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Most of us use a large saucepan daily, so it’s important to own one that performs flawlessly and will last for years. But how much does high quality have to cost?
Cookware doesn’t get much simpler than a saucepan: It’s basically a bowl with a handle and a lid. But it also doesn’t get more important, since this is the vessel you’ll use to prepare everything from soups and sauces to pasta and grains to custards and puddings. And when it comes to performance, we’ve found that the differences between models can be surprisingly significant. Well-designed saucepans sear, simmer, and steam at a steady, controlled pace; handle comfortably, even when full; and boast tight-fitting lids and stay-cool handles that eliminate the need for a potholder. But there are duds out there that make cooking uncomfortable, time-consuming, and messy. Flimsy, warped vessels have scorching hot spots; heavy frames and wiggly handles make a saucepan a bear to lift when full; and pesky handle rivets trap food and make cleanup a chiseling project rather than a quick swipe with a sponge.
To zero in on a reliable, hard-wearing saucepan, we assembled a team of staffers of varying heights, strengths, and skill levels to test 10 large (3- to 4-quart) saucepans with lids, priced from $18.99 to $214.99, in a variety of styles and materials. Most models were fully clad, meaning the cooking surface and walls are made of three or more layers of bonded metal, such as two layers of nonreactive, moderately heat-conductive stainless steel sandwiching one layer of highly heat-conductive aluminum. This construction is engineered to heat evenly and reasonably quickly; the drawback is that it tends to be pricey, so we also included more-economical options, such as a “disk-bottom” model, where the metal “sandwich” is confined to the base of a single-layer steel pan, as well as pans made of anodized aluminum (the surface of which has been hardened and darkened via an electrochemical process) and ceramic-coated and regular nonstick-coated aluminum.
Some saucepans were tall and skinny, others lower and wider; two were flared, with rounded sides rising from a narrower base. Several models sported rolled rims or spouts, with claims of making pouring neater. Handles, which varied in thickness and shape, were made of stainless steel, silicone-coated steel, or phenolic (plastic), and most of the pans had secondary helper handles to make them easier to move when full. Lids were made of solid metal or glass; one lid had a built-in strainer.
In each saucepan, we stirred, scraped, and poured custard; made rice pilaf; and browned butter. We watched water boil, timing how long a measured amount took to bubble, before blanching green beans and draining the contents in a colander, noting how easy (or not) each model was to pour from. We washed the pans by hand after every test (though most were dishwasher-safe). We even abused them by heating them and plunging them into ice water to replicate the warping effects of thermal shock, which occurs when you put a hot pan under cold running water, and by whacking them on a concrete step to test their sturdiness and the strength of their handle attachments. Along the way, we noted the design characteristics that made a few models stand out as especially easy and comfortable for everyday use and tough enough to last for years.
The ability to see the color and texture of food as it cooks is critical, especially for a task such as browning butter. A few seconds can mean the difference between hazelnut-colored, deeply nutty butter and a black, bitter mess. We cut it close when cooking in the curvy Tramontina Domus saucepan, the bulging sides of which partially blocked our view of the butter as it browned. The dark interiors of the nonstick pans from T-Fal and Scanpan and the anodized aluminum pan from Calphalon camouflaged the color development of the butter and of the onions we sautéed for rice pilaf. We had to pour the browned butter into a bowl before we could be sure it hadn’t burned, and the onions, which were supposed to soften without color, came out as dark as pennies. Pans with straight sides were easier to peer into, and light interiors provided a clear visual contrast that helped us judge the best moment to take the butter off the heat or move on to the next step of the pilaf recipe.
Thinner nonstick and anodized aluminum pans also ran into trouble with steady, even heating. All these pans’ lightweight frames caused them to run hot and fast and forced us to constantly adjust the heat to avoid burning the onions. But even our hypervigilance wasn’t good enough when we cooked in the disk-bottom Tramontina; along the lower sides, where the thinner steel walls flared out from the thicker clad pan bottom, the onions overbrowned and the custard stuck. The cooking surface in the T-Fal was also cramped compared with those of models that were an inch wider. That might not sound like much, but it makes a noticeable difference when not all the food fits in a single even layer.
