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Sauté Pans

By Cook's Illustrated Published March 2012
Update: November 2015
Our 2012 Best Buy sauté pan from Cuisinart was recently redesigned; the new model features squared-off handles made of stainless steel that resist heating up on the stovetop. When we compared the updated and the older pans, we found the new handle design easier to grip without slipping. Other than that, the pans were still similar: Both models browned equally well (though the new pan retains the old model’s too-narrow cooking surface) and felt nicely balanced for easy lifting and pouring. We recommend the updated model, the Cuisinart MultiClad Pro Stainless 3 1/2-Quart Sauté Pan with Helper and Cover ($78.13), as our new Best Buy.

How we tested

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.

Surface Tension

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.

Methodology

We tested nine sauté pans. Pans are listed in order of preference.

Performance: We made crêpes to observe heat distribution; Swedish meatballs to assess the shape and size of the cooking surface; and Mexican rice to evaluate sautéing and steaming, the fit of a lid, and a pan’s ability to withstand oven heat. We also shallow-fried chicken pieces to assess capacity and ability to maintain consistent temperatures. Braising cabbage in cream tested capacity, the fit of the lid, and the ability to braise without scorching.

Ease of Use: We considered how the pan’s weight, balance, and handle shape (and presence of a helper handle, if any) contributed to maneuverability and whether its capacity, the height of its sides, and the width of its cooking surface made it easy to use for a variety of recipes. Pans lost points for hot handles. 

Dimensions: The diameter of the cooking surface (measured inside the pan, across the flat portion of the bottom), the height of the sides, and the thickness of the cooking surface.

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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*