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The Shape of Things

Choosing Cookware Part 2: Features (shapes, lids, handles)


When choosing cookware, there are many factors to consider, but they can be easily divided into materials and features. In Choosing Cookware Part 1: Materials, we reviewed the metals, and combinations of metals, from which cookware is constructed. But pots and pans are also designed with different features that make them better suited to certain cooking tasks, easier to handle or more convenient to use. These features combine to form a total cooking experience, and include shape, handles, lids, and cooking preferences.

The Shape of Things

Different pan body shapes are best suited to particular cooking jobs. Understanding the best uses for different shapes helps decide which pans to purchase first, especially if you’re not purchasing a pre-packaged set. Below, we quickly review a few of the most used pan shapes.

Skillets, sometimes called frying pans, are used for stove top cooking. They typically have sloped sides that are not too tall (no more than 2” – 3” for a standard skillet), and one long handle. The outward sloping sides create a wider opening at the top of the pan, allowing easy access to the food for turning or stirring, Sloped sides also make it easier to slide food out of the skillet and onto a serving dish. Skillets are used for cooking a variety of foods, including chicken breasts, steaks, frittatas and fish. A skillet may or may not have a lid. They come in a variety of sizes, described in inches from one edge of the pan to the other, measured across the top of the pan (for example, 10”, 12”, 14”).
Sauté pans are used for stove-top cooking. They typically have straight sides that are about 3” tall, one long handle and a lid. They are used similarly to skillets, but the straight sides of the sauté pan make it especially useful for creating dishes with more volume, like marinara sauce or linguini with clams. The size of a sauté pan is described in quarts. Because the sides are straight up and down, the top and bottom of sauté pans measure the same.

Most saucepans are straight-sided and deep (about 4” – 6”), have one long handle and a lid. They come in several sizes described by their liquid capacity, from 1-quart to 4-quarts. They’re versatile pans used for a variety of stovetop cooking jobs like blanching vegetables, making sauces, heating soups and other liquids and making rice.

Saucier pans have one long handle and, usually, a lid. They also come in various sizes measured by quart capacity (up to about 4-quarts). However, sauciers are not as deep as saucepans, their sides curve slightly outward, and the bottom edge is curved. The curved bottom allows a whisk or spoon to reach to the very edge of the pan, making sauciers suitable for dishes that may burn and therefore require thorough stirring like risotto, cream sauce or pastry cream. A chef’s pan is similar in shape and usage to a saucier.

Like saucepans, Windsor pans are deep with one long handle and a lid. They come in a variety of sizes, measured by quart capacity. However, Windsor pans have smaller bottoms and flared sides that create a wider opening at the top of the pans. This shape creates more surface area across the liquid in the pan, allowing for faster evaporation. This is useful for reducing any liquid or sauce to concentrate the flavors, like red wine sauce, balsamic vinegar or simple syrup.

Stockpots are large deep pots with two handles and a lid. They come in a variety of sizes, measured by quart capacity. Stockpots are used for many cooking tasks – especially tasks that use a lot of liquid like making chicken stock, boiling pasta or making chili.

Hold On

The handle is where the cook and the cookware meet. A handle should be firmly riveted to the pan, and should feel comfortable in the hand. Some handles are designed to “stay cool” on the stove top – a feature many cooks prefer.
Handles are made from a variety of materials, including all metal stainless steel, silicone-over-steel, phenolic (a hard plastic), and cast iron. With oven-safe cookware, the handle material is usually what determines how hot an oven temperature the pans can withstand. Metal-only handles can take the highest heat. Check the specifications for the cookware you are considering to find out the maximum oven temperature the cookware is rated for.

Cover and Cook

Lids are usually made of either tempered glass or metal. Glass lids allow for monitoring the cooking process without lifting the lid and letting moisture and heat escape. No matter what the material, a lid should fit snugly on the pan and have a secure handle for safe and easy lifting.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Whichever cookware is selected, personal choice is the order of the day. A cook who loves their pots and pans will have a more satisfying cooking experience – and that is truly in the eye of the beholder.


For more information about selecting the perfect cookware for you, read Choosing Cookware Part 1: Materials.

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