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Jul 27, 2011 08:24 PM

Cookware for a college student

So, I need to obtain some very cheap cookware, mainly a chef's knife, a paring knife, pot for pasta, small saucepan, and a frying pan. (My roommate is somewhat baking obsessed, so that's covered). I live in a dorm with very lovely people who have a talent for destroying or wandering off with anything found in a kitchen. The kitchens have a large selection of non-stick cookware, which I'm not a big fan of because I like cooking at high heat.

So, I need cheap, relatively idiot-proof cookware, because while I'm going to try to keep everything in my room, I need it to be hard to destroy (in the dishwasher, or from high heat, etc) and cheap enough that if someone walks off with it I won't be really sad. I'd like it to work well for three or four years, and certainly wouldn't complain if it kept on doing so.

I was thinking some Kiwi knives. For a big pot for pasta or soup and a smaller saucepan I'm debating between some stainless from Ikea and some aluminum from a restaurant supply store. They are both very cheap (under $15 per piece). I suspect that the aluminum would be nicer to work with, but the Ikea ones will survive the dishwasher better and therefore is more likely to not induce my dormmates to toss them. The big Ikea pot (5 quarts) is oven safe, which is important to me. I don't know where to get the frying pan. I like to cook on high heat, but the cheapest stainless fry pan I can find is still pricier around $20. Is there anything cheaper? Would carbon steel or blue steel be salvageable if someone mistreats it?

So, my choice is mainly restaurant supply store aluminum cookware (it's very, very cheap) or Ikea stainless. The aluminum is cheaper, but I don't know how that'll work if someone else decides to use it, and I don't know how the fry pans fare under high heat. I don't want any non-stick, because that's quite plentiful around here. Would I be able to use a paella pan as a general skillet? Given that it's nice carbon steel and much cheaper than non-paella carbon steel pans of the same size. Any recommendations? I don't need this stuff to last, although I'd love it if it did.

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  1. Hi, celesul:

    You've posed a lot of questions, and I can tell you've already thought a lot about choices.

    Restaurants use straight gauge aluminum for two basic reasons, it's really cheap and it works really well. With one caveat, the better stuff is durable as well. The caveat is that in restaurant-type high heat settings, aluminum skillets tend to warp a bit. If your kitchen has smooth cooktops (which I doubt), the wobble that results might be a deal killer for you. Less so on electric coils and rarely on gas grates. But you'd have to get the skillet really hot and subject it to another thermal stress, like plunging it into cold water to have it warp much in the first place. Aluminum is obviously far lighter than SS for trudging from room to kitchen for an equal thickness, allowing you to go thicker with aluminum for better performance. Plain aluminum is fine in the DW, but don't expect it to keep it's good looks (this is actually a theft deterrent feature).

    Your idea about a paella pan is brilliant. Fits in the oven better. Easier for a beginner to saute in. Easy to stow in your room. More attractive to serve in. Probably less likely to be stolen, too, because it doesn't register with most people the thing is just a skillet with two loop handles.

    Carbon steel skillets would be salvageable and are even more durable than aluminum. If you sear a lot, and your hobs are even, maybe you'd do better with one of these from a durability standpoint. the downside would be maintenance abuse--if your lovely dorm mates leave it in a sink of water overnight, it could easily rust and require some rehabilitation at an inopportune time, like finals.

    I'm prejudiced against cheap, thin SS, so I won't get into that here.

    I'm sure you'll make the right choices, whatever you do. You sound akamai.


    3 Replies
    1. re: kaleokahu

      Thank you very much for the compliment. I was lurking a bit :-) Obsessive knowledge collection is one of my hobbies.

      The dorm I'm staying in right now has gas, (it's great for marshmallow roasting!) and the one I stay in next year is likely to have it as well, but I'm not sure. I'm certainly going to hold off on buying any aluminum until I find out, because if it turned out to be induction and I only had aluminum I think I'd cry.

