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Q&A -- Understanding Stovetop Cookware

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One of the hardest things that I have had to learn is to allow the browning to occur so that it releases from the pan. I have to really work hard at leaving it alone for long enough. I still have trouble with that but I am getting better. (One of the many things I have learned here.)

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One of the hardest things that I have had to learn is to allow the browning to occur so that it releases from the pan. I have to really work hard at leaving it alone for long enough. I still have trouble with that but I am getting better. (One of the many things I have learned here.)

I find that, with most things, if you start with high heat and give the pan a good shake right as you put the meat into the pan, the protein will set enough in that first second or two to prevent further sticking.

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Thanks for the informative lesson. I have a few pieces of (orange) Descoware (Belgium) from my mother's pan collection. This cookware is what got me to purchase the Le Cruset line. What can you tell me about Descoware? Is it available today? What other similar, maybe less costly brands, are available? Thanks in advance for your reply!

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Thanks for the informative lesson.  I have a few pieces of (orange) Descoware (Belgium) from my mother's pan collection.  This cookware is what got me to purchase the Le Cruset line.  What can you tell me about Descoware?  Is it available today?  What other similar, maybe less costly brands, are available?  Thanks in advance for your reply!

AFAIK, Descoware is no longer made. You can, however, get pretty good deals on it on eBay and places like that.

As for cheap alternatives... this is just an expensive kind of cookware to make. None of the brands out there are particularly inexpensive. Chasseur is probably the most reasonably-priced brand of which I am aware. I believe Martha Stewart makes enameled cast iron, but I really don't know much about the quality. You might also call Bridge Kitchenware and ask what kind of prices they have and what line they carry. I do know that they refuse to carry Le Creuset because they think it is terribly overpriced (same thing for All-Clad).

That said, the best way to get reasonably priced enameled cast iron is to pick up a "second" at one of the Le Creuset Factory Stores or wait until a cookware store is having a sale.

One brief word on price: I know that spending 250 bucks on an enameled cast iron cocotte or a stainless lined heavy copper curved sauteuse evasée seems like a ton of money. But these are pieces of cookware that will last a lifetime and can be handed down to your children or grandchildren as a family heirloom. When you compare that to the money we spend without batting an eye on a not-so-great television or VCR or laptop computer that will be obsolete in 3-4 years, it really isn't all that much money.

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I do know that they refuse to carry Le Creuset because they think it is terribly overpriced (same thing for All-Clad).

.......... But these are pieces of cookware that will last a lifetime and can be handed down to your children or grandchildren as a family heirloom.  When you compare that to the money we spend without batting an eye on a not-so-great television or VCR or laptop computer that will be obsolete in 3-4 years, it really isn't all that much money.

When one lives in the more rural parts of the country All-Clad stainless and Le Creuset are our choices for top of the line. The prices are a bit hard on the wallet, but one reason I buy them is because I have no doubt that they will give my children good service and others beyond. And they cook well.

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Three things:

1. I think the people at Bridge feel -- as do I -- that similar products functionally similar to or better than All-Clad and Le Creuset may be found for less money. So, while I do advocate spending money for good cookware that will last a lifetime, I don't necessarily advocate spending more money than you have to in order to achieve a certain level of performance. For example, if you want a large sauté pan, I don't think it makes sense to spend $175 (or $117 for a deep-discounted factory second) on a 10.5" All-Clad stainless sauté pan with 2 mm of aluminum when you can spend $68 on an 11" Sitram Profisserie sauté pan with a 7 mm aluminum bottom. The Sitram pan is allready a better pan for sautéing, and it is less than half the price. Similarly, why spend $175 on a 5.5 quart enameled cast iron casserole from Le Creuset when you can get one from Chasseur that is practically identical for $155.

