Sunday, 25 September 2011

Good tools can make the job easier

They say that a good workman never blames his tools – but that doesn’t mean that the quality of your tools isn’t important.

And if I had ever been in any doubts about that, it has been brought home to me in the last week.

A fortnight or so ago, I was cooking a casserole dish in one of my stainless steel pots. We bought them at least 15 years ago, ordered from a Sunday supplement.

They weren’t cheap and they were advertised as being of professional standard.

To be honest, I can’t remember why on Earth we opted for such a set: 12 pieces, comprising four saucepans, two casseroles (one with a steamer insert), two frying pans and a large sauté pan, a sauce pan and a colander. It was before I got remotely interested in food, let alone actual cooking.

Still, we invested and they have been used ever since.

But back to the casserole I was cooking. It dawned on me that this was exactly the sort of dish that yearned for one of the curved, shallow casseroles from Le Creuset.

Now, I'm going to make an admission. I’ve been trying to convince myself for some time that an odd piece of the iconic ironware from that French company would be worthwhile – but the attraction was primarily aesthetic.

But finally, I went out and bought the dish mentioned – a seriously solid piece of kit. And then I waited until last weekend and the chicken chasseur that I mentioned the other day.

What struck me then, however, was not simply how nice it was – but it was also a better cooking experience. Where I have struggled to really brown meat for some time – even since learning a lot more about it from Raymond Blanc – suddenly the chicken really did caramelise beautifully.

Either my own technique had enjoyed a blip or had improved overnight – or something else had made a difference.

With exactly this question in mind, I started experimenting.

The following day, when I made a French onion soup, it was in the same casserole – and sure enough, caramelising the onion was easier.

A couple of days later, I used the dish again for a risotto – it didn’t need caramelisation, but it did improve the cooking experience.

The only possible conclusion, by this stage, was that the ability of my piece of cast iron Le Creuset to conduct heat was better than that of the pans I’d been using for years.

That was clarified during a fag-break conversation with the head chef at the office canteen later in the week, who told me that, over time, the steel pans would have changed chemically – and with that, the ability of them to conduct heat would have changed too.

I was delighted to discover that it wasn’t my imagination or some wishful thinking.

And it struck me then that I should already have known this lesson. A few years ago, I bought an omelette pan in France.

It’s a heavy beast and copper coated. A really traditional one – and not cheap. And it transformed my ability to cook an omelette – and also pancakes.

The great chef, Escoffier, couldn’t believe that people tried to make omelettes without a proper pan. So it's not simply a case of gadgets that do jobs that can be done just as effectively with an 'ordinary' pan.

Last night, I used the same casserole to cook some sliced red onion and good butcher's sausages. Again, good results.

While it's true that tools can't make up for sloppiness or lack of technique, it seems that they can also hinder you.

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