My father used to say that you need the right tools to do the job right, but he was talking about screwdrivers.
The same is true in the kitchen, where cookbook author and housewares consultant Jamee Ruth makes it her mission to get cooks comfortable with their tools.
What exactly is a braiser? Or the difference between a saucepan and a saucier? Didn't the cast-iron skillet go out with washing clothes in the river?
In her new book, The Cookware Cookbook (Chronicle Books, 2005, $18.95), Ruth lists the tools essential to the versatile cook and explains how to use them and care for them.
And she includes recipes for practicing with your fondue pot, crepe pan or tagine. The recipes teach the technique, she said, whether it is steaming, broiling, boiling, braising, deglazing, frying, simmering or sauteing.
"I try to take the mystery out of a lot of these things," said Ruth from her home in New York City.
"I don't want to just teach you how to make poached salmon. I want to teach you how to clean your French fish poacher and maintain it.
"After all, you don't throw a $199 fish poacher away."
But she'd never throw her $20 cast-iron fry pan away, either.
"It is the workhorse of the kitchen. I would never make fried chicken in anything else. And it is why my crab cakes turn out so crispy."
She found hers in a barn and she thinks it might be 200 years old. It still works.
"And the same can be true of a Kitchen Aid stand mixer. I saw one from the 1930s, and it worked beautifully.
"If you take care of this stuff, it will never go bad."
But if you don't, Le Creuset won't honor the 100-year warranty on its enamel-coated cast-iron pots and pans.
However, if you treat your Le Creuset Dutch oven properly (and don't use metal utensils), the heat conductivity it is famous for - across the bottom and up the sides - will produce the most delicious, slow-cooked soups and stews.
The universal truth about cookware is that it requires careful seasoning, conscientious cleaning and careful storage, and Ruth teaches you about that.
If you put any cookware in the dishwasher, she doesn't want to talk to you.
"That's just lazy," she said.
This is the third of three books in a series. Ruth also demystified indoor grilling in The Grill Pan Cookbook and the multiple attachments for the stand mixer in Mix It Up!
"People are amazed when you break it down in plain English," she said. "Braising is like sauteing and frying and poaching.
"When I'm done with you, you can deglaze, you can sear and blacken, you can grind your own meat and make your own sausage."
You will even be able to use the Moroccan tagine, the hot new Middle Eastern baker that looks something like the cooling tower on a nuclear power plant.
"And it won't be any scarier than making your own chicken casserole," said Ruth.
"I want people to cook, and confidence makes people want to cook more."
Caring for cookware
If the interior of your anodized aluminum cookware discolors, fill the pan with water and a little white vinegar and boil for about 15 minutes.
Always wipe the interior of your clad stainless steel with a little oil before cooking. This will help keep food from sticking.
Use a copper pot for cooking cream- and egg-based sauces and a copper bowl for whisking eggs. The difference is remarkable. (Ruth's tip: Polish your copper with ketchup.)
Simply rinse your cast-iron pan and wipe dry with a paper towel, then lightly coat the interior with oil. If necessary, scrub with coarse salt and a soft sponge. Never let it sit with water inside.
If you invest in an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, also purchase a trivet. This will help stop the cooking and cool the pot evenly.
Pot racks and knife blocks will help you protect and care for your knives and cookware. But if you must stack your pots and pans, always layer paper towels between them.
If you use oil in your grill pan, you might as well just throw it out.
A saucier, unlike a saucepan, has curved sides and allows you to use a whisk more effectively when making sauces.
The "quick-toss" method of stirring is not just for showing off. Done without a utensil, this ensures that none of the stir-fry ingredients will break up.
If you want to make perfect fried chicken, invest in a deep-fat thermometer to keep the temperature of the oil between 350 and 375 degrees.
A nonstick fry pan is essential for cooking eggs and omelets, but don't try to brown meat or deep-fry in nonstick pans.