2. If you really take the long view and don't mind spending top dollar on cookware, something better than All-Clad can always be had. For example, if you want a small pan for sauce making, you could spend around 100 bucks on a 2 qt All-Clad stainless saucier. Or, for around 50 bucks more, you could have a Falk Culinair stainless lined heavy copper saucière that will blow the All-Clad pan out of the water when it comes to performance. Sometimes the cheaper piece is actually better anyway... Thinking of enameled cast iron casseroles above, you could get a 5 quart Staub cocotte -- which I think it better than Le Creuset -- for only 160 bucks.

3. Whether or not you live in one of the more rural parts of the country, we have this little thing called the Internet that allows us to purchase cookware at a good price from just about everywhere else in the world. Living in Nome, Alaska or Deport, Texas is really no excuse for not buying, say, a Paderno Grand Gourmet tall saucepan from Bridge Kitchenware.

The fact of the matter is that certain manufacturers -- the best examples being All-Clad and Le Creuset -- spend a lot of money on full page advertizing to convince people that their products are worth a whole lot more money than the competition's. When you buy their cookware, you are paying for these promotions. This is not to say that these lines are not good. They're very good. Just horribly overpriced. If you do a little digging in the archives, you'll see that I excitedly snapped up two 1 qt All-Clad stainless saucepans when they went on sale at Amazon for around 15 bucks apiece. Although I would rather have had All-Clad MasterChef (thicker aluminum layer), I was glad to buy them. That said, I would never pay the 85 dollar retail price nor the tyical deep discount "factory second" price of 55 bucks to acquire one of these pans. They're losers on a cost-per-performance basis.

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In all seriousness, thanks for the info. I'll be investing in a new cast-iron pan, and a big bucket of Crisco.

My experience has been that cast iron shouldn't cost big bucks. I have a $14 cast iron grill pan from the now defunct lechter's, that I will never part with. I've seen regular cast iron pans for $7.

It took about 6 months of weekly use for a great seasoning. Now, my favorites in the pan are: shrimp, onions and radicchio.

Lisa

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Thanks for the course - it was very informative! Perhaps we could have a second part - a practical examples section, where you go through "typical" uses of cookware, and then your reasoning for choosing a particular size, shape, material, brand, etc. How much higher end cookware would make a difference. What your ideal pan would be given no budget constraints.

For example, sauteeing 2 chicken breasts, then making a simple pan reduction sauce.

I also liked your recent posts that showed cheaper, better alternatives to Le Creuset and All-Clad. For a lot of us, I think it is a question of available information. The typical non-professional culinary quasi-sophisticate has heard of these two major brands (due to good marketing and some word-of-mouth) and knows that they will be getting great cookware. He or she is neither aware of these alternative brands, nor can vouch for the quality. So for cookware that will supposedly last a lifetime, it's a safer bet to go with All-Clad and Le Creuset. From a pro-rated standpoint, the prices aren't too bad.

It seems that the only way for a lot of us to learn about the best values in cookware is not by trying, but by word-of-mouth on the Internet. (I also read Cook's Illustrated/Fine Cooking, and when they rate cookware they never mention the brands you cite). So perhaps a FAQ which codifies information about good cookware brands would be extremely useful. Thanks.

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Perhaps we could have a second part - a practical examples section, where you go through "typical" uses of cookware, and then your reasoning for choosing a particular size, shape, material, brand, etc.  How much higher end cookware would make a difference.  What your ideal pan would be given no budget constraints.

That's an interesting idea, but perhaps a little outside the scope of this kind of article. Do do such a survey in any kind of meaningfully comprehensive way would require an article of a length that might make Chad's knife sharpening epic look short. That said, I am happy to answer any such questions here in the Q&A.

I am also reluctant to make specific brand recommendations in the body of an article, because the idea is that I am trying to convince people I am unbiased. Most of the time there is no clear cut winner anyway, as many things come down to style and personal preference. In these informal Q&As, however, I am much more free to answer questions as to my own personal brand preferences and recommendations. 90% of the time, my personal pan of preference would be heavy copper with an interior lining of stainless steel if cost were not a consideration. My dream pan, however, would probably be 2.5 mm of copper with .2 mm of brushed stainless steel on the inside and the outside, and a solid cast stainless steel handle. This would offer the thermal benefits of straight gauge heavy copper, but would be dishwasher-safe.

