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Pots and pans are kitchen essentials used in preparing nearly any meal, yet these necessities come in such a wide variety of sizes and shapes they can present something of a mystery to many home chefs.
To help bring some clarity to your kitchen, here’s a quick rundown of the differences between types of pots and pans, and the tasks for which they’re best suited.
Distinctive features: Shallow pan with curved edges and a flat bottom
Ideal for: Sautéing vegetables, scrambling eggs, searing/browning meat
Other notes: “Frying pan” and “skillet” are different names for the same kitchen staple. It’s one of the most versatile pan types, and the curved edges make it easy to shift or flip the contents without a kitchen utensil. In an ironic twist, frying pans are actually better for sautéing than sauté pans, as their edges make it easier to keep food moving so it doesn’t scorch.
Distinctive features: A bit deeper than a frying pan with straight, vertical edges
Ideal for: Frying, simmering sauces, searing/browning meat
Other notes: A sauté pan is meant to keep its contents on the bottom of the pan, and the high edges help by containing what you’re cooking better than curved edges. This means a sauté pan can handle sauces and liquids that might slosh over the edges of a frying pan; this is also what makes them ideal for frying, as they can better contain hot oil without risking dangerous spills or splatters.
Distinctive features: Sturdy pot with high edges and a single side handle; may feature a pouring spout on the upper edge of the pot for easy transfer of liquids
Ideal for: Making soup, cooking liquids such as gravy and sauces, preparing side dishes
Other notes: Saucepans are the most basic type of pot, and they come in a range of large and small sizes to accommodate everyday cooking needs.
Distinctive features: Wide and shallow, featuring raised ridges to simulate a grill grate; generally features a handle on one side
Ideal for: Making grilled sandwiches, pan-cooking meat or grilling anything that would be too delicate or small to put on an actual grill’s grate
Other notes: This versatile pan can help cook food in a lean and healthy way, as the ridges allow fats and juices to drip down off the food. The grill ridges also create pleasing sear marks that make food look extra appetizing.
Distinctive features: Large and deep pot, featuring double side handles
Ideal for: Making stock or soup, boiling vegetables and making food in large quantities
Other notes: Stock pots come in a range of sizes to meet differing culinary needs, but most are large enough to fit whole roasts or poultry for stock and soup.
Distinctive features: Broad and relatively deep; generally comes with a raised metal rack
Ideal for: Cooking a large roast, chicken or turkey in the oven
Other notes: A roasting pan’s raised rack allows all the drippings and fat to run off your meal and collect in the pan below, which may be used to make gravy and other sauces.
Distinctive features: Wide, flat and shallow, in rectangular shapes meant to cover one or two stove burners
Ideal for: Making pancakes, frying bacon and eggs, or serving as a frying pan substitute when cooking for a crowd
Other notes: While its large size makes a griddle pan very helpful for cooking in bulk, it can also mean the pan may sprawl off the edges of burners, so watch for uneven heating around those areas.
Distinctive features: Very shallow and relatively wide with a narrow lip at the edge; always features a single handle
Ideal for: Crafting thin and delicate crêpes
Other notes: A crêpe pan is a specialty pan whose shallow edges allow chefs to flip delicate crêpes without tearing them. Given the fragile nature of some crêpes, nonstick pans are a great choice. Depending on what you’re making, these can also be used in place of a frying pan in a pinch.
Distinctive features: Large pan with rounded sides – resembles a giant stove-top bowl with a handle
Ideal for: Sautéing noodles, making stir-fry or cooking fried rice
Other notes: A wok’s rounded sides and small area of direct heat make it perfect for preparing dishes meant to be stirred, tossed or otherwise agitated while cooking. This technique is best applied by using high heat to cook the food quickly and thoroughly.
Distinctive features: A wide, two-part pan with a slotted top and a relatively shallow pan underneath
Ideal for: Oven-roasting meat or vegetables
Other notes: The slotted top allows juice to drain off meat while it’s cooking, while the shallower pan below catches it so it can be used for gravy or discarded. The pan’s shape also allows air and heat to circulate under the food, meaning you typically don’t need to flip food for even cooking.