A saucepan is a basic cooking pot used for making sauces, steaming vegetables, boiling potatoes and heating liquids like soup. The essential component of a good saucepan is that it conducts heat evenly and responds to changing heat quickly. The nonstick coating of many saucepans prevents them from making delicious gravies, however, because a good gravy stock depends on the “bits” scraped from the bottom of the pan to give it additional flavor.
A saucepan should be round, have straight sides, a tight-fitting lid and a flat, circular bottom. The bottom should be thicker than the sides for the best heat conduction. Other shapes include the Windsor saucepan with flared sides, which is good for sauces, but less functional for other uses. The saucier has wider, rounded sides that are shorter than the classic saucepan. Stirring is easier in the wider saucier, and food does not get trapped in the angle between the bottom of the pan and its sides. A saucier is preferred for recipes that require constant stirring.
Reactive materials, such as copper, aluminum and cast iron, “react” to certain foods and chemically alter the taste of what is it you are cooking. Stainless steel is nonreactive. Conductivity is another factor in choosing the right material for a saucepan. Copper is the best conductor of heat, but is expensive and high maintenance. Aluminum comes in varying degrees of quality and price. Inexpensive aluminum is thin, dents and bends easily, does not conduct heat evenly and easily warps, causing hot spots within the pan. Hard-anodizing aluminum is a better choice if selecting an aluminum saucepan. Cast-iron saucepans are good heat conductors, are heavy and need to be maintained to prevent rusting. Enameled cast iron, while also heavy, is easy to clean and can be used on the stove top, in the oven and in the dishwasher. A stainless-steel saucepan with an aluminum inner core on the sides and the bottom is an excellent choice.
The handle of a saucepan is its driver. A very long handle protrudes from the stove top and can be dangerous when moving around the cooktop. A shorter handle is easily controlled. Look for a handle that is riveted to the pot, not screwed on. The screws loosen and make the handle dangerous to use, especially when moving hot contents. Wood or fabricated handles may look good, but cannot be used when a recipe requires the ingredients be “finished” in the oven.
Saucepans come in all sizes, and selection is based on the use of the pan. Two different sizes are adequate for a well-equipped kitchen. For sauces and gravies, a 2-quart pan is recommended. Use a 4-quart pan for large-quantity sauces, like spaghetti sauce and homemade soups.
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