      I'm glad that a paella pan would probably work. I've never seen one IRL before (having never had paella), but it seemed like it had a lot of desirable qualities. If a dormmate sticks it in the dishwasher, will it salvageable? I'm okay with it taking effort: I do have access to a lot of cheapo non-stick in the case of emergencies. I'm also worried about the aluminum getting damaged. It is not supposed to go in the dishwasher either, yes? Carbon steel is supposed to be easier to clean than aluminum, right? This is a factor, because if I'm tired and I leave a dish out, that can end poorly.

      So, part of the reason I'm considering the 5 quart Ikea thing is that it's the right shape (comes with a lid and has small handles). I haven't found any uncoated aluminum pots under 8 quarts with that shape. Would 8 quarts be a pain as a college student (for pasta and soup mostly), or would it be helpful? I'll be mostly cooking for myself, but probably also a bit with friends.

      My goal is mostly to get the best experience I can from very few pieces of cookware, none more than around $20, preferably much less. I may or may not have much time to get to thrift stores.

      Thank you very much for your help!

      1. re: celesul

        Hi, celesul:

        Induction, hmmmm.... Having an aluminum pan in an induction kitchen might be the ultimate ant-theft, anti-abuse guarantee (if you put a cheap/free cookie sheet under it as a converter disk).

        When you talk of a paella pan, I assume you're talking about the carbon steel ones. I think such a pan in the DW would be salvageable, but it might require some dirty work with emery cloth and reseasoning if it rusts. Some of these also have little "divots" in the bottoms that might make spatula work a little frustrating.

        Aluminum can take the DW. If it;'s hard anodized, that finish can be scoured away, but the pan is still safe to use. Restaurants are not handwashing their aluminum as a rule. The abrasives in the detergent might work some minor pitting on an aluminum pan, but not enough IMO to worry over.

        As for ease of cleaning, I'm not sure there's a clear winner. A lot of people prefer not to really wash their well-seasoned carbon steel pans (and woks) at all, just brushing out the interiors under hot running water. But when you get crustos in the pan, you have to do *something*, and both deglaze and scrub out pretty easy. Aluminum's property of immediately forming a passivation layer actually makes it easier to maintain, IMO.

        5Q should be plenty big for cooking for 1-4 people unless you have the need to cook and store larger amounts of leftovers for later.

        Thrift stores are totally hit-and-miss, but there are sometimes great deals to be found. In aluminum, look for Wear-Ever, Wagnerware and Guardian brands. Sometimes these can be had for just a few dollars. eBay if you don't have the time--just search "vintage aluminum cookware", and focus on pans that are 3mm or more thick. For new, you might consider Nordic Ware.

        You're very welcome.


        1. re: kaleokahu

          Yes, I was talking about the carbon steel type. I think given all of this, I'll probably be best with aluminum, particularly if next years dorm also has gas.

          Okay. So I'll try for around 5Q.

          Thank you very much for the advice!

    2. What do you think about a cast iron skillet? I know people get attached to them and it would be rough if someone walked off with one, but they are pretty heavy, thus reducing the likelihood of its being walked off with and are inexpensive. I love cooking with mine, carry it with me sometimes if I'm in a furnished kitchen, give them as kitchen starter gifts. I think it's a little heartier than carbon steel too, as far as the finish is concerned. I know this isn't one of the choices you presented, but I thought I'd throw it out there.

      I also give Victorinox Fibrox knives as good starter knives. A butcher shop I used to live near sold me on them, the butchers were so enthusiastic about them, I had to try them. I think you can get a chef's knife for around $25.

      3 Replies
      1. re: WCchopper

        Hi, WCchopper:

        Good suggestion from a cost and performance standpoint. But we're talking about a college dorm communal kitchen here. Chances are, if anyone but the OP cooks in or cleans the CI skillet, the seasoning will be toast, and he/she will be lucky if there's not rust. I'm also thinking that a dent may be better than a break when it comes to /dropping/throwing/kicking the pan across campus. But if the OP treats it like a little sister, maybe it's a good choice.

