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Saucepans are made from a variety of materials. The best choices are aluminum; stainless steel with a base reinforced with aluminum or copper; or aluminum, stainless steel or cast iron which has been coated with vitreous enamel; or stove enamel, copper and ceramic glass. Good pans should last nearly a lifetime and it is therefore worth choosing carefully and investing a little money in them.
Pans coated with stove enamel are the cheapest you can buy. However the flimsy pan heats quickly and heat does not diffuse across the bottom, so that food burns easily. Moreover the enamel often chips, rusting where it has chipped, so that stove enamel pans have a very short life. One small pan might be useful, to be kept solely for boiling eggs.
Copper pans conjure up rustic kitchens where old-fashioned cooks certainly knew a thing or two about what conducts heat well. Copper is tough, though it needs to be lined with another metal such as aluminum or a non-stick coating, to prevent certain foods coming in contact with the copper and becoming contaminated.
Copper needs a fair amount of cleaning and polishing to keep it looking good on the outside. When the lining wears through, pans must be relined. Copper pans can be used on all cookers.
Commercially available ceramic pans look like china, often with see-through lids. These are popular because they can often go straight to the table, as many of them have clip-on, clip-off handles. 'Glass' saucepans, of toughened heatproof glass are now used mainly for demonstration purposes.
The advantage of ceramic glass is that it can withstand sudden changes from very hot to cold temperatures, so can be removed from the refrigerator and placed straight on to a gas ring or hotplate without danger of cracking. In fact these pans can go straight from the freezer into the oven (though not on to the stove). Ceramic glass tends to hot spot on a very high heat, but it has good heat retention properties and works well on low temperatures. Cleaning is straightforward and the pans can be scoured. Mild bleach solution should remove stains. Soaking is usually enough for easy cleaning.
Aluminum is probably the best value for money; it comes in a variety of thicknesses (called gauges) and basically the thicker the bottom the better. Aluminum conducts heat well and can be used on gas and electric cookers, provided that for the latter you choose pans with a flat base.
Aluminum saucepans tend to become discolored if food is left in them for any length of time and may also 'pit' if the food is acidic. Discoloration can usually be removed by boiling up water with some apple peelings, lemon juice or vinegar in the pan.
Aluminum pans can be cleaned with scouring pads or steel wool, but those with a mirror finish should be soaked and cleaned gently rather than rubbed with an abrasive.
Stainless steel is a less good conductor of heat than aluminum and may produce hot spots. The best stainless-steel pans therefore incorporate into their base a sandwich layer or coating of another good heat conducting material, such as copper or aluminum, to help overcome this. Stainless steel looks good and is easy to clean, although it may show scratches and watermarks. If burnished from time to time on the outside with a proprietary stainless-steel cleaner, it should remain in good condition for years.
Non-stick surfaces are one of the byproducts of space exploration. There are two effective types, so look for these by name on the manufacturer's labels. Teflon, which is black, is very durable and has the advantage that metal implements can be used for stirring and turning in pans coated with this product. Tefal generally has a greyish white finish on saucepans and a grey finish on frying-pans: you should only use wooden implements in pans with this finish. There are other cheaper non-stick linings available, but these are generally either not effective or not long lasting.
Non-stick coatings have really come into their own for frying-pans. They are also extremely useful for all bakeware where the reduced risk of sticking makes extracting baked goods easier. A non-stick coating is useful for milk pans and pots where sauces may cling to the pan, but it is unnecessary for other saucepans.
You must be careful never to put an empty non-stick coated pan on the heat as the coating will blister off. Do not stack non-stick coated pans inside each other or they become scratched. Non-stick pans have a shorter working life than other saucepans because the linings eventually become worn and damaged.