pan should have.
Unfortunately, you can't go down to your local cooking store and arbitrarily buy “Seconds”. I’m sure All-Clad knows that people shopping at a dedicated cooking store likely have - or can borrow on credit - the funds necessary to buy the prime products. Seconds are somewhat of a secret in that you need to know they exist, and then know where to get them. Fortunately, the internet provides a consistent conduit. Check out http://www.cookwarenmore.com
It would be a waste to let them simply hang and look pretty because they're very well made; a trait that is easy to take for granted.
My favorite pan is a 1998 "Special Edition" which has been an absolute workhorse. It has long ago lost its mirror finish and a decade's worth of whisk marks are clearly and charmingly visible inside, but it works just as well today as it did when I got it (though I'd like to think it's in more capable hands now.) It shows no sign of peeling apart leading me to assume it'll last at least another five if not ten years. I honestly don't remember how much I paid for it at the time, but I'm certain I've gotten my money's worth.
I was tempted (and coerced by poverty) to look at Emeril's line of cookware which is also made by All-Clad. I'm not a brand junkie by any stretch, but I am a quality junkie. I'll use cookware that says Emeril on it (but NOT Rachael Ray) if I can get the same quality for 1/3 the price.
Turns out, there's a catch with Emerilware and others like it stamped with chef's names - the sides. The All-Clad "Stainless" series, for example, is two pieces of stainless steel on either side of an aluminum core and that aluminum extends all the way up the sides of the pan. With Emerilware, the aluminum is simply a disc that covers the bottom. Hence, the heat distribution on the bottom of the pan is relatively good, but the sides heat up independently - and dramatically - causing the sides to scorch your sauce while the rest simmers gently in the middle. For a stockpot, where the temperature will be relatively low, this isn't as big a deal. All-Clad's big 12-qt. "Multicooker" is stainless, but doesn't have aluminum up the sides (which allows it to be a bargain at $99.) Certainly for boiling pasta water, heat distribution is of little concern. But in a sauce or saute pan, it's critical.
To be fair, there are at least two other manufacturers who make "clad" metal pans using the same concept (18/0 stainless on the outside, an aluminum core, and 18/10 stainless on the inside; more on that in a minute).
The first is the "house" brand at Sur La Table, specifically their "stainless" collection. They have what I consider to be slightly better handles given their shape and angle to the pan. The rest is pretty similar while the price is radically different. The equivalent Sur la Table pan is about half of what an All-Clad pan would be. A $600, 9-piece All-Clad set will set you back about $349 in the Sur la Table version.
The other "dark horse" comes from, of all places, Walmart. Yes, you read that correctly, Walmart. Their "Tramontina" brand, with the same construction specs as those above, in an 8-piece set will only cost you $149.99.
Now, let me also say that not everything you cook on must be All-Clad. Ideally, pans would last "forever", but non-stick pans have a finite lifespan since, sooner or later, it stops sticking to the pan itself. It may take a while, and modern pans are much more durable that those of even a decade ago, but spending $149 on a pan that will lose its coating just doesn't make sense. Instead, I take a little trip to my local restaurant supply shop, and pick up aluminum-exterior, rubber-handle-covered, non-stick pans for a measly $50 a piece. They're built for what restaurant cooks are likely to do to them, and it's not pretty.
Okay, fine, If there was ONE thing I could change it would be that All-Clad doesn't have (or offer) glass lids for their cookware. I tend to forget how truly handy they are until I use one from a competing line. No more lifting the lid to see how things are progressing. It would also be great if they could standardize on the size of their lids. Only occasionally can you use the lid from one pan on another.
By the way, if you really want - and I do mean really want to understand pan construction, check out this link on eGullet. (And while you're there, check out the other incredible collection of info they have.)
"Understanding Stovetop Cookware" by By Samuel Lloyd Kinsey