by Ann M. Colford

The Cookware Manufacturers' Association (CMA) wants consumers to cook at home more often. While this revelation falls into the "Well, duh," category, what is surprising is their reason. Noting the rise in rates of obesity and associated medical conditions such as diabetes, the CMA is promoting home cooking as a healthful alternative to fast food and convenience meals purchased on-the-go.

"Foods prepared at home give the consumer control over both the ingredients and the portion size," says Hugh J. Rushing, executive vice president of the CMA. "We believe that encouraging consumers to utilize healthy cooking techniques is an important tool in the battle for weight loss."

The CMA now promotes recipes on its Web site along with advice on how to use cookware to produce foods that are enjoyable and healthy at the same time. Whether you think the CMA is sincere in its concern for America's expanding girth or is using the trend as a crass and cynical marketing ploy, its member manufacturers have been working overtime to come up with an ever-increasing variety of products to choose from.

Premium clad cookware - from brands such as Calphalon and All-Clad - continues to be a brisk seller for the industry. The term "clad" refers to the process of sandwiching metals together for better conductivity. According to the CMA, clad cookware combines stainless steel with more conductive metals such as aluminum or copper to cook quickly and evenly. The trend toward stainless steel kitchen accessories has not waned, however, and cookware with exterior stainless steel finishes continues to outsell aluminum.

Recent advances in nonstick surfaces mean that consumers may now choose "commercial" or "professional" quality cookware with an easy-to-clean nonstick interior. The new surfaces are much more durable than earlier nonstick products and can withstand high heat, metal utensils and cleaning in the dishwasher. Calphalon is promoting its new "Calphalon One" line, which features the standard hard-anodized aluminum exterior and a high-tech cooking surface that releases food easily while still searing and browning evenly. All-Clad also has a nonstick variation on its stainless steel theme.

I'll confess to being a recent convert to the dogma of premium clad cookware, and like many recent converts, I'm still in the evangelical phase. It all started with my acquisition of a nonstick skillet from Calphalon a couple of years ago. This skillet heated more evenly than anything I had used before. Saut & eacute;s were a breeze, deglazing happened just the way it was supposed to, and after cooking, the pan cleaned up in a flash. Next came a two-quart saucepan and then a large everyday pan that can double as a Dutch oven. Now I'm hooked. These are my favorite pans, the ones that get the most use in my kitchen.

The only downside to Calphalon and the other premium brands is the price. The suggested retail prices on these puppies could make one seriously consider a consumer loan. Rather than paying full retail, the best bet is to keep your eyes open for sales and close-outs.

The most colorful additions to the wider world of kitchen products are all the new items being made from silicone rubber. The kitchen applications of silicone that began with the Silpat baking sheet liner now include spatulas, whisks and all manner of bakeware, mostly from French companies.

The silicone baking pans - more precisely termed baking molds - come in a multitude of shapes and a rainbow of bright colors, although red seems to be most popular. Want a mold for making madeleines? You got it. How about a Bundt pan? Check. Muffin cups and decorator cake pans? Yep, they've got 'em.

All silicone bakeware withstands temperatures from below zero up to about 500 degrees Fahrenheit, although it will melt if it comes in direct contact with a heating element. The bakeware remains flexible, allowing the cook to pop the baked goods out of their molds; there's no need to grease the pan or struggle to get the last muffin out. The stickiest foods slide right off the slick surface, easing cleanup. And when you're done, you can just roll up the mold for storage.

Again, the downside is price. A silicone muffin pan costs two to four times as much as a good quality metal pan. Although manufacturers claim the silicone pans are good for up to 5,000 uses, it'll be a long time before a 2004 silicone muffin pan has the same longevity record as my favorite metal muffin tin, which has 1943 stamped proudly in its surface.

As always, the prestige of having the newest product will take a serious bite out of the household budget. Perhaps the CMA is actually trying to lighten up Americans by thinning our wallets.

Publication date: 02/12/04

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