The goal of this new column is to examine similar kitchen and food products as objectively as possible.
For the first column, plain white porcelain bakeware was borrowed from eight companies for evaluation. All items were returned to the manufacturers following testing.
The bakeware included models manufactured in France, Germany, China and the Philippines. Prices ranged from $14.95 to $49. All could go directly from the freezer to the oven and were dishwasher-safe. They are recommended for use in conventional ovens, under broilers and in microwave ovens. None of the models are recommended for cooking over direct flame.
Because all lines except one included an oval baking or roasting pan, this piece was selected for the cooking experiments. An effort was made to work with similar sizes, but some models were larger than others. A round dish was tested from the eighth company.
We tossed cooked pasta with tomato sauce, then placed it in the lightly oiled bakeware and sprinkled Parmesan cheese over the top. The dishes were baked at 400 degrees for 25 minutes, then topped with shredded mozzarella cheese and broiled until the cheese melted. An effort was made to allow the cheese to come in contact with the dishes. Each model was judged on evenness of cooking, ease of cleaning--and whether staining occurred.
For the microwave testing, packaged macaroni and cheese was prepared according to the manufacturer's directions, but the porcelain bakeware was substituted for the pan provided in the package. In some cases, ingredients from two packages were used to accommodate the dish's capacity.
Results of the testing are reported on the accompanying chart.
Porcelain has the strongest body and lightest weight of any ceramic. It is chip-resistant and more durable than either earthenware or stoneware. Even unglazed, porcelain is totally non-absorbent of food odors and flavors.
Souffle dishes were borrowed from seven of the companies (the eighth did not manufacture this piece) for evaluation. They ranged from 1 1/2- to 2 1/4-quart capacity.
One major difference between the less expensive and more expensive brands of porcelain bakeware is the detail on the pieces. Ridges on the sides of souffle dishes feel sharper on the higher-priced brands, softer (or more rounded) on the less expensive lines. The reason for this can be traced back to the manufacturing process: The more expensive lines use a casting mold fewer times before scrapping it, so it can produce sharper detail.
Less-expensive lines may also contain some impurities--black or blue specks caused by tiny bits of iron in the glaze. These do not affect the cooking quality, but are filtered out in the higher-priced lines.
Color of the bakeware can vary from stark white to creamy white, grayish or bluish. This is the result of different clays and glazes and not an indication of quality.
Very little difference was found in the cooking performance of the eight models tested. Only one, the Emile Henry rectangular baker, showed any sign of permanent discoloration after use. All were easily cleaned using soap and water and a plastic dish brush.
Weight differences between the brands had both positive and negative aspects. Heavier units retained heat longer but were less convenient to handle.
Other than price, appearance seems to be the biggest factor in choosing which brand to buy. If sharper detail and absence of impurities are important, purchase the higher-priced pieces.
Unfortunately, the limited time spent with the models did not afford a full opportunity to test their durability. Keep in mind that although porcelain can stand up to rougher treatment than earthenware or stoneware, it will break if dropped and may chip if hit hard. It will also crack if placed on a cold surface when very hot.
APILCO--Manufactured in the Limoges area of France. The model A-141-001 souffle (2 1/4-quart capacity, $24.70) has an unglazed top rim and very distinctive ribbing on the collar and sides. The bottom is glazed with nubs.
Available at: Gelson's supermarkets; Williams-Sonoma stores; Cook 'N' Things, South Pasadena; Port O'Call, Pasadena; San Marino Hardware.
BLANC DE BLANC--Manufactured in France. Each piece is embossed with a white-on-white pattern. The model BB35 souffle (2-quart capacity, $34) has an embossed fruit motif on the sides, just below the ribbed collar. It has a glazed rim and smooth, unglazed bottom.
Available at: Port O'Call, Pasadena; the Prince's Table, Beverly Hills; Bullock's department stores.
CORDON BLEU--Styled after the French; manufactured in mainland China. The model 900018 souffle (2-quart capacity, $15) has a glazed top rim. The bottom is slightly recessed with nubs and is glazed except for eight 1 3/4-inch nubs around the outer edge. Heavier than French counterpart, but ribbing on collar and sides is not as distinctive.