I've got an arsenal of well-used cookware, but two pans in particular never seem to make it back into the cabinet. One is a stubby-handled Wagner cast-iron skillet with a thick, jet-black patina; the other is a lithe, long-handled carbon-steel frying pan with dramatically flared sides. I found both pans at a roadside antique store well over a decade ago when I was en route to my first semester of culinary school in New York. Handling them, I envisioned all the cooks who had used them before me—in a way, they'd be joining me on my journey into the professional kitchen. I happily overpaid.
I love how each vessel's physique telegraphs its performance. The stocky cast iron is slow—both to heat up and to cool down. That excellent heat retention means that once I get the pan smoking hot, it delivers steaks and chops with the richest, crispest crusts. The carbon steel, on the other hand, responds with almost athletic agility, heating and cooling rapidly when I make small adjustments to the burner. It allows me to cook with surgical precision, hitting a fried egg with an initial blast of heat to create crisp, filigreed edges and then swiftly dropping the temperature to gently heat the yolk to a custardy thickness.
What endears these pans to me most is the benefit they share: Each time I cook, fats break down and bond to the cooking surfaces, turning their patinas a touch darker and more slick. That enduring appreciation is part of what compelled me to expand my inner circle of cookware with a third piece: a carbon-steel wok. It, too, turns darker and more nonstick with each use and responds nimbly, but its unique bowl-like frame encourages me to cook and stir with real vigor. The tall, swooping sides catch and cradle green beans as they char and turn crisp-tender, and the versatile vessel has quickly become my go-to for deep frying and steaming.
You'll see that there's a lot to learn about woks in this issue, starting with the models that most impressed Lisa McManus when she put them through a battery of cooking tests. Lan Lam dug deep into what actually happens when you stir-fry in a wok—there's real art and science behind the technique—and came out with a recipe for tender, richly spiced Stir-Fried Cumin Beef. And since the journey of seasoning and improving your wok is part of the joy of owning one, there's a definitive guide for how to do that, too.
The more I cook in these pans, the more I think about their futures. Perhaps someday I'll pass them on to an eager young cook, or maybe they'll slip from my grip entirely and end up on the dusty shelf of an antique store somewhere. Either way, it's satisfying to know that they will only get better.