As for how much difference high end cookware makes... that is a very tough one to answer. All great cookware does is make the job easier. It doesn't really make the result better. To make an example, I have little doubt that Jean Georges Vongerichten could make a much better meal using a crap stove and cheap thin stainless cookware than I could do with stainless lined heavy copper and a restaurant stove. To make another example, using a Falk Culinair sauciere does make it easier to make a Hollandaise over direct heat without fear and with great control. But, you can make one that is just as good using a "double boiler" made from a cheap stainless saucepan filled with barely simmering water and a cheap stainless mixing bowl on top. In general, as with all things, the differences become smaller and smaller the higher the price point gets. There is a huge jump up in performance characteristics from a 15 dollar stainless saute pan and a 65 dollar Sitram Profisserie saute pan. The jump from the Sitram Profisserie saute pan up to a Falk Culinair saute pan at 235 bucks? Not nearly as big.

For example, sauteeing 2 chicken breasts, then making a simple pan reduction sauce.

So, let's have a go at this one. The first thing to understand is that we really don't saute chicken breasts. If you refer back to my description of the saute pan, you will see that the French verb "sauter" means "to jump." When we saute, we have a number of small items in a pan over high heat, and the pan is constantly agitated in order to jump the ingredients around and expose every side of the ingredients to the heat. The straight, relatively tall sides of the saute pan help to bounce food around back into the pan. You don't really need to "toss" or "flip" the ingredients to saute either. All you need to do is simply shake the pan back and forth vigorously on the burner. My impression is that home cooks don't tend to do all that much real sauteing.

Sauteing is, then, something you might do with chunks of chicken breast, but not with whole chicken breasts. Whole or flattened chicken breasts just sit there in the pan and fry. Fundamentally there is no reason you shouldn't use a fry pan to do this. Among other things, it will be much easier to get a spatula under the food when it needs to be turned if it is in a fry pan. As for the pan sauce, if all you are going to be doing is deglazing with a little white wine and maybe swirling in a little butter there is no reason you couldn't do this right in the fry pan. I'd recommend a nice heavy fry pan.

But, let's take a slightly different approach and see how that changes the pan requirements. Let's say we want to fry some chicken thighs until they are nice and brown together whith some small onions then add some white wine to the pan and quickly braise/steam the chicken until it is cooked through, at which point the solid ingredients will be removed and the liquid will be reduced and mounted with butter to form the sauce. In this case, a saute pan would be much better -- even though you are not sauteing -- because the higher sides and the lid make it a better environment for the quick braise and subsequent reduction part.

It seems that the only way for a lot of us to learn about the best values in cookware is not by trying, but by word-of-mouth on the Internet.  (I also read Cook's Illustrated/Fine Cooking, and when they rate cookware they never mention the brands you cite).  So perhaps a FAQ which codifies information about good cookware brands would be extremely useful.  Thanks.

The Internet and places like eGullet can be a great place to gather information. Now that you are among the cultural elite that is the eGullet membership, you know about cookware makers like Sitram, Paderno, De Buyer, Falk Culinair, Mauviel, Demeyere, Staub, Chasseur, Griswold and so on. My only advice is to beware people who are dogmatic about a certain brand of cookware being "the best." If someone has a collection of nothing but All-Clad Stainless and Le Creuset, there is a very good chance that he/she is heavily invested in the marketing hype that these brands represent the best cookware available. I got into a fun debate with a guy on Usenet several years ago who insisted that Demeyere was the best cookware available because "it says so right here in their brochure." There are also some interesting books that are worthwhile checking out. The Well Tooled Kitchen by Fred Bridge, the ledendary owner of Bridge Kitchenware, is a great reference book and the classic one, IMO. There are also interesting books here, here and here. But also, as I hoped my article explained a bit, an understanding of the materials used and the properties of those materials can really inform your choices. A lot of the time, you can get the cookware company to give you some of their materials specifications. For example, until someone from rec.food.equipment emailed All-Clad and posted the information, I had no idea that the Stainless line had so much less aluminum than the MasterChef line -- never mind that I was previously going on my best guess as to how much aluminum there was in any of their lines. This kind of information can be very valuable.