A worthy saucepan must feel comfortable to lift and maneuver, since you often need to tilt it steadily for controlled pouring or keep it aloft with one hand while scooping or scraping out food with the other. Weight was certainly a factor here—heftier pans (at least 4 pounds without their lids) were quite heavy when full—but not as much as the weight balance and how firmly we could grip the handles.
The Le Creuset saucepan, for example, weighed about 12 ounces less than the All-Clad model but felt off-balance and was thus more cumbersome to tilt and pour from. (Dedicated pour spouts didn’t help, by the way; they simply overflowed if the tester wasn’t able to control the pan.) Similarly, the saucepan from Calphalon and the Tramontina Domus model were both considerably lighter than the All-Clad but had handles that were uncomfortably skinny or round, so that they actually slipped in our grasp, rotating suddenly and dangerously as we were pouring out boiling water, steaming-hot pilaf, and molten custard. Ironically, the All-Clad’s handle was the least cushiony in the lineup, but its cupped shape anchored it firmly in our hands, both with and without a towel or potholder. And unlike those of most models, its handles stayed cool, even after extended cooking.
Even lid handles mattered, as we learned when trying to grab the small knob on the Le Creuset. We preferred large looping handles that were easy to grab. As for the lids themselves, glass lids promised to be helpful for checking progress, but they were usually too steamed up to see through. Plus, they’re not as durable as solid metal.
As kitchen workhorses, saucepans should survive years of use without falling apart or looking weather-beaten, but only a few came away from our admittedly extreme abuse tests, which are meant to simulate many years of use, with just a few minor dings. Thermal shock warped a few models after we plunged the hot pans into a bucket of ice water. The lightest saucepan, from T-Fal, dented deeply when we whacked it on concrete; its lid no longer fit properly, and its handle became very loose. An anodized model sustained tiny cracks in its black surface, and others suffered medium-size dents. And multiple nonstick models looked discolored and dingy after a few days of use; one scratched in our very first test when we fluffed rice pilaf with a fork.
Ultimately, the All-Clad Stainless 4-Qt Sauce Pan ($179.13) proved why it has been—and still is—our top pick. Its fully clad construction provided uniform and steady but efficient heat (it was one of the fastest to boil water and the quickest to return to a boil after we added food), and its light-colored interior and relatively broad cooking surface offered good visibility. It’s no featherweight, but its hefty frame hits the sweet spot between sturdy construction and easy handling; we could lift it with one hand, even when it was full. Its simple steel lid is durable, as is its stay-cool handle, which isn’t cushy but stays secure in our grip. It survived abuse testing with almost negligible dents, and since we’ve used it in the test kitchen for almost a decade, we know that was not just a flash in the pan.
The Cuisinart MultiClad Unlimited 4 Quart Saucepan with Cover ($65.12) is our Best Buy. We could easily see and stir the contents in its mirror-like interior, and its lightweight body was comfortable to maneuver. The trade-off was durability: Because it’s a lighter-weight pan, it showed more discoloration and wear after testing. But given that it costs about one-third the price of the All-Clad, its performance was impressive.
We tested 10 large (3- to 4-quart) saucepans with lids, rating them on performance, ease of use, cleanup, and durability. Results were averaged, and saucepans appear in order of preference. All saucepans were purchased online.
Performance: We prepared simple rice pilaf, browned butter, made crème anglaise, and blanched green beans in each saucepan, rating and averaging the results. We weighted performance more heavily than other categories.
Ease of Use: We evaluated each saucepan’s shape, weight, balance, handle design, and lid, as well as how easy it was to lift, pour from, and maneuver.
