How we tested
Cookware doesn’t get much simpler than a saucepan: It’s basically a bowl with a handle and a lid. But it also doesn’t get more important, since this is the vessel you’ll use to prepare everything from soups and sauces to pasta and grains to custards and puddings. And when it comes to performance, we’ve found that the differences between models can be surprisingly significant. Well-designed saucepans sear, simmer, and steam at a steady, controlled pace; handle comfortably, even when full; and boast tight-fitting lids and stay-cool handles that eliminate the need for a potholder. But there are duds out there that make cooking uncomfortable, time-consuming, and messy. Flimsy, warped vessels have scorching hot spots; heavy frames and wiggly handles make a saucepan a bear to lift when full; and pesky handle rivets trap food and make cleanup a chiseling project rather than a quick swipe with a sponge.
To zero in on a reliable, hard-wearing saucepan, we assembled a team of staffers of varying heights, strengths, and skill levels to test 10 large (3- to 4-quart) saucepans with lids, priced from about $18.00 to $215.00, in a variety of styles and materials. Most models were fully clad, meaning the cooking surface and walls are made of three or more layers of bonded metal, such as two layers of nonreactive, moderately heat-conductive stainless steel sandwiching one layer of highly heat-conductive aluminum. This construction is engineered to heat evenly and reasonably quickly; the drawback is that it tends to be pricey, so we also included more-economical options, such as a “disk-bottom” model, where the metal “sandwich” is confined to the base of a single-layer steel pan, as well as pans made of anodized aluminum (the surface of which has been hardened and darkened via an electrochemical process) and ceramic-coated and regular nonstick-coated aluminum.
Some saucepans were tall and skinny, others lower and wider; two were flared, with rounded sides rising from a narrower base. Several models sported rolled rims or spouts, with claims of making pouring neater. Handles, which varied in thickness and shape, were made of stainless steel, silicone-coated steel, or phenolic (plastic), and most of the pans had secondary helper handles to make them easier to move when full. Lids were made of solid metal or glass; one lid had a built-in strainer.
In each saucepan, we stirred, scraped, and poured custard; made rice pilaf; and browned butter. We watched water boil, timing how long a measured amount took to bubble, before blanching green beans and draining the contents in a colander, noting how easy (or not) each model was to pour from. We washed the pans by hand after every test (though most were dishwasher-safe). We even abused them by heating them and plunging them into ice water to replicate the warping effects of thermal shock, which occurs when you put a hot pan under cold running water, and by whacking them on a concrete step to test their sturdiness and the strength of their handle attachments. Along the way, we noted the design characteristics that made a few models stand out as especially easy and comfortable for everyday use and tough enough to last for years.
The ability to see the color and texture of food as it cooks is critical, especially for a task such as browning butter. A few seconds can mean the difference between hazelnut-colored, deeply nutty butter and a black, bitter mess. We cut it close when cooking in the curvy Tramontina Domus saucepan, the bulging sides of which partially blocked our view of the butter as it browned. The dark interiors of the nonstick pans from T-Fal and Scanpan and the anodized aluminum pan from Calphalon camouflaged the color development of the butter and of the onions we sautéed for rice pilaf. We had to pour the browned butter into a bowl before we could be sure it hadn’t burned, and the onions, which were supposed to soften without color, came out as dark as pennies. Pans with straight sides were easier to peer into, and light interiors provided a clear visual contrast that helped us judge the best moment to take the butter off the heat or move on to the next step of the pilaf recipe.
Thinner nonstick and anodized aluminum pans also ran into trouble with steady, even heating. All these pans’ lightweight frames caused them to run hot and fast and forced us to constantly adjust the heat to avoid burning the onions. But even our hypervigilance wasn’t good enough when we cooked in the disk-bottom Tramontina; along the lower sides, where the thinner steel walls flared out from the thicker clad pan bottom, the onions overbrowned and the custard stuck. The cooking surface in the T-Fal was also cramped compared with those of models that were an inch wider. That might not sound like much, but it makes a noticeable difference when not all the food fits in a single even layer.