I hope this answers your questions somewhat. Please post again if there is any clarification I can offer.

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slkinsey, thanks for this great course. I've got a quick question that I haven't seen an answer to around the site.

Last week a friend of mine emailed me that he was in paris, and did I want any kitchenware. I said, half jokingly, sure, if you have the space, pick me up one of those 30 cm, 2.5 mm thick copper stainless lined fry pans at E. Dehillerin.

Well, wouldn't you know it, he did--and they wouldn't let him carry it on the plane, and it survived being simply wrapped in plastic bags and tossed in the cargo hold from paris to philadelphia, and didn't get lost. And here I am $95 or so later, with a really really nice pan.

The question is: considering that I've never owned a copper pan before, is there anything special I need to do to take care of a copper pan? I know that if I don't polish it up the copper will tarnish--I don't care about that unless it makes a difference in performance somehow. And I figure since copper is as soft and reactive as it is, I shouldn't put it in the dishwasher, which is fine. But is there anything else I need to consider?

(anyone can answer this one, if you feel like it--don't be shy)

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Last week a friend of mine emailed me that he was in paris, and did I want any kitchenware.  I said, half jokingly, sure, if you have the space, pick me up one of those 30 cm, 2.5 mm thick copper stainless lined fry pans at E. Dehillerin.

Well, wouldn't you know it, he did--and they wouldn't let him carry it on the plane, and it survived being simply wrapped in plastic bags and tossed in the cargo hold from paris to philadelphia, and didn't get lost.  And here I am $95 or so later, with a really really nice pan.

You are definitely hanging around with the right people!

The question is: considering that I've never owned a copper pan before, is there anything special I need to do to take care of a copper pan?  I  know that if I don't polish it up the copper will tarnish--I don't care about that unless it makes a difference in performance somehow. And I figure since copper is as soft and reactive as it is, I shouldn't put it in the dishwasher, which is fine.  But is there anything else I need to consider?

There are a few considerations, yes. Copper doesn't have to be more of a maintenance hassle than other materials, but it can be. It all depends on aesthetics.

As you correctly surmise, you shouldn't put it in the dishwasher as this could cause extreme oxidation of the copper. So that's out... Also, new copper cookware often comes with a coating of lacqueur to protect the copper from oxidation in the showroom. This needs to be removed with acetone, nail polish remover, 91% rubbing alcohol or some other suitable solvent before you put it on the heat.

So... now to the important stuff. When you use your copper pan, the heat will cause the copper to discolor. Then you have several choices:

1. If you like, you can simply let this discoloration build up over time and allow the copper to develop a natural patina with use. The performance of the pan will not be affected in any way, and some people like this appearance. If you want to do this, simply wash the exterior of the pan with a sponge to remove any food stuck to the outside and leave it at that.

If you prefer a bright exterior, it will take a bit more work.

2. If the exterior has a mirror (shiny) finish, you will need to polish away the oxidation using either copper polish or strong vinegar. The tradeoff is that the polish will need to be washed off when you want to use the pan again, and vinegar has only limited effectiveness. Since copper is soft, you have to be very careful about the exterior surface if you want to keep the smooth and shiny finish. If you use scouring powder on the inside of the pan, you need to take extra care that none gets on the mirror finished copper or it will mar the finish with scratches. This is an example of mirror finished copper cookware.

3. If the exterior has a brushed finish, on the other hand, your options are a lot more open. You can still use polish or strong vinegar, but you can also use scouring powders. Barkeeper's Friend and a Scotch Brite pad will take the tarnish off a copper pan in right around the same time it takes to make a stainless steel pan shiny-clean. The inevitable result of using these abrasive products, of course, is that it will leave tiny scratches in the copper. However, if the exterior has a brushed finish, all you have to do is scour in the same direction as the "grain" of the brush marks. Any new scratches will end up being parallel to the original scratches, and the finish will look more or less the same. Brushed copper is therefore much easier to keep bright, which is exactly why some makers have gone over to brushed exterior finishes. This is an example of brushed finish copper cookware.