Cleanup: We washed each saucepan and lid by hand after each use, noting whether any model trapped food or required more-thorough scrubbing.
Durability: We subjected each saucepan to thermal shock by heating it and plunging it into a bucket of ice water (below) and then checked for warping. We also struck each saucepan against concrete three times, noting any dents, scratches, or loosening of handles.
Our longtime winner excelled, with uniform, steady heating and good visibility inside the saucepan to monitor browning. Its cup-shaped stay-cool handle was easy to grip, and a helper handle provided another grabbing point when the pan was full. Even after brutal whacking on concrete, this model emerged with only tiny dents inside and one slight dent on the bottom, and it still sat flat on the counter.
Onions cooked evenly and rice came out fluffy and separate in this wide, sturdy saucepan. The round handle stayed completely cool but sometimes slipped in our hands when we were scooping and scraping out food because the saucepan is heavy. It cleaned up well and emerged from abuse testing with only small dents.
This saucepan ran a little fast and hot, so onions browned slightly around the perimeter of the pan. The cooking surface is relatively narrow. The moderately heavy frame was easy to lift and scrape food from, but its handle gets hot during extended cooking. Its shiny interior dulled after cleaning up pilaf, and it suffered more damage in our abuse testing than higher-ranked models.
This lightweight pan had a few drawbacks: It cooked fast, leading to minor browning when we softened onions; the handle got hot, so a potholder was needed; and it lacked a helper handle. In abuse tests, it warped slightly and suffered minor dents and surface cracks at the points of impact. But given its bargain price, its performance was impressive.
While this low, wide, rounded saucepan made it easy to see inside and cooked pilaf and browned butter well, its flared shape was problematic for custard, which tended to climb the sides and overcook. It was also too small, holding far less than its advertised capacity. The handle became very hot, and the low, raised rivets easily trapped food. The glass lid steamed up. Over time, the shiny surface discolored.
Though this saucepan is solidly built, its performance was volatile: It heated very slowly and then cooked too fast. Plus, its balance was off, making it awkward to hoist. Its skirted lid took longer to place properly on the saucepan and was difficult to place over a towel when making pilaf. The dark nonstick interior was great for cleanup but not for monitoring browning; worse, fluffing rice with a fork left scratches. Thermal shock warped it slightly, and it dented during abuse testing.
Rice cooked unevenly, thanks to this saucepan’s shaky stovetop performance, which required us to constantly adjust the heat, although we were able to produce good browned butter and crème anglaise with extra vigilance. It felt more cumbersome than heavier models, and its handle became hot. Instead of a loop, the lid had a knob that became hot, and felt very small to grab. Its shiny surface quickly dulled with use, and it became visibly dented when we knocked it on concrete.
This anodized aluminum saucepan cooked fast, so onions browned instead of softening; the dark interior (which discolored during testing) also made it difficult to monitor color development. Steam escaped from the deep pour spouts on both sides of the pan as we cooked rice, which came out heavy and wet. The pan is lightweight and easy to lift, but its skinny handle felt uncomfortable and became hot. The lid’s built-in strainer—which drained too slowly to be helpful—meant that the lid always had to be placed in a certain orientation; it also fell off as we finished pouring.
This pan was too small: A full recipe of green beans didn’t fit. Onions browned quickly in this lightweight saucepan, and the dark interior made it hard to judge browning. It also felt greasy after we washed it twice, and water got trapped in the lid under the handle. It dented deeply in our abuse tests so that the lid no longer fit well, and the handle loosened.
Only the base of this saucepan was clad, so food at the thinner edges overcooked: Onions browned too deeply and custard stuck. Its curved-in walls also made it hard to see what was going on inside the pan when browning butter, and its balance was off-kilter, making it feel heavy. The pan was difficult to lift and tilt since the handle became hot and rotated in our hands. The interior discolored and was hard to scrub clean. Abuse testing left this model dented.