A good sauté pan must be one of your most important pieces of cookware.
If you are looking to purchase one really decent pan to cook with at home, make it a saute pan!
What is a sauté pan?
The pan to the right is a sauté pan. It has a wide flat bottom, straight sides, long handle and a lid. Sometimes you’ll find them with a short “helper” handle opposite the long handle like in this photo.
Every feature of the sauté pan is important when you are using it to sauté something. That’s why it is critical not to let someone sell you a fry pan or skillet as a sauté pan. Can they be used to sauté chicken breasts or filets of fish? Of course, but not as effectively as a properly designed, traditional sauté pan.
The concept behind sauteing is to cook food quickly over high heat in a little bit of fat (butter or oil). The term sauté comes from the French term “sauter” which means “to jump.” You often see chefs in commercials or on the cooking shows tossing the pan back and forth over a giant flame sometimes flipping the ingredients in the air only to have them land perfectly back in the pan.
(If you try this at home, be careful. It takes a lot of time and practice to master this skill. I would start with cold ingredients before trying it with hot oil and ingredients. For more on the technique of sautéing)
Important features of a good sauté pan?
The saute pan is designed with a wide flat bottom so there is enough room in the pan not to crowd the ingredients. You want the ingredients to brown quickly without burning or steaming. Let’s say you are sautéing some chicken breasts. If the pan is too crowded, the breasts will steam rather than brown and the end result will be soggy.
Another advantage of a flat bottom is when making the pan “jump” on the burner. A flat bottom is a lot easier to slide back and forth than a curved pan.
And most importantly, a flat bottom provides you even distribution of heat. When cooking a couple of flounder filets, you want the pan’s heat to be uniformly distributed throughout the entire bottom of the pan otherwise you’ll end up with unevenly cooked food.
The sides of a sauté pan are straight and also low when compared to a sauce pan. The straight sides help when making a pan sauce by keeping the liquids from spilling over the sides. They also help keep the food in the pan when making it “jump.”
(I’ve got to tell you, I don’t do much pan jumping when I’m sautéing. I’m just trying not to overcook the food but I do appreciate the straight sides when I’m stirring during reduction.)
The low sides help circulate air which helps prevent the food from getting soggy and keep the overall weight of the pan down so you can move it around a bit.
You want a long handle for a few reasons. You do move the pan around some on top of the burner. You may not be flipping ingredients in the thing in the air, but you do some shaking back and forth. You also may be moving the pan from the top of the stove to the oven to finish cooking. A oven mittslong sturdy handle also has a great feel to it when cooking so it’s important you buy pans that feel good in your hands.
No matter what you are using your sauté pan to cook, you want a well constructed pan with a handle that you feel secure won’t fall off when working with it. So look for sauté pans with handles that are securely attached to the pot. You want one that uses heavy screw or rivets with their handles.
Some of the new cookware on the market have handles that resist getting hot when using on your stove top. This is great if you want to move the pot from the burner to the sink but you want to be careful if you put it in the over for any reason.
Cool resistant doesn’t mean cool proof. Always use your Silicone Oven Mitts when taking any cookware out of a hot oven which means your sauté pans handle must be ovenproof. You may like the look of a wooden handle and it will definitely stay cooler than a metal one, but you can’t use it in the oven so forget about it.
You want a cover for your pan that fits tight. Besides using my sauté pan for sautéing, I often find myself using it for braising where a tight cover is important.
There are lots of different schools of thought to what a good pan should be made of. For a good article on cookware material from a professional chef, check out contributing chef Mark Vogel’s, How to Choose Cookware. In his article you will learn about the various materials you can choose from including as copper, aluminum, cast iron, stainless, nonstick and a combination of different materials. Each material has its own pluses and minuses including cost.
Because of the nature of sautéing, you want a pan that is very responsive to the heat so it gets hot quickly and cools off just as fast. This has to do with a pan’s conductivity.
What this means is the pans ability to transmit heat from the heat source to the food and do so both evenly and efficiently. Well-made sauté pans are considered highly conductive when they can transfer heat evenly across the bottom and up the side so the food cooks the way it is supposed to. Every metal conducts heat differently so that’s why its important to match the type of pan you are using with the way you cook.
The best choice for conductivity is copper. The problem with copper is cost and they are a pain to keep shinny. I really don’t have the time to polish my pots and pans but maybe that’s just me.
In my opinion, I think the anodized aluminum pans are the way to go. They transmit heat effectively and cost a heck of lot less than copper and they clean up easily. You want to be sure the pan is made of heavy gauge material and that the bottom of the pan is thick. A thin bottom is a recipe for disaster because they often transmit heat unevenly and develop hot spots.
Just like ovens, all pans have hot spots. The cheaper pans just have bigger hot spots and more of them. That’s why you want to invest in a few really good pans if you are going to be doing much cooking. And who doesn’t have to cook everyday. If you want to spend less for that pot you boil your corn and spaghetti in, that fine but spend the extra buck on your sauté pan.
Companies like Calphalon created a “hard-anodizing” aluminum for cookware using an electrochemical method of preparing raw aluminum that was developed by NASA for the aerospace industry. Talk about cooking with George Jetson. The end product is actually harder than stainless steel and non-reactive to acids.
I would stay away from nonstick surfaces for your sauté pan because they limit what you can do with them. Most nonstick pans can’t go in the oven although that is now changing. They make it almost impossible to make a good pan sauce because it is difficult to create those brown bits called fond when sautéing a piece of meat or chicken.
I just purchased my first Calphalon One sauté pan and love it. It’s not nonstick and I use it for searing and making pan sauces but the ingredients don’t seem to stick to the pan like my older Calphalon pans. Cleaning it is also a breeze. Highly recommended!
You can find sauté pans in a variety of sizes from 1 qt. to 7 qt. but I think somewhere right in the middle is fine. My new Calphalon One is a smaller 2 quart pan but my 15 year old Calphalon is 3 quart.
Buying Sets or Individual pans
Some people like to buy the whole set at once and get it over with. When I started buying cookware, I couldn’t afford to do it that way so I started with one 4 1/2 qt. sauce pan and added on. I had some really cheap pots that I bought right out of school but they didn’t hold up very well and were awful to cook with. They’re most likely buried in some box in the garage somewhere. Just can’t seem to throw them out.
The other reason I’m glad I didn’t buy them all at once is because they keep coming up with new materials, new designs and new features. It’s great to find a new piece of cookware under the tree at Christmas and find out out some new feature that makes using it easier.
So you can see there are a lot of choices when it comes to materials. Which on you choose will depend on what’s available, cost and what feels good in your hand.