If you are looking to purchase a really good sauce pan...read on.
Learning how to make great sauces at home in your own kitchen is the difference between a good cook and a great cook. You don't need a classic sauce pan to make a great sauce, but it doesn't hurt to have one.
What is a sauce pan?
The sauce pan is a workhorse in my kitchen. Yes, I make lot's of sauces in it but I also use it to steam vegetables, heat up soup, make rice pilaf & mashed potatoes and a couple dozen other things.
Look at the sauce pan to the right. You notice it has a round base, tall straight sides and a tight fitting lid. This is a classic sauce pan. And although many of them are made today with nonstick materials, the nonsticks are not great for making classic sauces because they don't make it easy to make a fond.
Important features of a good sauce pan?
Classic Sauce Pan - straight sides, round base, perfectly flat bottom
Windsor Pan - flared sides, round base, flat bottom. The flared sides allow for more of the sauce to be exposed to the pan and quicker reductions. Great for sauces but not as multifunctional as the Classic design.
Saucier Pan - wide top, rounded bottom, shorter than a classic sauce pan. The shorter sides make it easier to access whatever you are cooking so stirring becomes no problem at all. Especially good to use with puddings, custards, rice dishes and of course sauces.
Flat Bottom - You want your sauce pan to have a perfectly flat bottom that is thicker than the sides for good heat distribution. Have you have experienced a warped, less expensive sauce pan that teeters on the burner when you are cooking? Makes leaving the pan to do something else a challenge.
Feel Good In Your Hand Design - Your sauce pan should feel good in your hands. Not to heavy but offer a feeling of substance. A cheap aluminum sauce pan will easily dent, burn, warp and develop hot spots making cooking a chore rather than the pleasure it should be.
You want a medium handle for a few reasons. You do move the pan around some on top of the burner. I also find myself holding on to the handle when I reduce a sauce, mash potatoes or saute ingredients. Part of that feeling good in your hand associates with the handle too. You may be lifting the pan to go to the sink or lifting it to sauce a plate so the handle should feel secure.
No matter what you are cooking in your sauce pan, you want a well constructed pan with a handle that you feel secure won't fall off when working with it. So look for sauce 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.
As with all your pans, you want a cover for your pan that fits tight. Besides using sauce pan for making sauces, you may find yourself using it for braising where a tight cover is important. If you have pans whose lids don't fit that well, try covering it with a piece of aluminum foil before placing the lid on top.
Some lids come with knobs on top. I like the large loops that I can grab with my oven mitt or more likely with my kitchen tongs.
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 sauce making, you want a pan that is an excellent conductor and 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 sauce 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 although I am starting to look more closely at stainless steel pans with an aluminum or copper core and thick aluminum bottoms. Both 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 nonsticks 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!
What Size Sauce Pans
Sauce pans come in all sizes ranging from 1 quart to 4 quarts. I think it makes sense to have a couple of sizes like a 2 quart and 3-4 quart size depending on how much you cook and how many you are cooking for. If you have a large family go with the larger. If you are cooking for just yourself, go with a smaller one.
I have a 1 1/2 quart short sauce pan and a 4 1/2 quart tall one. I use the smaller one classic sauces like Wild Mushroom Sauce and the large one for spaghetti sauce, soups, chowders and risotto dishes.
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.
What Would I Buy Today
There are a lot of great brand names when it come to cookware manufactureres including All-Clad, Calphalon, Viking, Le Creuset and what you choose should be based on your own personal needs.