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ALUMINUM VS. STEEL

Aluminum is lightweight and non-corrosive… but sometimes only steel will do. To purists like me, this goes for cookware as well as bicycles.


An unarguably beautiful classic steel bike.


The most abundant elements in the earth's crust (by number of atoms) are, in order, oxygen, silicon, and... aluminum? Yes, aluminum. (Iron comes in fourth.) This makes aluminum the most abundant metal on or near the surface of the earth... and yet, for more than a century since its discovery it was not readily accessible, much more difficult than iron to both extract and form. Check out this excerpt from the Science History Institute Museum & Library:


"In the mid-1800s aluminum was more valuable than gold. Napoléon III’s most important guests were given aluminum cutlery, while those less worthy dined with mere silver; fashionable and wealthy women wore jewelry crafted of aluminum. Today aluminum is a critical component of modern life, found in airplanes, automobiles, soft drink cans, construction materials, cooking equipment, guardrails, and countless other products. The difference between scarcity and abundance (and between obscurity and ubiquity) of this metal depended solely on scientists’ ability to find the way to release it—the third most common element in the earth’s crust by weight—from its ore." (Click here for the entire entry.)


Steel, meanwhile, was first developed in India around 400 B.C. not long after the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age. (Steel is merely iron blended with up to 2% carbon; stainless steel includes a small portion of chromium that makes it both shiny and more resistant to corrosion.)


Fast-forward to the present, or at least the 20th Century. Aluminum foil replaced tin foil in the aftermath of World war II... even though some folks still cling to the obsolete nomenclature. (No one ever dismisses conspiracy theorists as ALUMINUM-foil-hat kooks.)


The legendary AC Shelby Cobra 427 in all its mirror-polished aluminum glory.


Beginning in the 1950's aluminum made sports cars lighter, first with the bodies and then the engine blocks. Tin cans were replaced first by tin-plated steel, then all steel, and then aluminum.


With its favorable strength-to-weight ratio, aluminum was essential for aircraft; indeed, the Wright Brothers' first airplane had an aluminum block. Sixty-six years later, Man made it to the lunar surface thanks in large part to aluminum. And yet the frame of my first serious bicycle– my catholic confirmation gift in 1972, the year of our final Apollo moon voyage– was fashioned from welded steel because aluminum was still too expensive and too problematic to weld for cost-effective mass production. During that bicycling era, the phrase "Double-Butted Reynolds 531" referred to the most popular steel of choice and proudly appeared on numerous seat tube decals.


But today most low-to-mid-priced bike frames are made from aluminum, while the 5-figure racing bikes are made of carbon fiber... and steel-framed bikes have been relegated to a nostalgia act. (See Steel is Real.) What?? Is the universe trying to tell this Grumpy Old Mansplainer that something he wants is... unavailable?


Dear Reader, hold my Merlot.


Thanks to eBay, Amex, FedEx, and the aging-out Baby Boom generation who bought bikes like

these in the 1970's, this 1972 steel-framed Batavus is on the way to me at a fabulous price.


Having recently re-discovered the joys of Bicycling in the Berkshires AND that my 20-year-old low-end aluminum bike needs a bearing job, I easily convinced myself that I needed a second ride. The sticker shock staggered me as I beheld the yawning void between the comically shoddy Walmart bikes from TCTMATCC (The Country That Manufactures All That Cheap Crap) and the two-wheelers of actually usable quality that sticker in the low (to mid!) 4-figures.


But then I recalled that it is a buyer's market right now for vintage road bikes (see Garage-Yard-Tag Sale Safari Season) because so many of them are presently hanging from rafters in the homes of aging baby boomers. However, even if I actually had the time and the tools, was I even qualified to be my own bike mechanic and properly revive one of these vintage gems for regular use? And so rather than roll the dice on a fixer-upper, I shelled out one good night's driving pay for the above-pictured refurbished steel road bike from an eBay seller called Winter Sport Solutions. I'm looking forward to posting a review of my first ride.


And then there's the metallurgy of cookware.


100% aluminum pots and pans are really cheap. And even though they are not known to be harmful, they can interact with certain foods (i.e., asparagus and tomato sauce) to ill effect. So when it comes to frying pans, I like vintage iron. And my material of choice for my stockpots?


Stainless freaking steel.


* * * * * * *


Revere Ware... the cookware of choice for post-WWII newlyweds.


I grew up with Revere Ware pots and pans... a common and perfectly good wedding present for my parents' generation. Yes, they were made of stainless steel, albeit of a rather dull luster and thin gauge. Their copper bases heated quickly and evenly, the Bakelite handles didn't conduct heat to the human hand, and their rounded edges made for quick and easy cleaning. All in all, the pre-1968 editions are quite useful and durable; my oldest sister inherited our our parents' set and used it for decades. But Revere Ware is for civilian cooks in civilian kitchens; once you cook in a professional kitchen with heavy-duty commercial-grade equipment, it is hard to go back.


This is more like what I had in mind; yes, I'm cursed with expensive tastes.


A fabulous All-Clad Stainless Steel collection like this runs about a grand and a half.

My birthday is in November.


All-Clad is generally considered the Rolls Royce of stainless cookware... and is priced as such. At the opposite end of the spectrum one finds plenty of steel-plated offerings from TCTMATCC, but I don't trust their cladding and plating processes. (According to a few irate reviews, some of their "Damascus Steel" knives actually bear decals emulating the swirly lines characteristic of genuine Damascus.)


My new 12-quart stainless steel pot presently en route from Made In.


But I am happy to recommend the awkwardly-named Made In cookware company as a quality brand of pots, pans, and more. They get great reviews, and the few items I've bought from them so far (like a high-carbon steel griddle for the giant central flame on our new gas stove) has performed exactly as promised. After doing my duly diligent research, I ordered what looks like the perfect pot, the 12-quart Italian-made masterpiece shown above. (It ain't All-Clad, but let's just say I'm glad I had some Amex points to throw at this purchase.) I look forward to posting a review.



NOTES:


Although I rarely miss a chance to bash TCTMATCC, in all honesty my $7 Chef’s Knife that I purchased from Restaurant Depot a while back is still performing beautifully.


Revere Ware is no longer manufactured. If you enjoy treasure hunting, I recommend scouring eBay and thrift shops for pre-1968 pieces.


And finally, it is human nature to blame our failures on our tools; conversely, a dedicated artist produces wonderful results from humble equipment. In other words, snobs are usually fools. I am delighted to report that my sister, never having cooked in a restaurant with professional cookware, is nonetheless an excellent cook who delights in preparing delicious holiday and family fare with her civilian cookware. Great cooking comes from the heart as much as the pan.


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