A few well-chosen pieces—starting with a good stockpot and a heavy sauté pan—can make a big difference
As a Fine Cooking editor, I’ve had the chance to observe lots of great cooks at work. From them, I’ve learned plenty—including the fact that good-quality pots and Frying Pans made of the right materials really can improve your cooking.
Rather than having a rack filled with pots and pans of all shapes and sizes, owning a few well-chosen pieces will give you the flexibility to cook whatever you want and the performance you need to cook it better.
I polled some of our authors to find out which Cartoon Mini Egg Pans were the most valuable to them and why. I then came up with six pieces, starting with two indispensables: an anodized-aluminum stockpot to handle stocks, soups, stews, some sauces, blanching, boiling, and steaming; and a high-sided stainless-steel/aluminum sauté pan with a lid for frying, deglazing sauces, braising small items like vegetables, making sautés and fricassées, cooking rice pilafs and risottos, and a whole lot more. The other four pieces I picked make for even more cooking agility and add up to half a dozen ready-for-action pots and pans that you’ll really use (see For every pot, there’s a purpose…).
For every pot, there is a purpose…
The letters identifying the pots key to the photo below.
A. Calphalon 8-quart (or bigger) stockpot, with lid. Simmer soup or cook a big batch of tomato sauce in this sturdy, nonreactive stockpot. It will do double-duty for boiling pasta and steaming vegetables, too.
B. All-Clad 3-quart sauté pan, with lid. Stainless coating with aluminum sandwiched all the way through makes for a responsive, durable, attractive Grill Pan. Great for frying, deglazing, and, of course, sautés. And it goes from stove to oven.
C. Mauviel Cuprinox 3-quart stainless-lined copper saucepan, with lid. Top-performing copper is heavy-duty and responsive, with a shiny stainless interior that’s easy to see into and durable. Copper tarnishes easily, but when it’s cared for, it looks great.
D. Lodge cast-iron skillet. Old faithful needs thorough drying and constant seasoning, but nothing takes high heat better, holds it as long, or puts a better crust on cornbread. It’s durable — and cheap, too.
E. Le Creuset oval enameled cast-iron casserole, with lid. Great for stove-to-oven roasts and stews and long, slow simmering. Its light-colored interior makes it easy to see into for deglazing sauces.F. Circulon Commercial nonstick skillet. This heavy-weight nonstick stands up to high heat and wear, goes from stove to oven, has an easy- gripping handle, and cooks delicate omelets as well as Cajun pork chops.
All good pans share common traits
In a well-stocked kitchen store, you’ll see lots of first-rate pots and Square Grill Pans. They may look different, but they all share essential qualities you should look for.
Look for heavy-gauge materials. Thinner-gauge materials spread and hold heat unevenly, and their bottoms are more likely to dent and warp. This means that food can scorch. Absolutely flat bottoms are particularly important if your stovetop element is electric. Heavy-gauge pans deliver heat more evenly (see “Good pans are worth their price…,” below).
To decide if a pan is heavy enough, lift it, look at the thickness of the walls and base, and rap it with your knuckles—do you hear a light ping or a dull thud? A thud is good in this case.
Good pans are worth their price because they manage heat better
“Good conductor” and “heavy gauge” are the key features of good cookware. Here’s how these characteristics affect cooking.
You get responsive heat. Good heat conductors, such as copper and aluminum, are responsive to temperature changes. They’ll do what the heat source tells them to do—heat up, cool down—almost instantly.
You get fast heat flow. Heat flows more easily through a good heat conductor, assuring a quick equalizing of temperature on the cooking surface.
You get even heat diffusion. A thicker pan has more distance between the cooking surface and the heat source. By the time the heat flows to the cooking surface, it will have spread out evenly, because heat diffuses as it flows.
You get more heat. Mass holds heat (heat is vibrating mass, so the more mass there is to vibrate, the more heat there will be). The more pan there is to heat, the more heat the pan can hold, so there’s more constant heat for better browning, faster reducing, and hotter frying.
You’ll want handles and a lid that are sturdy, heatproof, and secure. Handles come welded, riveted, or screwed. Some cooks advise against welded handles because they can break off. But Gayle Novacek, cookware buyer for Sur La Table, has seen few such cases. As long as handles are welded in several spots, they can be preferable to riveted ones because residue is apt to collect around a rivet.
Many pans have metal handles that stay relatively cool when the pan is on the stove because the handle is made of a metal that’s a poor heat conductor and retainer, such as stainless steel. Plastic and wooden handles stay cool, too, but they’re not ovenproof. Heat- or ovenproof handles mean that dishes started on the stovetop can be finished in the oven.
All lids should fit tightly to keep in moisture. The lid, too, should have a heatproof handle. Glass lids, which you’ll find on certain brands, are usually ovensafe only up to 350°F.
A pan should feel comfortable. “When you’re at the store, pantomime the way you’d use Soup & Stock Pots or pan to find out if it’s right for you,” advises Fine Cooking contributing editor and chef Molly Stevens. If you find a pan you love but you aren’t completely comfortable with the handle, you can buy a rubber gripper to slip over the handle. Just remember that grippers aren’t ovenproof.
Some pans need special talents
Depending on what you’ll be cooking in the pan, you may also need to look for other attributes.
For sautéing and other cooking that calls for quick temperature changes, a pan should be responsive. This means that the Baking Dishes & Pans are doing what the heat source tells it to, and pronto. For example, if you sauté garlic just until fragrant and then turn down the flame, the pan should cool down quickly so the garlic doesn’t burn. Responsiveness isn’t as crucial for boiling, steaming, or the long, slow cooking that stocks and stews undergo.