Not many centuries ago the going thing was to have a home which had a hearth which had cast iron pot that hung over the hearth. And what went into the pot was the next meal. Since the pot is ideally suited to boiling foods, the pot made a lot of boiled vegetables and stews. The advent of the stove changed all this and brought us the saute pan, but that is a different chapter.
Today, boiling is just about out. There's the occasional egg, or potatoes; but even these are better steamed than boiled. And there's the blanching of vegetables. But because boiling too frequently produces damp, flavorless food, it has lost ground to other cooking processes. The big pot (12 qt) is a necessity if you cook pasta or cook huge amounts of soup or eat a lot of homemade potato salad. It is also important if you do a lot of steaming. Most cooks want to be pasta-capable so this pot is probably a requirement.
During my first ten years as a cook I did without a stock pot, casserole or Dutch Oven. If you are a vegetarian, you can probably get by without having one of these pots. But if you ever eat meat, you owe yourself the incredibly pleasurable experience of eating meats cooked with vegetables or dried fruits.
It is in small pots that braises, roasts and fricassees turn into ambrosia. And the cooking techniques one uses with these pots are incredibly forgiving: if you can be awake within twenty minutes of when it is supposed to be taken out of the oven, you almost cannot fail.
And if you are on a budget, you can use cheap root vegetables and the cheapest cuts of meat and get spectacular results. In fact it is the cheap cuts of meat - tough meat near bones that has the best flavor. And it falls apart after 90 minutes of braising.
In many kitchens the primary purpose of a saucepan is to boil water or simmer soup. In these cases, pretty much all that matters is that the surface of the pan not react with food. The cheapest stainless steel pan will work. So will an engineered glass pan such as the Pyrex. My kitchen does have one or two 'midnight ride' brand pans, but they are being phased out. The 'stainless' steel is not very stainless, the handles break or overbalance the empty pan. And the thin metal, copper look not withstanding, is prone to hot spots.
There are a lot of tasks that are subtly different in which the construction of the pan plays a crucial role. Long ago I cooked rice in a 1.5 quart Pyrex sauce pan. I found that I routinely burned the rice. The Pyrex sauce pan is gone now. I threw it out after having burned rice in it one too many times. The burning rice was smelling up the kitchen. I instictively pulled the pan from the stove and set it on the Formica counter. POP POP. Suddenly we had two nice holes in the countertop. This cheap pan had proven to be too expensive to have around the kitchen.
Since I already had a heavy 1.5 quart stainless steel saucepan with a 2mm copper core, I tried it. Suddenly, almost magically, the rice came out right every single time! The rice at the bottom of the pan did stick enough to be difficult to clean but it never burned. A little later I bought a stainless steel saucepan that had an aluminum core that covered not only the bottom, but went up the sides of the pan. Now even the sticky part on the bottom was gone. I got perfect rice every tim. Thermal conduction: it's a beautiful thing.
Why did the old pan fail? Pyrex is a pretty terrible heat conductor. So even though the pan had thick walls, it developed hot spots. And none of the heat was conducted up the sides of the pan. Rice would stick to the hot spots. Then water could not circulate and carry heat away, causing the hot spots to get hotter still, causing more rice to stick. It was a kind of runaway reaction. The surface of the copper core pan had no hot spots, so until the water all got absorbed by the rice, the rice would never stick and get hot. The pan with thick cladding up the sides had a surface temperature on the bottom that was lower still. Even when the water was gone, it could carry the heat to the rice over the entire bottom and the sides without getting hot enought to scorch.
The principles in this example extend to the process of cooking anything that can scorch or burn (i.e. pretty much everything you might cook in a pan except for hot water and boiled eggs.) If you use a sauce pan to make sauces, it is important that the bottom of the pan be clad with copper or aluminum. Otherwise hot spots will cause burning. And if you make cream sauces, or chocolate confections, or custardy things containing eggs, or even rice,you will definitely want a sauce pan that has aluminum or copper cladding up the sides of the pan as well. This cladding can make a profound difference when it comes to avoiding scorching or scalding.
At one point I would have argued that cooking processes involving boiling things in water can be carried out in any old pan that holds water. But last year I was cooking pasta in a vat of water. And I had just dumped the pasta in haphazardly, then forgot to stir it. When I took the pasta out, a number of bits of it were stuck to the bottom of the pan where it was next to the flame.
The pasta there actually burned and got black beneath 3 gallons of water! This does not happen in my good, copper cored stock pot. In this case, the burning did not ruin the meal, but the point is that with a thin, cheap pan it is possible to burn things to a crisp even when they are covered by lots and lots of water! Pans with heavy, thick aluminum or copper bottoms make this harder to do. Pans with aluminum and copper cladding on the sides (a la All-Clad) make it virtually impossible.
