November 21, 2010

Christmas Comes Early for Jeffrey

I got an early Xmas present, and I'm as happy as I can remember ever being over any present I've ever received.  When I was a kid and holiday gift-giving was a much bigger deal to me, I doubt I'd have been able to imagine a bunch of pots and pans would not only excite me, but actually make me smile every time I used one of them. 

The present in question is the Tramontina Ultimate Cookware set, a 10-piece set consisting of six stainless steel pans, four with lids.

The Tramontina Ultimate Cookware Set
Clockwise, starting at the top of the picture:
12 Quart Covered Stock Pot, 4 Quart Covered Sauce Pan, , 12 Inch Steel
Saute Pan (skillet), 5 Quart Covered Dutch Oven, 10 Inch Saute Pan
Center:  2 Quart Covered Sauce Pan

Awhile back, Cook's Illustrated reviewed cookware sets.  To nobody's surprise, the much-vaunted All-Clad took the top rating.  There's a good reason for this:  Sturdy, long-lasting products designed with an eye to function and based on decades of actual use by working chefs and cooks.  This is as opposed to various celebrity lines designed more to look nice than to actually be useful, not to mention the various cookware sets out there that give you a lot of pans for a little money, but which don't stand up to even a year of regular use without showing a lot of wear and starting to have significant problems.  All-Clad makes great stuff, no question.  The only problem is, that top-of-the-line stuff comes at a hefty price.

The other two sets that made Cook's Illustrated's "recommended" listing both featured the same full-clad, tri-ply construction as All-Clad.  Tri-ply refers to a layer of aluminum sandwiched between and bonded to layers of stainless steel, while full-clad means the pan is made this way from bottom to rim.  Lots of cookware features sorta-tri-ply bottoms, typically involving aluminum discs encapsulated in stainless steel, but these can be problematic, as the try-ply and non-try-ply parts of the pan conduct heat much differently.  The result is uneven heating, which usually translates to lots of burning along the outer edges of the bottom of the pan.  Full-clad pans, on the other hand, heat evenly. 

The other two cookware sets CI recommended were made by Calphalon and Tramontina.  Both were much cheaper than All-Clad, but the Tramontina set - which cost only $10 more than a single All-Clad skillet - was selected as the best buy.   The CI folk rated its performance as on par with All-Clad.  Their only real criticism was that too many of the pans were too small to really be useful most of the time (and, truly, they had a point - a one-quart saucepan really isn't useful for very much other than melting butter), though they did notice that when you compared the same basic pan (two 10-inch skillets, for example), the Tramontina pans featured a tiny bit less cooking surface.

Tramontina (sold by Wal-Mart) released the Ultimate Cookware Set in response to that article.  They even include a copy of the issue of Cook's Illustrated that features that review!   The set features a selection of sizes and types of pans Cook's Illustrated considers essential (12 inch skillet, 4 quart saucepan, Dutch oven and 12-quart stock pot).  The selection is similar to that in All-Clad set CI reviewed, but with a Dutch oven and a larger stock pot than All-Clad.  This set has gotten rave reviews by users on the Cook's Illustrated bulletin board and elsewhere online, and while it is more expensive than the smaller 8-piece Tramontina set CI reviewed by about $100 (current cost is $259), that's still cheaper than the similarly-ranked and smaller Calphalon set, and you'd have a hard time buying two All-Clad pans of any sort for that cost. 

I haven't tried out all of the pans yet, but based on the ones I have tried, I can see why people love these pans.  They are sturdy, but very well-balanced, with solid, comfortable handles.  The lids fit perfectly and the pans themselves heat evenly and conduct heat wonderfully, such that they get very hot at only a medium stove top setting.  I'm still getting used to this last feature, honestly, and as a result, I've burnt a few things a bit when they cooked a lot faster than I'd expected based on the mostly-crappy pans I've been using for the past several years, but that has given me a chance to recognize another great feature of the Tramontina cookware:  it cleans up really, really easily.  Burnt-on onion and potato came off with a couple passes of the scrubbing surface of a kitchen sponge, and burnt-on sugary and tomato-based sauces came off with only minimally more effort.  The interior stainless steel surface does discolor a bit when exposed to higher heat settings and/or when stuff gets burnt on to the surfaces, but as stated in the manufacturer's information, a quick, light scrub with a mild abrasive cleaner (we use Bar Keepers Friend) corrects that, bringing the pan back to an even, mirror-like shine.

The arrival of these pans has pretty much filled up my kitchen rack.  As seen below, the two skillets have found a place at the right edge of the top shelf.  The second shelf is taken up almost entirely by Tramontina pans, including the new stock pot and Dutch oven, plus a smaller stock pot with a pasta insert and a double-boiler/steamer combination we bought awhile back.  The new saucepans are center and right front on the next-to last shelf.

And yes, I truly do smile when I go into the kitchen and see those shelves all nice and well-stocked like that. But not as widely as I tend to smile when I see the results of cooking in these new pots and pans.

And yes, "early Xmas present" aside, Juli gets to use them, too!


  1. I have seen the reviews and agree this is a good set. I tend to buy the Calphalon and just buy the sizes I know I will use. So many sets have pans that I would not use anymore. Good luck and great fun cooking with your new pans.

  2. Thank you! I know someone who recently bought a Calphalon set, and he raves about it.

    The thing about sets including a bunch of pans that will see little use, that's definitely an issue, and one the CI folk kinda railed on. That's one thing cool about the set we got - everything is uesful. Some, like the large skillet, will see more use than others, but I will be quite surprised if I don't use all of them in the next week or so, and fairly regularly after that.