        You are right on about the Fibrox knives being an excellent value.


        1. re: kaleokahu

          Yeah, maybe not a perfect choice for the situation, but I just had a gut reaction to the idea of a thin skillet/ high heat and OP was tossing around the idea of a carbon steel paella pan. The finish on my cast iron has been pretty tough and resilient over the years. But yeah.....

        2. re: WCchopper

          I'm a bit worried about the weight of the cast iron, and the extra care. Carbon steel seems to be a bit easier to take of. Is it? I'd like to get cast iron eventually, but I'm worried because I'm living with people ultra talented at killing cookware (I didn't honestly know it was possible to torture cookware in some of the ways they've managed to). If the seasoning gets screwed up, I want it to be easy to re-season. I'm also scared that someone might crack cast iron. One of my friend's (probably aluminum) pans turned into more dent than not. How easy is to take care of carbon steel vs. cast iron?

          If I can find one of those knives on sale, I might get one. It's a bit pricier than I'd like for living in a place where all the cookware is at least slightly sacrificial.

        3. Celesul,

          Kiwi knives ($10-20) are cost effective. A slightly better knives are Dexter-Russell and Victorinox ($20-40). I won't go much over at this point. Stainless steel cladded cookware and straight aluminum cookware have their advantages much like you said, so I will let you decide. To answer your question, yes, you can ruin carbon steel and cast iron pan, but the damages are 99% reversible. Still it does not mean it will be easy to reversible the damage. Cast iron or carbon steel cookware heavily rely on their aged old seasoning surface to perform nicely. Once the seasoning surface is ruined, you can indeed rebuild it, but it can take some time.

          11 Replies
          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

            I want to avoid equipment that will make cooking unpleasant, but given where I'm living, I'm unwilling to get anything expensive. Stainless, outside of a thrift store and Ikea is overly pricey for this situation, I think. I got the impression that carbon steel was faster to re-season than cast iron. Is this correct? I've also read that cast iron takes a while to heat up, which is undesirable for a college student.

            1. re: celesul

              "I'm unwilling to get anything expensive. Stainless, outside of a thrift store and Ikea is overly pricey for this situation, I think"

              Just in case that you want an entire set of stainless steel triply cookware (stainless steel exterior, aluminum interior), I think Tramontina from Walmart is a good deal. I don't hear many people complain about it. In fact, many people here love it.


              "I got the impression that carbon steel was faster to re-season than cast iron. Is this correct?"

              Yes, that is true in my expensive. On the other hand, the seasoning surface appears to be more stable on the rougher surface cast iron. So it is a give and take here: easier to apply seasoning on smooth surface carbon steel cookware, but easier to wear off.

              "I've also read that cast iron takes a while to heat up"

              That is true in general, but that is mostly because cast iron cookware are much thicker and heavier in general. If you get an equally thick carbon steel cookware, then I think it will be the same.

              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                Thank you very much for your help. The Tramontina set is overly large for my purposes, and still more than I'm willing to spend, although it seems reasonably priced if one wants all of the pieces. The cookware I'm looking for is a bit sacrificial, so...

                Okay. And yes, I understand that cast iron as a material is not slower to heat up, but cast iron being bigger and thus heavier and slower to heat and cool than comparable materials is a factor. I'm fully expecting that if a finish can be killed, my dormmates will manage it, so I'm looking a bit more at which is easier to deal with afterwards. On the other hand, would maintaining any sort of seasoning be worth the trouble? Should I just go with aluminum? How easy is that to screw up beyond repair?

                1. re: celesul

                  Yeah, I didn't think the Tramontina will be what you are looking for, but just want to throw it out there.

                  My cast iron and carbon steel comment is that if you want to a carbon steel pan which heat up faster, then don't buy a very thick one. Are you sharing your cookware with your dormmates or are these personal cookware. There may not be much an incentive to maintain any seasoning if (a) these are shared cookware and (b) the people who share with does not know how to maintain seasoned cookware. I just don't see it will work out. As fro aluminum, go for it, if we are talking about a frying pan.