4. Suppose you have some mirror finished copper cookware that you want to keep bright, but you don't want to go to all the hassle of polishing it with a polish. You can convert the mirror finish to a brushed finish at home. This is what I have done with all my mirror finished copper cookware. All you have to do is get a Scotch Brite pad and some Barkeeper's Friend and carefully scour the copper exterior in the same pattern that is used for brushed finish copper cookware: Run the pad around the sides of the pan (parallel to the lip of the pan) making a big circle all the way around, then turn the pan over and run the pad across the entire bottom of the pan always in one direction (perpendicular to the handle of the pan is my usual choice). At this point, you now have a brushed finish.

All copper pans need to be dried promptly after cleaning or they will have water spots.

Hope this helps. Please follow up here if I can clarify further.

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Excellent, thanks!

It's got a mirror-polished finish, which looks nice right now, but I think I'm gonna take your advice and brush it up. Or just let it tarnish. I don't have the time or energy (or money--$32 for that polish!) to maintain that look. And I figure the bottom will get all scratched up anyway from being moved and shaken around on the burner and all...

Thanks again--great course.


Edited by mrbigjas (log)

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Sam, I was just down at my local specialty grocery. They've dropped most of their other lines of cookware in favor of a brand called Berndes. This is not a company I've heard of before, but the pans themselves were heavy aluminum, non-stick and had some sort of powder coat on the exterior. All in all, not bad gear from the looks and heft of them.

Do you have any experience with Berndes?

Chad

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Sam, I was just down at my local specialty grocery. They've dropped most of their other lines of cookware in favor of a brand called Berndes. This is not a company I've heard of before, but the pans themselves were heavy aluminum, non-stick and had some sort of powder coat on the exterior. All in all, not bad gear from the looks and heft of them.

Do you have any experience with Berndes?

No personal experience, but we can learn something from their web site. The cast aluminum like this line, this line, this line and this line appear to be 6 mm thick at the base, which is encouraging. The spun aluminum products appear to be 3 mm to 5 mm thick, which is bad to OK for unclad aluminum. I would definitely expect the thinner pans to warp.

The main thing to consider with these pans, really, is the nonstick coating. If you get a cast aluminum pan that is 6 mm thick on the bottom, it will have pretty good thermal properties. However, nonstick coated pans are only as good as the nonstick coating. Once that coating wears away, the pan is junk. Plus, nonstick coatings have only limited usefulness in my opinion (I only have one large nonstick fry pan and don't see the point of nonstick saucepans, etc.). I honestly don't know anything about the nonstick coating and how well it holds up, or whether they have different coatings on the different lines.

The other thing to consider about these pans is the cost. They are not all that cheap, especially when compared to, say, a similar pan in Calphalon Commercial Nonstick which we know from user reports has an almost indestructible nonstick coating. In the example I just showed, I'd spend the extra 4 bucks on the Calphalon fry pan every time based on the information I have. That said, I would never spend $114 on a 12 inch nonstick fry pan. I'd wait until Fat Guy told me about another big sale on Amazon and I'd pick up the Calphalon fry pan for 25 bucks. :biggrin:

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. . . The main thing to consider with these pans, really, is the nonstick coating . . .

According to their web site, Berndes uses Autograph as its non-stick coating for its SignoCast and Tradition lines.

Autograph is Dupont's premier PTFE coating, and is most often seen on professional quality cookware, though it's creeping into high-end stuff for the home, too. Autograph applications are often customzied for manufacturers, including special primers and textured finishes. Like all Teflon coatings, it can only be applied under license, meaning that Dupont has approved the manufacturing technique(s). It's unlikely that there is a better non-stick coating.

More here.

