The hypothesis of Catching Fire is that cooking food was a learned cultural practice that affected the physiological evolution of human beings. It used “external” energy to make eating and digesting food take less time and liberated people to get on with life.
The metal cooking vessel was allowed food to be fried, roasted, boiled or braised. The combination of metal cooking vessels and reasonably safe and efficient stoves that created heat with electricity or fuel enabled people to work with raw ingredients and “staple” processed ingredients (e.g. rice, dried beans, flour) to cook. Metal pots were made where metal was mined and worked, and popular articles of trade – the usefulness of metal was evident to users.
The kitchen stove in the 20th century, heated by electrical energy or gas, provided direct heat applied to base of the cooking vessel by elements or burners, and an oven. The top worked with metal vessels, primarily. The user had to set the energy level, monitor the time and temperature and work the food around the pan. It is better than cooking with wood or coal, but it required some skill and effort and used energy.
Cast iron was a dominant technology in 19th century Europe and America. Carbon steel became (and remains) was a popular material to make woks and karahis in Asia. Thick walled vessels were durable and managed to distribute heat evenly. Thin walled vessels were vulnerable to dents and dings, and could easily scorch food. Lighter and less expensive thin-walled, vessels dominated the markets in Europe and America for most of the 20th century. Technological innovations included stainless steel, clad (bonded layers of stainless steel surfaces over other metal that held and conducted heat) bases, multi-ply vessels, induction pans.
American and European tradition culinary writers favour using heavy cast iron or steel pans to fry or roast to get the outer layers of some food to carmelize (brown), and using technique (e.g. deglazing) to get the carmelized matter out of the pan and into a sauce or gravy that would reach the plate. American writers favoured the large skillet to fry and saute most food, and as shallow roasting pan – even as a substitute for a wok. The disadvantages of heavy metal pots are weight and cost.
Enamel on iron and enamel on steel coatings make metal less prone to stick, more resitant to corrosion, and simplied maintenace and care.
Teflon and other chemical non-stick coatings developed in mid to late 20th century had benefits and drawbacks. The coatings could be scratched during use or cleaning – the utensils have to be softer than the utensils that work with bare metal. Some coatings degrade if the pan is overheated, or under heavy use. Hard anodized aluminum is marketed as non-stick. There have been technical advances. The true advances cannot be identified in the background noise of product marketing “reviews”.
A few pans and utensils and a stove will see most cooks through most tasks. A few specialty applicances can cook some food with less adjustment of stove temperatures and work over the stove.
A flat bottom wok, with a durable non stick coating, is a versatile pan which can serve as a skillet, a deep saute pan and a wok.