How we tested
In the home kitchen equipment line of succession, the large saucepan occupies a secure place near the top, somewhere just below a sharp chef’s knife and a 12-inch skillet. We can’t picture doing without one—its hefty frame, deep bowl, long arm, and tight-fitting lid make it the go-to vessel for steamed rice, soups, sauces, and even pastry cream—and we’ve gladly paid dearly for a model that can take a daily dose of shuffling around the stovetop.
That particular pot would be the $224.95 All-Clad Stainless 4-Quart Saucepan, which two rounds of test kitchen evaluation have singled out as the one to beat. For years, All-Clad dominated the marketplace for its “tri-ply” construction featuring three alternating layers of nonreactive and high-conductivity metals that extend from the cooking surface up the sides in a style known as “fully clad.” Without this anatomy, a pan is more likely to burn food than cook it evenly. But now that the word is out and more manufacturers are pushing similarly designed (but much cheaper) products down their assembly lines, we decided it was time to take another look. We rounded up six multi-ply, fully clad challengers to All-Clad, most costing far less than $224.95. Two exceptions were pans boasting a seven-ply design costing $199.95 and $274.95, respectively. For fun, we also threw in a fully clad $384.95 copper pot from an esteemed French maker to see if doubling the price actually gets you that much more.
The Layered Look
These days, even cheap saucepans are made from at least two types of metal. The cooking surface is typically nonreactive stainless steel, which won’t impart off-flavors when it encounters acidic ingredients like tomatoes—but which is also a poor conductor of heat. To avoid food-burning hot spots, manufacturers also include a layer of something that conducts heat well, usually aluminum (or sometimes copper).
In higher-quality pots, the different metals are bonded by pressing or rolling sheets together under high pressure, a process known as “cladding.” When the entire body of a pot (excluding handles and lid) is constructed from this bonded multitype metal, it is considered fully clad. The common cost-cutting alternative is the “disk-bottom” pan, where a round of aluminum is slapped on the bottom of a stainless pan. As we found in our testing of traditional skillets (January/February 2009), the problem with such construction is that as soon as the flame licks up the sides of the pan, anything out of the disk’s range scorches.
Since all of the eight pans we were testing were fully clad, the bigger question was what might separate a $385 pot from a $50 one—or a seven-ply pan from a two-ply model. For days we put each pan through core tasks: sautéing onions, steaming rice pilaf, and whisking pastry cream, not to mention general assessments of maneuverability and user-friendliness. Despite years of testing products that prove again and again that price is no guarantor of quality, our results stunned us: In the first two tests, we were hard pressed to find many differences among pots at all.
Other than some insignificant variations in how quickly the pots heated and the odd overbrowned onion, the bulk of the onions sautéed in the cheapest stainless saucepan were as golden and evenly cooked as those in the French copper pot as well as the upscale All-Clad. Differences were equally negligible in the pilaf test, in which the goal was to see how well the pans retained heat and whether their lids made a tight seal. Every batch of rice, in fact, came out perfectly fluffy in the same 20 minutes.
But one test remained: pastry cream. Here, at last, was a telling exercise—but not because of cooking performance. Instead, differences among the weights and designs of the pots were significant. First, particularly heavy pans—the copper pan rang in at a whopping 5½ pounds—required two hands to successfully pour the half-and-half mixture into the egg yolks, and models without a rounded pouring lip made this task even trickier. Second, once the mixture was returned to the pan, testers discovered that sharp corner angles in the copper pan and one of the seven-ply pans trapped the cream away from the reach of a whisk, resulting in a grainy, curdled mixture.
But the design flaws weren’t isolated to the body of the pot; the shapes and angles of handles often meant the difference between a saucepan that was easy to maneuver and one that gave us carpal tunnel symptoms. When we asked 12 testers to pour gallons of water out of pans repeatedly, complaints weren’t subtle: “Heavy little sucker,” barked one tester about the copper pot, complaining that its “super-arched” handle put “unnecessary strain” on his fingers. Even the two seven-ply pots, both midweight models (3.5 pounds each), drew equally harsh adjectives like “unwieldy” and “super-duper heavy.”
Meanwhile, testers were practically fighting over the 2.4-pound featherweight of the lineup. Unlike other models, this pan’s body contained a high ratio of aluminum to stainless steel, which accounts for its lighter frame. More important, the angle of its handle offered better weight distribution. In general, we found that the more horizontal this angle, the more leverage, making the pan easier to lift.
Which One Pans Out?
At the end of testing, we had some great news: A good-quality, fully clad, easy-to-maneuver large pot can be yours for $69.99. What you sacrifice is wiggle room: The pan cooks slightly faster than we’d prefer, so you have to be more vigilant while cooking. And expensive copper offers no significant advantage (besides aesthetics); in fact, the copper pan’s searingly hot cast-iron handle, heavy-handling body, and exorbitant price landed it at the bottom of the chart. The only pot to beat out our Best Buy winner was the All-Clad. True, it doesn’t boast a rolled lip, and some testers wanted more comfortable handles, but its cooking performance and overall sturdiness were stellar. That said, if an extra $125 buys you only a better scratch-resistant surface and onions that are a tad more evenly golden, you might consider opting for our Best Buy and sticking that extra cash in the bank.