                  Alternatively, have you considered a disc bottom frying pan, as opposed to fully triply frying pan?

                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                    Carbon steel is not usually very thick, is it? It's not shared cookware, but will probably occasionally get used if I'm forgetful and leave them in the kitchens. I'm going to try not to do that because I did that with a cookie sheet earlier this year and haven't seen it since. So if it's seasoned, it'll get ruined a few times, but not continually.

                    I have considered it. That seems to be getting a bit more towards the $20 end of the range though, when aluminum is under $10, and a paella pan is just a touch more than $10. Part of the problem here is that cookware sometimes disappears and sometimes just gets trashed, and I'm trying to minimize the impact of one, and the possibility of the other.

                    1. re: celesul

                      Yes, carbon steel cookware are usualy thinner, but the expensive ones can be thick. I suppose it is a moot point because you are not spending $60-90 for a carbon steel pan anyway.

                      I think your approach of buying a stainless steel surface frying pan from a discount store is a good option. You can get good quality and low price that way. Another thing is to look for disc bottom frying pans as opposite to full cladded triply frying pans.

                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        I think the disc option makes a lot of sense. The reason I threw CI out there was b/c you like high heat and I was concerned that you would be frustrated by a thin- bottomed pan. CI and CS take a little up-keep (although I'm not at all precious with my CI), but the disc would offer an inexpensive, lower up-keep alternative while still giving you that heavier bottom you'll want.

                        1. re: WCchopper

                          "...b/c you like high heat and I was concerned that you would be frustrated by.."

                          [look around] I am not the original poster. :)

                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            Oh I know, I just assumed we were all talking to the OP, wasn't sure where the best spot to both agree with you and address the reply to the OP.

            2. re: Chemicalkinetics

              And on the knives, if you could handle both brands (Kiwi and Victorinox) and see which one suits your hand best, that might make the difference in your decision.

            3. One minor suggestion. Since you specifically mention "pot for pasta", I think it might be best to get an aluminum stockpot for the pasta itself, but a stainless steel saucepan for the (tomato) sauce. I'd be worried about cooking tomato sauce in an aluminum saucepan (metallic taste, pitting).

              I think a carbon steel pan could survive the conditions you describe -- you might just have to scrub it out with steel wool and reseason it now and then. It's quick and easy to reseason carbon steel on the stovetop. I like the paella pan idea. You might also want to consider a small carbon steel wok (a flat-bottom one if you have an electric stove). You can probably get one for a couple of bucks at an Asian grocery store.

              As for the knives, it's hard to beat the Victorinox suggestion.

              Good luck!

              1 Reply
              1. re: tanuki soup

                Thank you. I'll probably not be cooking that much with tomatoes (I'm not terribly fond), and thus will not need an extra pan of my own for it. I'll probably just ask someone if I can borrow theirs.

                Thank you very much for the wok idea. The ones online seem to be a bit pricier than the paella pans, but I do have access to Asian groceries, so it's certainly worth looking.

              2. My advice, just go out and buy the least expensive stuff you can find, better yet get it at a garage sale and save the planet by recycling. You're a college student sharing living and cooking quarters with a number of peopel, who are not likely going to care for your equipment the way you would personally. Besides, as a college student you should be poor (it's a good motavator to study hard) and not spending a lot of money and time prepering food (that's time you could be studying and you will appreciate good food and good equipment more later) until you graduate and have a job.

                Just the perspective of a dad that sent four through school.

                2 Replies
                1. re: mikie

                  "as a college student you should be poor (it's a good motavator to study hard) "

                  That is actually true. Perspective of someone who went through college. :P

                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                    I don't have all that much time to search for cookware, and this isn't a good area for garage sales, although if I manage to find one, I'll certainly check it out.

                    Yes, that's why I'm not looking for anything too fancy: I'm looking for decent cookware, as I'll be cooking for myself daily, and cooking and baking is a good stress relief for me.