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. . . The main thing to consider with these pans, really, is the nonstick coating . . .

According to their web site, Berndes uses Autograph as its non-stick coating for its SignoCast and Tradition lines.

Autograph is Dupont's premier PTFE coating...

Thanks Dave. Good catch! That is certainly good news to potential buyers.

That said, my understanding is that a major factor in the durability of a nonstick surface is the number of coats applied (I think this is the difference between Calphalon's "Commercial" and "Professional" nonstick lines, for example) and we do not have any data on that AFAIK, although a closer look through their site may reveal some.

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Excellent, thanks!

It's got a mirror-polished finish, which looks nice right now, but I think I'm gonna  take your advice and brush it up.  Or just let it tarnish.  I don't have the time or energy (or money--$32 for that polish!) to maintain that look.  And I figure the bottom will get all scratched up anyway from being moved and shaken around on the burner and all...

Thanks again--great course.

you can also use half a lemon dipped in salt to clean the copper.

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That said, my understanding is that a major factor in the durability of a nonstick surface is the number of coats applied (I think this is the difference between Calphalon's "Commercial" and "Professional" nonstick lines, for example) and we do not have any data on that AFAIK, although a closer look through their site may reveal some.

Somewhere on another thread, we got Calphalon to confirm the two-vs-three coat theory via e-mail. This does indeed increase the useful life of the coating, if for no other reason than that there's more stuff to wear off.

More recently, Dupont, along with cookware manufacturers (which are, after all, Dupont's customers), have been using other techniques. For instance, if you look at (and feel) a non-stick pan of recent vintage, you'll notice that it's rougher. Look closer, and you'll see what appear to be little bits of metal peeking through the coating.

There are two (maybe three) reasons for this:

One, the bits of metal provide an increased surface area for the coating to cling to; in cross-section these bits are sometimes mushroom-shaped, so they act as anchors, too.

Two, the less the food comes in contact with the non-stick surface, the less the surface wears. (For an extreme example of this theory in action, look at a Circulon pan.) While each bit is practically nothing its own, in aggregate they comprise a significant percentage of the pan surface; they can also lift the food slightly, so actual contact with the PTFE is reduced.

The third byproduct is that the metal bits mitigate the problem of fat dispersion in the pan (other textured PTFE sufaces do this, too). You've probably noticed that oils just don't behave the same way in Teflon as they do in a metal-surfaced pan -- a tablespoon of fat poured into a Teflon pan remains a tablespoon of fat -- it just won't spread out. By dispersing metal bits (or by texturing the surface), the surface tension of the fat globule is continually disrupted, promoting more even coating of the pan bottom. In practice, though, while these new surfaces are better than the super-slick coatings of a few years ago, they are far from duplicative of what happens in a stainless steel pan.

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i just came across a nice, cheap, medium sized heavy enameled casserole. does it have a place in a well-equipped kitchen?

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i just came across a nice, cheap, medium sized heavy enameled casserole. does it have a place in a well-equipped kitchen?

Absolutely! This is the enameled cast iron casserole I describe in my article. One of the best pieces of cookware that can be found for stews, braises, low/slow cooked tomato sauces, etc.

just found this:

http://www.cunillexport.com/produit.asp?nu...m=6504.30&gam=1

i think it looks like a good buy. do you?

A 30 cm 2.5 mm thick stainless lined copper fry pan for €96 strikes me as a very good deal indeed. You should definitely buy it.

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Oraklet: I wonder if those prices quoted in euros include VAT. If they do, your export price is likely to be significanlty lower because they will not charge you VAT.

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Oraklet:  I wonder if those prices quoted in euros include VAT.  If they do, your export price is likely to be significanlty lower because they will not charge you VAT.

you know, the vat/no vat included just struck me last night. i'll have to check it out, cause danish vat is 25%...

the casserolle, a "copco", has been brought home, at the modest price of 10$.

by the way, slkinsey, do you think the big s.s. saute pans on that site look good, too? i don't see any information on what the base is, but i could check that out, too...

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