Small Nonstick Saucepans

Published March 1, 2006. From Cook's Illustrated.

You can spend $100 on a 2-quart nonstick saucepan—but should you?

Overview:

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)… read more

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.

Methodology:

We tested nine small nonstick saucepans (2-quart capacity, or as close as we could come in a given line) and evaluated them according to the criteria listed below. When manufacturers offered more than one saucepan that satisfied our rubric, we chose a competitively priced or best-selling model. Tests were performed over gas burners on the same range in our test kitchen.

DESIGN

We scalded half-and-half in each pan and then made pastry cream, which gave us a chance to evaluate handle comfort and heating qualities, the ease with which a whisk can be maneuvered in the pan, and whether the lip of the pan could aid in pouring liquid neatly, without spills or dribbles. Transparent lids that allowed us a view inside the pan were preferred, as were solidly attached handles.

PERFORMANCE

In addition to the pastry cream, we prepared long-grain white rice, which we expected to be evenly cooked with no hint of browning on the bottom, and eggs, which we expected to be moderately and evenly browned. In both cases, we expected the pan to release the food easily. Scores of good, fair, or poor were assigned for each test, and the aggregate score determined the overall performance rating. As a tiebreaker, we prepared caramel in each pan, left it to harden overnight, and then tried to remove the caramel without boiling water in the pan.

SAUTÉ SPEED

We started with a cold pan and sautéed 2/3 cup chopped onions in 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat for 12 minutes. Pans that produced soft, pale gold onions with no burnt edges (indicating a medium to medium-slow sauté pace) were rated good, pans that produced onions that were barely colored and retained significant crunch (indicating a very slow sauté pace) were rated fair, and pans that produced onions that were dark brown, crisp, or

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