How They Handled
A worthy saucepan must feel comfortable to lift and maneuver, since you often need to tilt it steadily for controlled pouring or keep it aloft with one hand while scooping or scraping out food with the other. Weight was certainly a factor here—heftier pans (at least 4 pounds without their lids) were quite heavy when full—but not as much as the weight balance and how firmly we could grip the handles.
The Le Creuset saucepan, for example, weighed about 12 ounces less than the All-Clad model but felt off-balance and was thus more cumbersome to tilt and pour from. (Dedicated pour spouts didn’t help, by the way; they simply overflowed if the tester wasn’t able to control the pan.) Similarly, the saucepan from Calphalon and the Tramontina Domus model were both considerably lighter than the All-Clad but had handles that were uncomfortably skinny or round, so that they actually slipped in our grasp, rotating suddenly and dangerously as we were pouring out boiling water, steaming-hot pilaf, and molten custard. Ironically, the All-Clad’s handle was the least cushiony in the lineup, but its cupped shape anchored it firmly in our hands, both with and without a towel or potholder. And unlike those of most models, its handles stayed cool, even after extended cooking.
Even lid handles mattered, as we learned when trying to grab the small knob on the Le Creuset. We preferred large looping handles that were easy to grab. As for the lids themselves, glass lids promised to be helpful for checking progress, but they were usually too steamed up to see through. Plus, they’re not as durable as solid metal.
As kitchen workhorses, saucepans should survive years of use without falling apart or looking weather-beaten, but only a few came away from our admittedly extreme abuse tests, which are meant to simulate many years of use, with just a few minor dings. Thermal shock warped a few models after we plunged the hot pans into a bucket of ice water. The lightest saucepan, from T-Fal, dented deeply when we whacked it on concrete; its lid no longer fit properly, and its handle became very loose. An anodized model sustained tiny cracks in its black surface, and others suffered medium-size dents. And multiple nonstick models looked discolored and dingy after a few days of use; one scratched in our very first test when we fluffed rice pilaf with a fork.
Ultimately, the All-Clad Stainless 4-Qt Sauce Pan proved why it has been—and still is—our top pick. Its fully clad construction provided uniform and steady but efficient heat (it was one of the fastest to boil water and the quickest to return to a boil after we added food), and its light-colored interior and relatively broad cooking surface offered good visibility. It’s no featherweight, but its hefty frame hits the sweet spot between sturdy construction and easy handling; we could lift it with one hand, even when it was full. Its simple steel lid is durable, as is its stay-cool handle, which isn’t cushy but stays secure in our grip. It survived abuse testing with almost negligible dents, and since we’ve used it in the test kitchen for almost a decade, we know that was not just a flash in the pan.
The Cuisinart MultiClad Unlimited 4 Quart Saucepan with Cover is our Best Buy. We could easily see and stir the contents in its mirror-like interior, and its lightweight body was comfortable to maneuver. The trade-off was durability: Because it’s a lighter-weight pan, it showed more discoloration and wear after testing. But given that it costs about one-third the price of the All-Clad, its performance was impressive.
We tested 10 large (3- to 4-quart) saucepans with lids, rating them on performance, ease of use, cleanup, and durability. Results were averaged, and saucepans appear in order of preference. All saucepans were purchased online.
Performance: We prepared simple rice pilaf, browned butter, made crème anglaise, and blanched green beans in each saucepan, rating and averaging the results. We weighted performance more heavily than other categories.
Ease of Use: We evaluated each saucepan’s shape, weight, balance, handle design, and lid, as well as how easy it was to lift, pour from, and maneuver.
Cleanup: We washed each saucepan and lid by hand after each use, noting whether any model trapped food or required more-thorough scrubbing.
Durability: We subjected each saucepan to thermal shock by heating it and plunging it into a bucket of ice water (below) and then checked for warping. We also struck each saucepan against concrete three times, noting any dents, scratches, or loosening of handles.