Published March 1, 2012. From Cook's Illustrated.
These big, straight-sided vessels have their uses, but how much should you pay for a pan you don't pull out every day?
We don’t reach for sauté pans very often in the test kitchen. Despite their name, these wide, flat-bottomed pans with relatively high, L-shaped sides are not the best choice for searing. For that task, we prefer skillets with low, sloping walls that encourage evaporation and browning. Nor are sauté pans our go-to for deep frying or stewing—tasks best done in a tall Dutch oven.
That said, these mid-height, mid-weight, lidded vessels are ideal for cooking down heaps of greens, and their straight sides—high enough to corral splatters but low enough to easily reach into with tongs—are great for shallow frying. It’s also our preferred pan for braising recipes that require browning and then adding liquid. The walls prevent spills as you stir, pour off oil, or transfer the pan from stove to oven.
Like all cookware, a sauté pan needs to do one thing particularly well: heat evenly. Other than that, we wanted a model that felt balanced and comfortable to maneuver—stove-to-oven transfers need to be steady, not shaky—and that came with a tight-fitting lid to keep food and heat well contained.
With those criteria in mind, we bought nine models ranging from $64 to $224.95, all built according to our preferred cookware construction: aluminum (an excellent heat conductor but highly reactive with acidic foods) surrounded by layers of stainless steel (nonreactive and less conductive, so it modulates heat distribution). Of those, six were fully clad tri-ply (translation: the entire pan consisted of three layers), and one pan boasted seven layers from top to bottom. The other two were single-layer constructions sporting aluminum and steel disks attached to the bottom that made just their bases tri-ply. We skipped over nonstick and anodized pans; none of the tasks best suited to sauté pans require a nonstick coating, and the light color of traditional surfaces makes it easier to monitor the browned bits of fond that develop and form the basis of flavorful pan sauces. The task list—fried chicken, braised cabbage, Mexican rice, Swedish meatballs, and crêpes (to gauge even browning)—would single out a pan that truly deserved a place in our cookware arsenal.
Capacities varied (3 quarts and up), but the pans came in two distinct shapes: low and wide or tall and narrow. This meant that the diameter of their cooking surfaces ranged considerably—from 9 to 11 1/4 inches. We figured the wider pans would fare better, since their greater surface area would mean less batch cooking.
To some extent, that was true. We could fit only four or five pieces of chicken in the 9-inch pans, forcing us to fry in two batches. Even then, the pieces were crammed together, making it tricky to flip them. Meatballs were also a little crowded and harder to turn in smaller pans. On the other hand, there was such a thing as too much surface area. When we poured oil into the 11- and 11 1/4-inch pans, it spread too thinly across the surface, requiring us to add a lot more oil than the recipe specified. Wider models also heated unevenly: Chicken and meatballs emerged with dark and light patches, indicating hot spots.
To get a more detailed picture of the pans’ browning patterns, we poured crêpe batter over each model’s surface. The results mirrored the chicken and meatball tests: While the seven smaller sauté pans turned out evenly golden pancakes, the two larger models produced spottily browned crêpes—an indication that the broad cooking surfaces struggled to maintain even heat from edge to edge. That test narrowed down our preferences to the midsize (9 1/2- to 10-inch) pans.
Two other major factors determined steady heating: the thickness of the cooking surface and the weight of the pan. Here again, moderation proved to be key. The pans with the thinnest bottoms (1.78 and 2.32 millimeters thick, respectively) overheated within minutes of hitting the burner, and the lightest pan, which clocked in at a scrawny 2.9 pounds without its lid (the heaviest weighed nearly 2 pounds more), couldn’t braise the cabbage without burning it. Meanwhile, the two chunky disk-bottom pans, which were nearly four times thicker, started off heating at a slow, steady clip and then quickly got hotter, forcing us to constantly lower the flame to avoid scorching. Moderately thick, moderately heavy models were substantial enough to modulate heat but not so bulky that they retained too much of it.
Ease of use boiled down to a handful of features. How much the pan weighed factored into its ability to heat evenly, but the distribution of that weight singled out sauté pans that felt safe and comfortable to handle versus those that were unwieldy.
Then there was the problem of handles that were either slippery or, worse, that heated up during cooking. Grips with some traction or edge were pluses—a discovery that we made when a few rounded handles slid precariously in our potholder-protected hands as we poured off hot oil. Stay-cool handles were also beneficial, and “helper” loops opposite the main handle eased lifting when the pans were full.
Finally, there was the lid. We knew that we were looking for weighty, ovensafe models that tightly locked in the food. Tempered glass tops didn’t prove as handy as they seemed; if they steamed up, they obscured any view of the cooking progress.
The Pan to Pick
The price for our winner is steep ($219.95), but it offered a stellar heating performance, a roomy cooking surface (a good 10 1/2 inches—a more generous expanse than the cooking surface of our favorite Dutch oven, as well as of our recommended skillet), a stay-cool handle, a helper loop, and a snug-fitting lid. But if you can’t bring yourself to spend more than $200 on a pan that you won’t use every day, and you can do with less cooking surface and a slight drop in quality, our Best Buy pan ($79.95) is a good bargain bet.