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story.lead_photo.caption Don’t try this at home ― Executive editor Lisa McManus performs abuse testing on a 12-inch stainless steel skillet. (Photo courtesy of America's Test Kitchen)

I am a passable cook. Not great. I get the job done mainly because I get hungry. Eating is my sole motivation for cooking. However, since covid has me cooking almost every night, I have more motivation to become a better cook — starting with my previously ignored pans.

Until lately, my relationship with pans went like this, "Oh, this is a pan. It will work."

But the other night, as I was cooking meatballs, I experienced pan panic. I buy the meatballs premade at the grocery store, cook them in a skillet for 25 minutes, turning them so they brown on all sides. I pour a jar of Italian sauce on them, let them simmer, add a side salad and that's dinner. Like I said, passable.

I had made these meatballs dozens of times, only this time after just a few seconds, they were instantly black on one side, not brown. What the heck? The only difference was I'd grabbed a different skillet. This tripped the what-don't-I know lightbulb, which is how most of my columns start.

I place an SOS call to Lisa McManus, executive editor of America's Test Kitchens reviews, who reassured me, "It's not you. It's the pan." A multimedia company devoted to making home cooks feel more confident, America's Test Kitchens teaches basics through public TV shows and cooking magazines including Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country.

"How do you know it's the pan and not me?" I asked.

"You've made this recipe before successfully, and the pan is the only factor that changed," said McManus whose job involves cooking the same recipes in different pans to find out which cookware performs better and why.

"Everyone can cook," she said. "But often home cooks have a bad experience, blame themselves and give up. They buy ingredients for a recipe and make a mess of it. It's not their fault. They're ill-equipped. Their cookware lets them down."

Next, I shared my meatball story with my friend Heather McPherson, a food writer and cookbook author, and asked, "How have I come to this stage in life and not known pan basics?"

"It's not too late," she said. Then McManus and McPherson gave me a crash course in cookware and the assurance that better meals were just a pan away. Here's what they said to keep in mind:

◼️ Don't buy a set. Both experts agreed, cookware sets are full of pieces you don't need that take up space. Retailers like sets because they can sell 21-pieces for $199, but most people never use half the pieces.

◼️ Get the right grip. How a pan feels in your hand is important. Don't buy a pan online that you haven't held, McPherson said. A good grip is more important than comfort. You want to lift the pan in your nondominant hand and turn the handle without it slipping, McManus added. Avoid pans with plastic or squishy handles. You want metal handles that can go from stove to oven.

◼️ Know your metals. Most cookware is made of stainless steel, aluminum, cast iron (and its cousin carbon steel), copper, or a mix. Each has distinct properties. Stainless steel and cast iron are durable. Copper and aluminum have excellent heat conductivity, but they react to acidic foods, like tomatoes, changing food's flavor. Some need more maintenance. Here's a quick rundown:

◼️ Copper is the Ferrari in the kitchen, fast to react, expensive and high maintenance, McManus said. "Though its responsiveness has made it a favorite among famous chefs, for most of us it's overkill. It's costly and requires care and polishing beyond most people's patience."

◼️ Aluminum is the next best heat conductor, and far less expensive, making it a favorite in fast-food restaurants, where chefs want to turn food out fast. The problem with aluminum is, like copper, it reacts to acidic foods. A soft metal, aluminum also scratches and dents easily.

◼️ Stainless steel is "the bomb" McPherson said, and what you find in most homes. It's stable, resists corrosion, and won't react to acidic foods. But it has poor heat conductivity, so causes food to cook unevenly. To fix that, manufacturers developed three-ply or five-ply pans, stainless steel with a core of aluminum or copper. "We love stainless-steel pans that have a layer of aluminum sandwiched in," McManus said. "They offer the heat conductivity of aluminum and the workhorse durability of stainless steel." Five-ply and copper-core pans cost more but aren't that much better.

◼️ Cast iron has been used in cookware for centuries. Cooks swear by it. Extremely durable, cast iron provides excellent heat retention and is inexpensive. With proper care, a cast iron pan can last a lifetime and longer. Its cousin carbon steel offers the same benefits with less weight. Both improve with age but require a little extra care. You need to keep these pans "seasoned" by wiping them with a light coating of oil after each use to create a natural nonstick surface and prevent rust.

Join me next week to learn the four essential cookware pieces every kitchen should have. (Note: I did not have two of them.)

Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of five home and lifestyle books, including "Downsizing the Blended Home — When Two Households Become One."

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