Unfortunately, manufacturing saucepans with clad sides is an expensive proposition. So the pans are expensive. One can get much of the advantage of a clad pan if one chooses a thick, heavy aluminum pan with a very good, hard, non-stick coating such as one might find on Calphalon Commercial cookware. The downside of a coated pan is that one day the coating will be gone and you will need to throw away the pan. If you spend twice as much, the sauce pan can be sold by your great grandkids to help finance their college education. My personal recommendation is to buy the best 1 1/2 qt saucepan you can get, perhaps an all-Clad or a Bourgeat. Consider the same technology for a 3 quart saucepan.
In most cases, my personal choice for 8 to 12 qt pots would be to go with stainless cookware with copper disks in the bottom (a la Cuisineart). It works perfectly well enough most of the time and it lasts forever.
It's hard to argue that the surface of a saucepan makes a huge difference. Non-stick is easier to clean and may help prevent scorching. One might argue that if you make cream sauces and custards, a non-stick surface might be better.
Stainless steel is good on all counts. And it is very very durable. I'm not sure the choice exists today, but I'd never go for cast iron. And I'd never consider buying uncoated aluminum. A little acid in the water, and the aluminum will start corroding and leaching into the food making it taste terrible. Since aluminum has been implicated as a cause of Alzheimers, I'm careful not to let any aluminum touch my food.
Anodized aluminum is quite durable and works well as an exterior. But dishwasher detergent will dissolve away many hard anodized surfaces, leaving bare aluminum. Some interior coatings in aluminum pans are attached to anodized surfaces. These coatings are hard, tough, and durable. They are also chemically stable. If they are occasionally cleaned in a dishwasher, the teflon protects the anodized coating, but daily washing in a dishwasher can still ruin them.
Of all the coated pans I have tried, I have been most impressed with Calphalon Commercial line for good design and durability. The handles are the most comfortable handles around. Thermal conduction is very good. They always wipe clean, so the temptation to put them in the dishwasher is low. And - unlike the black anodized All-Clad pan which lost all anodization first time out, they seem to take the dishwasher well.
Copper makes for a pretty pot or pan, but one must be resigned to spending time polishing it. All-Clad's copper cored pots and pans strike me as being the most practical copper choice; but I have never seen a specification on the copper's thickness, so it is impossible to know how well it conducts compared with Bourgeat and a number of other famous-name copper cookaware makers.
Each kitchen needs at least one small saucepan, roughly 1.5 quarts. This is the workhorse saucepan of the family kitchen. I happen to have three and I intend to get one a little smaller. My recomendation is to go for All Clad or KitchenAid here. Calphalon Commercial might be an excellent choice in non-stick. You can get by for a while with a Cuisinart style pan if you don't ever cook things that could scorch. Or if you are very very careful. Just say 'no' to the pyrex saucepan.
Something roughly three quarts is useful, especially if one is cooking for more than two people. It's probably safest to go with the same type and style as the smaller saucepan.
If you have ever watched Mario Battali cooking, you will see one or two enamelled cast iron Dutch ovens. These are not technically saucepans, perhaps, but they are used for much the same purpose as a large saucepan might be. A typical and useful size might be in the five to six quart range. In my own kitchen every stew gets made in a Dutch oven. It's almostperfect for stovetop browning and it is perfect for finishing food in the oven.
Do not get a flimsy thing for browning and braising. Don't get non-stick because you will want to brown foods in this pot. The enamelled cast iron is the best of all possible worlds. It browns beautifully, it conducts heat quite well enough for the purpose, it never interacts with the food, and it is naturally less expensive than the sandwiched brands.
My recommendation is to buy Le Creusette. Be careful about pouring cold liquids into a very hot pot - one that has just been used to brown meat; this can cause the expensive enamel to spall off where the liquid strikes. The pot is still usable, but you will get a lot less for it at a garage sale. So try not to get it too hot (medium heat, perhaps), and try not to pour cold liquid directly onto the enamel. Except for spalling, these pots are perfect. Mine took ten years of gross abuse before one chip of enamel came off.
Round ones are good for many tasks. But if you like to roast legs of lamb or whole chickens or other oblong things, an oval pan may be the best. Get one of each and be ready for anything
If I had to choose a minimal set of pieces of cookware for my own kitchen it would be:
This set will allow one to approach any non-pastry cooking assignment with confidence but without taking out a second mortgage.
Eat well and prosper.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.