Published March 1, 2006. From Cook's Illustrated.
You can spend $100 on a 2-quart nonstick saucepan—but should you?
A small saucepan sees plenty of action—making rice, heating milk, melting butter, or warming up a little soup. It may be the smallest pan in the kitchen arsenal—and the tasks may be basic—but it's by no means the least important. Because most of these tasks don't involve browning (and many involve sticky foods), in the test kitchen we use nonstick 2-quart saucepans almost exclusively. Do pans that cost close to $100 offer significant performance, stick-resistance, or design advantages over models costing a quarter as much?
A pastry cream test illustrated several design differences that separated those pans we'd reach for every day from those that would remain parked eternally in the cabinet. Pouring hot cream from a saucepan is much neater if the pan from which you're pouring has either a spout or a rolled lip. An ample diameter and sloped sidewalls make it easier to carry out the constant whisking necessary to prevent pastry cream from scorching.
In the process of making pastry cream or rice, a pan can spend 30 minutes (or more) on the burner, so there's a clear advantage to handles that remain cool to the touch. All but three of the pans had hard thermal plastic or Santoprene (soft plastic) handles, which passed this test with no problem. Even the metal handles, which heated up alarmingly at the point of attachment, maintained a sufficiently comfortable temperature at the far end. While steaming rice, we also developed a preference for transparent lids, which make it easier to monitor cooking progress.
There are two common ways to attach a handle to a saucepan—with rivets or screws—but (to our mind) only one that works effectively. Simply put: Rivets are sturdier than screws.
To get at performance issues such as the evenness and speed of heat distribution, we sautéed chopped onions and cooked eggs in each pan. Weight, rather than materials (which were similar in all pans tested), was the deciding factor. A heavy saucepan is actually a good thing. Even the heftiest pan in our lineup was easy to maneuver, and many saucepan tasks involve prolonged cooking over low heat, where gentleness, not speed, is paramount.
In the end, the performance differences were subtle—most of the pans will do a fine job of heating up soup or making rice. Design differences were more significant, and the sturdiest pan—with a riveted handle, wide diameter, sloped sides, and superior nonstick coating—came out on top. The final factor, price, was also decisive.