I don’t know if you’ve heard the news recently or not, but people are growing more concerned about using non-stick pans over high heat. It seems that more than a few exotic tropical pet birds have died from the emissions produced when substances like teflon are raised above 500 degrees F (see: “The Way We Eat; Which Came First?” in the 1/8/2006 edition of the New York Times, for example.) This is because birds are very sensitive to environment, much like canaries are sensitive to carbon monoxide. People are naturally concerned about whether or not these gases are capable of harming humans, as a pans can hit 500 degrees F using the “medium high” and “high” settings of most stoves (when food is not present.) Are these tropical birds serving the same role as canaries used to serve in mines? Are they warning us of trouble that we should not ignore?
(For the record, the only symptoms known at present to arise in some people from exposure to the gases produced by non-stick pans are head cold-like symptoms that last for a few hours to a couple days. But, it’s probably better to be a little safer than sorry, right?)
The bulk of the cooking equipment I own is 18/10 stainless steel with copper cores, thanks to the generousity of others and a wedding registry. I do have a few non-stick pans for specialty applications, though, like omelet making and pancake making. I also have a non-stick Calphalon wok, which I often used in the past to stir fry atop our electric range.
So, while I don’t automatically use nonstick pans, I’ve decided to change my cooking habits a little bit. Stir frying in particular is an application for which I should probably not use a non-stick pan if gaseous emissions are a concern. After all, what do you do when stir frying but try to get that peanut oil, hot, HOT, HOT to get a good sear on the meat and vegetables instead of letting them steam?
Enter the stainless steel “everyday pan” — essentially, and stainless steel saute pan with rounded sites, and two short handles at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock instead of one long handle. I got this as a wedding gift as well, but I am ashamed to say that I haven’t made much use of it. I decided last Sunday to see how it would do as a wok replacement.
The short answer is that it does pretty well in some respects, not so well in others. Where it wins, hands down is in the heat department. It sets flat on the electric burner and can get hotter than a wok ever can. Wok cooking is supposed to be essentially non-stick cooking, however… and this is where it fails. The everyday pan is great at accumulating “fond” (cooked bits) in the bottom of the pan. In French cooking, this material is meant to be used to create a pan sauce. Asian stir frying is a slightly different beast, as far as I can tell. The wok is supposed to keep all the flavor on the food which can be augmented with a flavored sauce. Combine this with the fact that Asian cooking occasionally involves frying starchy foods (like rice, noodles, and sauces with cornstarch), and my everyday pan is not an ideal substitute for a good wok.
Of course, I was not displeased with the results of my “everyday pan as wok” experiment. Except for the few months when I was able to REALLY stir fry using a hand hammered, seasoned Chinese wok over a propane burner from a turkey frying set, the non-stick wok was rather… feeble. Food had to be cooked in shifts, in order to get a good hot sear and prevent steaming. My everyday pan had no such problems. I think I will just have to make a few adjustments (like being able to take up “fond” after cooking meat) when stir frying. I will perhaps need to seek out other, non-stick alternatives when making fried rice or chow mein… but hey, I don’t have to solve everything this instant.
The beef with string beans, carrots, celery, onions, and bell peppers in black pepper sauce was quite tasty… both that night and left over in the days since. I’ll call this a fairly successful experiment. I just have a little homework I need to do.