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These big, straight-sided vessels have their uses, but how much should you pay for a pan you don't pull out every day?
What We Learned
We don’t reach for sauté pans very often in the test kitchen. Despite their name, these wide, flat-bottomed pans with relatively high, L-shaped sides are not the best choice for searing. For that task, we prefer skillets with low, sloping walls that encourage evaporation and browning. Nor are sauté pans our go-to for deep frying or stewing—tasks best done in a tall Dutch oven.
That said, these mid-height, mid-weight, lidded vessels are ideal for cooking down heaps of greens, and their straight sides—high enough to corral splatters but low enough to easily reach into with tongs—are great for shallow frying. It’s also our preferred pan for braising recipes that require browning and then adding liquid. The walls prevent spills as you stir, pour off oil, or transfer the pan from stove to oven.
Like all cookware, a sauté pan needs to do one thing particularly well: heat evenly. Other than that, we wanted a model that felt balanced and comfortable to maneuver—stove-to-oven transfers need to be steady, not shaky—and that came with a tight-fitting lid to keep food and heat well contained.
With those criteria in mind, we bought nine models ranging from $64 to $224.95, all built according to our preferred cookware construction: aluminum (an excellent heat conductor but highly reactive with acidic foods) surrounded by layers of stainless steel (nonreactive and less conductive, so it modulates heat distribution). Of those, six were fully clad tri-ply (translation: the entire pan consisted of three layers), and one pan boasted seven layers from top to bottom. The other two were single-layer constructions sporting aluminum and steel disks attached to the bottom that made just their bases tri-ply. We skipped over nonstick and anodized pans; none of the tasks best suited to sauté pans require a nonstick coating, and the light color of traditional surfaces makes it easier to monitor the browned bits of fond that develop and form the basis of flavorful pan sauces. The task list—fried chicken, braised cabbage, Mexican rice, Swedish meatballs, and crêpes (to gauge even browning)—would single out a pan that truly deserved a place in our cookware arsenal.
Capacities varied (3 quarts and up), but the pans came in two distinct shapes: low and wide or tall and narrow. This meant that the diameter of their cooking surfaces ranged considerably—from 9 to 11 1/4 inches. We figured the wider pans would fare better, since their greater surface area would mean less batch cooking.
To some extent, that was true. We could fit only four or five pieces of chicken in the 9-inch pans, forcing us to fry ...