Not sure which pot or pan is right for you? In this buying guide we look at all the different types and styles available and outline the benefits of each.
Types of pots and pans
Possibly the most versatile pans in the kitchen, saucepans can be used for everything from heating sauces (hence the name) to boiling pasta and sautéing vegetables. They come in various shapes and sizes but will usually have a deep-sided design and are often lidded.
Frying pans are great all-rounders and every kitchen should have at least one. They have a wide, flat design that means more of your ingredients are exposed to heat, reducing cooking time and minimising the amount of stirring you have to do.
Frying pans are commonly used for sautéing vegetables or cooking small cuts of meat. Depending on the depth of the pan they can also be suitable for shallow and even deep-frying.
At one time the traditional cast iron stockpot would have been the mainstay of the kitchen – back when families were larger and mealtimes more important. Nowadays they’re used for the same things (mainly stocks, soups and stews), but less often. Stockpots traditionally come with a lid and two handles.
Available in two and three-tier versions, steamer pans offer a convenient and healthy way of cooking all sorts of food. At the bottom is a saucepan in which the water is boiled. Above this is a pan with a perforated base through which the steam rises. Then you can either have another pan with a perforated base (for extra ingredients), or a lid which locks in the steam. Steamer pans are mostly used for vegetables, poultry and fish, but you can cook virtually anything by way of steam.
A milk pan is essentially just a smaller-than-average saucepan without a lid. Aside from boiling milk you can use it for heating sauces or even making gravy. A lipped design makes pouring liquids easy.
Also known as ‘skillets’, these pans are perfect for grilling meat and vegetables. The profiled base gives a seared stripe effect and allows fat to drain away from your food, making meals a great deal healthier. Some grill pans have a lip that allows you to pour out collected fats for use in stocks and sauces.
Usually made from ceramic or cast iron, casserole dishes retain heat extremely well and can be used not just on the stove but in the oven too. This means you can sauté your vegetables and brown meat on the hob before adding some stock and putting the whole thing in the oven for several hours to cook slowly and gently. Most but not all casserole dishes come with lids to help lock in moisture.
Woks and stir-fry pans
A high sided conical design make woks and stir-fry pans great for stirring and tossing vegetables in the traditional oriental style. They often have a non-stick coating, but some purists prefer uncoated pans as these can usually be heated to a higher temperature and are therefore slightly better at giving food a crispy edge.
These are similar to frying pans, but have a shallower design that makes it easier to slide your crêpes from pan to plate.
Egg poachers look a bit like lidded frying pans, except they have a metal insert with four holes into which four plastic egg holders fit snugly. Water is added to the bottom of the pan and left to simmer so that the eggs are cooked by the steam which is trapped beneath the lid.
These work in much the same way as a steamer pan or an egg poacher but have a long, narrow design suitable for poaching fish.
Understanding the different materials
Pots and pans are available in all sorts of materials, which can, of course, make choosing the right piece or set even more difficult. So here we look at some of the materials commonly used in pot and pan construction and explain the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Often used in the construction of woks, carbon steel is able to withstand extremely high temperatures and is generally very durable. However, it doesn’t offer the same level of rust-resistance as stainless steel and so ought to be dried immediately (and thoroughly) after washing. Carbon steel pans that do not have a non-stick coating need to be seasoned before using them for the first time. ‘Seasoning’ is where you heat oil in the pan to a very high temperature in order to create your own non-stick, rust-resistant barrier.
Stainless steel pots and pans are generally quite affordable, highly durable and rust-resistant. They are also fairly easy to clean, even if they do not have a non-stick coating. Of course, stainless steel looks great too, and will retain its bright, shiny appearance even after years of use.
In terms of conductivity, stainless steel doesn’t heat up quite as quickly or as uniformly as copper, for example, but it’s certainly good enough for most domestic cookery tasks.
Aluminium is a lightweight, highly conductive material, making it perfect for use in the construction of pots and pans. It’s also cheaper than the likes of stainless steel and copper, though not quite as durable. Most pots and pans made from aluminium have a non-stick coating.
Aluminium pots and pans are ideal for anyone setting up a new home or those who prefer to have something that’s lightweight and easy to handle.
Cast iron is another material which is well-suited to high temperature cooking. It’s also one of the most hardwearing and long-lasting cookware materials, though pots and pans that do not have a non-stick or glazed coating will need seasoning before use in order to prevent rusting. Cast iron pots and pans are great for searing meat on the stove as well as cooking casseroles in the oven.
When it comes to conductivity, copper pots and pans cannot be beaten. They heat up extraordinarily quickly and uniformly, ensuring a more even cooking temperature. They are also strong, durable but at the same time lightweight and easy to handle. And then there’s appearance – copper pots and pans have a lovely traditional look.
Ceramic heats up slowly and gently but retains heat very well, which is why it’s mostly used to make casserole dishes. It’s usually glazed for a non-stick finish and is often painted to give an attractive appearance that complements tableware. Nowadays you’ll also find glazed ceramic as a liner material in metal pots and pans.
Pots and pans FAQs
How important is conductivity?
This depends on your cooking preferences. If you need your pots and pans to heat up quickly and uniformly with minimal hot and cold spots then conductivity is certainly very important. If you aren’t too fussed and would rather just spend less then it’s not. Of the most commonly used cookware materials, copper is by far the most conductive, followed by aluminium, cast iron, carbon steel, stainless steel and ceramic.
Does it need a non-stick coating?
Pots and pans with non-stick surfaces are easier to clean and require far less lubrication in the form of oil or fat (which helps to make your cooking a bit healthier). However, non-stick coatings do not cope particularly well with temperatures in excess of 250˚C, so it’s best to have at least one uncoated pan in your kitchen for high temperature cookery tasks." _PlainText3="Remember that surfaces can be ‘non-stick’ without necessarily having a non-stick coating. Stainless steel is naturally less ‘sticky’ than aluminium, while carbon steel and cast iron can be ‘seasoned’ in order to make them non-stick.
How many pots and pans do I need?
Again, this really depends on your own cooking habits and tastes. If you’re someone who likes a wide variety of foods then you’ll probably need a bigger collection. If you prefer to stick with tried and tested recipes then you can get away with having perhaps four or five." _PlainText3="Another thing to consider is space. If you don’t have a lot of it then your best bet is to buy a small selection of versatile pans that can be used for a number of different cookery tasks.
Should I choose something light or heavy?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that lighter is better, and indeed in many cases it is – after all, lightweight pans are much easier to handle. However, you shouldn’t rule out heavy pots and pans. These often have excellent heat retention properties and are usually a great deal more durable