One of the more confusing aspects of home cooking, especially for those of us without a culinary background, can be understanding the differences between various types of cookware.
Nowhere is this more true than with the cooking vessels intended for use on the stove: there are frying pans (also known as skillets), sauté pans, and saucepans.
And, when you read into manufacturers’ descriptions, each type is best for all cooking methods (no exceptions!). Of course, there’s more to it than that.
Pans come in all shapes and forms, can be made from various metals, and their cooking surface can be coated (ceramic, non-stick, lined copper) or uncoated (cast iron, carbon steel, stainless steel).
So how do you know which is the right one for you?
Generally speaking, if you want a non-stick cooking experience and hassle-free cleanup, get a ceramic or Teflon-coated pan. Cast iron and carbon steel pans are unrivaled at browning meats and vegetables, whereas stainless steel pans are great for meats and pan sauces.
Say you’re equipping your first kitchen, and, as most people in that situation, you’re running on a tight budget. Which ones do you really need?
Here’s a good rule of thumb to go by:
At a minimum, all home cooks need a frying pan for searing and sauté foods and a saucepan for boiling, deep-frying, and making sauces. Seasoned cooks—who frequently shallow-fry foods or braise meats—may also benefit from having a sauté pan.
Novice cooks who don’t yet have an interest in cookware could go for ceramic or non-stick. Intermediate cooks who want to master advanced techniques (at the cost of learning this or that about using and caring for cookware) should consider cast iron, carbon steel, and stainless steel.
Suppose you’re building up a collection, and you want only the best of the best.
If I were in your shoes, I’d consider getting:
- A heavy and thick-bottomed cast iron or carbon steel skillet for steak, pork chops, chicken breasts, bacon strips, burger patties, and salmon fillets;
- A non-stick frying pan for sunny-side-up and scrambled eggs, omelets, whitefish, scallops, and pancakes;
- A stainless steel sauté pan for sautéing asparagus, mushrooms, and thin-sliced beef, pork, and chicken, as well as simmering down sauces and gravies;
- A stainless steel saucepan for boiling eggs, pasta, rice, and frozen vegetables, and occasionally making a stew for one or two persons (a pot is better-suited for cooking for a bunch).
When in doubt, buy your cooking vessels separately and as-needed instead of getting a cookware set. That way, you will not only save money but equip yourself with higher-quality tools.
My pick: The All-Clad D3 Stainless Steel Fry Pan is a frying pan that comes in 8, 10, 12, and 14 inches. It’s made in the USA, and consists of a responsive aluminum core that’s sandwiched between two layers of high-quality stainless steel.
A frying pan, also called “frypan” or “skillet,” is a shallow, slope-sided pan with a long handle. While some frying pans are sold with a lid, lids are generally considered optional.
Frying pans are best for searing (browning) and sautéing foods on the stove. They can also be used for shallow-frying, though not as comfortably as sauté pans. Oven-friendly models also double up as good cookware for baking or broiling.
They can be made of various metals, including aluminum, hard-anodized aluminum, cast iron, enameled cast iron, carbon steel, stainless steel, or copper, and their cooking surface can be bare or coated.
Since aluminum and copper are toxic to humans, the cooking surface of aluminum and copper pans is coated to keep the metals from leaching into the foods that get cooked in them.
Aluminum and hard-anodized aluminum pans are used for ceramic and non-stick cookware. Copper pans can be lined with tin, stainless steel, or silver, depending on the make, model, and year of production.
Cast iron, carbon steel, and stainless steel pans have cooking surfaces made of bare metals.
Stainless steel is smooth and protected from rust; cast iron and carbon steel porous and prone to rusting. So the latter two need to be seasoned before being used for the first time.
Seasoning is done by applying 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil on the inside and out of the pan with the help of a paper towel, then baking the oil onto the pan in an oven, preheated to 450°F (230°C), for an hour. Excess oil is wiped with a fresh paper towel before baking, and the pan is turned face down to prevent pooling.
Heated to a high enough temperature for a long enough time, the thin layer of oil will harden and turn into a protective coating that safeguards the cast iron or carbon steel from corrosion and rust, and gives the pan non-stick-like properties.
When selecting a frying pan, look for one that’s appropriately sized. The definition boils down to the number of persons you cook for daily.
A 10-inch pan is spacious enough for readers who cook for themselves, while those who cook for two to three persons should consider a 12-inch pan. When cooking for a crowd, a 13-inch or 14-inch pan might just be your best option.
The pan should have a thick and heavy base that guarantees even heating. The handle should provide you with a good grip, and the pan should feel comfortable to hold as a whole, coming off neither too light nor overly heavy.
My pick: The Cuisinart MultiClad Pro, is a 3 1/2 quart stainless steel frying pan that comes with a sturdy and responsive construction, and gives you plenty of capacity for your daily cooking.
A sauté pan is a shallow, straight-sided pan with a long handle and a lid.
Sauté pans are used mainly for shallow-frying and braising foods. Shallow-frying, similar to deep-frying, means to cook food in an abundant amount of fat (one is partially submerged in fat, the other fully). Braising is done by browning meats with the lid off at first, then stewing them slowly in cooking liquid in a covered pan.
Most sauté pans are made of stainless steel. Some are made of an aluminum or hard-anodized aluminum body coated with non-stick. When in doubt, go for stainless steel. It browns foods better and, unlike non-stick, which has a useful life of just 2-3 years, can last a lifetime.
Sauté pans offer a large and flat cooking surface that’s great for frying or stewing serving-sized cuts of meat and coarsely-cut vegetables. The lid, which should always fit tightly, makes this type of pan highly versatile by allowing you to choose whether to let moisture evaporate or trap it in.
My pick: The T-fal Performa Stainless Steel Saucepan, is an affordable stainless steel saucepan that gives you a good price/performance ratio.
A saucepan is a tall, straight-sided pan with a long handle and a lid.
Saucepans, as their name suggests, are intended for sauces, soups, and stews. They also come in handy for cooking anything in boiling water, be that eggs, short pasta shapes, rice, quinoa, potatoes, beans, lentils, or frozen vegetables.
Other less common (but essential) uses for a saucepan include browning butter, frothing milk, and melting chocolate.
Typically, saucepans have a capacity of 2-3 quarts. So, for boiling long pasta strands, like spaghetti, or preparing food for more than one or two persons at a time, you’re better off reaching for a sauté pan, Dutch oven, or a large pot.
Taller and less roomy than most other pans, saucepans require you to stay close to the stove and stir your food frequently. Else, the parts that are sitting closest to the bottom can stick and burn, potentially ruining your entire dish.