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Large Saucepans

Published March 2010

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.

Not-So-Minor Details

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*