Whether you are stocking your own kitchen for the first time or just not sure whether you should reach for a sauté pan or a frying pan, figuring out which pan is which can be intimidating. If you have no idea the difference between a copper stock pot, a cast iron skillet or a Hogwarts cauldron, or how to use and clean any of them, then I’ve got you covered.
Types of Pans and What to Use Them For
1. Skillet or Frying Pan
Flat bottomed pans with a long handle and slanted edges.
Best for fast cooking: sautéing, frying, browning and searing.
2. Sauté Pan
Flat bottomed, wide pan with vertical edges and a long handle.
Best for fast cooking larger amounts: sautéing, frying, browning and searing.
3. Dutch Oven
Large pot with vertical sides, usually longer than it is tall with tight-fitting lid and two handles. Dutch ovens are stovetop and oven safe.
Best for slow cooking: roasting, stews, braises and casseroles.
Note: Dutch Ovens can be quiet pricey. If you invest in a Le Creuset it will last you a lifetime and you could probably pass it down in your family but there is nothing wrong with purchasing a more affordable version—just don’t expect it to be a family heirloom.
Flat bottomed pan with tall vertical edges and a long handle.
Best for cooking with liquid: simmering, boiling, poaching cooking grains and making sauces.
5. Stock Pot
Flat bottomed, pot with tall edges and two handles. Multi Pots are similar to stock pots but some with one or two perforated inserts for straining and steaming.
Best for cooking with large amount of liquid: boiling, cooking pasta, steaming and making large amounts of sauce or soup.
A rounded pan similar in shape to a large bowl with a long handle and a short handle. For stovetop cooking, be sure to buy a flat bottomed wok.
Best for many cooking techniques: large stir-fries, deep frying, stewing, braising, boiling and making soups.
It’s not just the shape of the pan that matters—look for specific materials
Aluminum is a great heat conductor and is very light. Many aluminum pans have a nonstick coating on them. This is the most common material for cookware and is moderately priced.
Cast iron conducts heat evenly and is very durable. It does need special care when cleaning but the main thing is just to make sure it is dried completely to avoid rust. Cast iron pans will need to be seasoned when you first get them and again if not taken care of properly. They are usually moderately priced and have a heavy weight.
There are a few ways to season cast iron. An easy way is to coat your pan with vegetable oil, place in a 350F oven for an hour and then wipe clean.
Copper pots and pans are beautiful and are great for conducting heat but they are very expensive and require frequent polishing. In my opinion, they are not worth the investment of time or money.
Enamel on Steel
Low cost and higher cost pans are made of steel with porcelain enamel on top. The stainless steel prevents chipping and is best for low to medium heated cooking. Cheaper pans will be thin and cook unevenly.
Heat-Resistant Glass or Ceramic
Heat-resistant glass or ceramic is decent for baking but is not ideal for stovetop cooking as it distributes heat unevenly.
Stainless steel is durable, smooth and scratch resistant, making it easy to clean, and is good for all cooking purposes. The downside of stainless steel is that it is pricey and unless combined with other metals is not great at conducting heat evenly.Raw aluminum, cast iron and copper are all reactive with acidic foods (citrus, tomatoes, vinegars) meaning they will absorb chemical elements from the cookware causing us to ingest them. When cooking acidic foods use non-reactive materials.
Build a Basic Pan Kit
If you are just starting you pan collection, these are great pans to start with that will cover all the basic cooking techniques:
- 12 inch Skillet with lid– ideally stainless steel
- 10 inch Cast Iron Skillet
- 3 or 4 Quart Saucepan
- 16 Quart Stock pan
- Optional: Dutch Oven
- Optional: 14 inch Wok
Use the Pans You Have, Better
Make it Hot
Unless specified in a recipe, always heat pan before using it. You should first heat your pan and then add your oil to heat. Once the oil is hot add your ingredients. When you use hot oil your ingredients will absorb less of it. Your oil should sizzle when you add ingredients to it.
When sautéing you don’t want to crowd your pan. Always use a pan with enough space for ingredients to be spaced out evenly this will allow for more even cooking. When browning ingredients, you want to have extra space in the pan so excess liquid can evaporate. If liquid gets trapped in an overcrowded pan it will steam the ingredients instead of brown them.
Keep it Clean
With the exception of cast iron, most pans can be cleaned with soap and water with a scrubby. It is easiest to clean them when they are still warm.
We have all had those days where you go to stir the vegetables in your pan only to find a thick, dark crust of burnt food on the bottom of your pot. Don’t put that pan in the sink to “soak” for a few days; we all know it doesn’t really do anything. What you want to do is add some water to your pan and simmer it for a few minutes. While it’s simmering use a wooden spoon (bonus points if it has a flat edge) and scrape the pot until the crust comes loose. If this doesn’t work, pour out the liquid and let the pan cool to the touch. Take a soup spoon and use it to scrape the crust off. Do not use this method on non-stick pans.
Discolored Stainless Steel Pans
If you overheated your pan and it now has a burnt discoloring on the bottom, make a thick paste of baking soda and a small amount of water. Use a scrubby and some elbow grease to rub the paste into the pan. Once discoloring is gone, rinse pan with water.
Cleaning Cast Iron
Always clean your cast iron pans while they are still hot. You can usually get away with just using water to clean them but contrary to what you’ve been told, you can use soap on them occasionally if needed but no harsh cleaners. If you still have stuck on food on the pan, use a paste of coarse salt and water to scrub it off. The most important part of cleaning cast iron is thoroughly drying it; if there is any moisture on the pan it will rust.
Have a cast iron pan that’s already rusted? Cut a potato in half and scrub your pan using the potato and coarse salt. This works but it takes a long time and a lot of elbow grease. After you have removed all the rust, clean the cast iron, dry thoroughly and re-season it.