Heating foods is one of the most vital steps in many recipes.
It can change the flavour, texture, and even the nutritional content! But, fire is often chaotic and unpredictable, so tools were created to help spread the heat over an even surface. This allows for incredible control over what parts of the food are being heated.
One of the most basic and versatile tools is the pan.
There are three basic types of pans: the fry pan, saute pan and the sauce pan.
Understanding the Basics
Pans are used to transfer heat from the source, usually the stove element, to the pan. Pans are designed to absorb the heat from the stove and raise their own internal temperature. This makes the pan a heat source in-and-of itself.
While cooking food, you have to be careful that food does not stick to the bottom of the pan. While appearing smooth, a pan is actually filled with many hills and valleys that food can get stuck in.
When food gets heated, it can form chemical bonds with the pan, and it can become stuck to the bottom. This forces the food to stay near the bottom, and will cook much faster than any other food in the pan. This can lead to burning the food very quickly.
To counter this, cooks use vegetable or animal fats to fill in these gaps and valleys.
Sauce pans, sometimes called pots depending on their size, are primarily used for… well… sauces. They have tall, vertical sides which are designed to keep liquids from spilling out. The thick walls will also heat up with the bottom, and will transmit heat from the sides, which can make for more even cooking. Sauce pans and pots are usually measured by volume, in litres or gallons, as opposed to diameter.
Sauce pans and pots are not relegated to only sauces, as they are good with anything regarding liquid. From boiling to steaming to making soups and stews, a sauce pan is very versatile. However, the high walls can make directly interacting with the food, outside of basic stirring, very difficult.
Saute pans, French for “jumping” or “bouncing”, is named after the cooking style where the cook flips the food in the air. This is used when dealing with high heat, and helps preserve the texture and use less oil than other pans. These pans can also be used to stir fry, where instead of doing food acrobatics, you simply stir the food using a spoon or other utensil.
Saute pans are usually measured using diameter (ie. 10 inch).
The fry pan is the most common, and most versatile, of pans.
Essentially, they are a cross between a sauce pan and a saute pan. They have a flat bottom, but the overall profile is relatively short. This allows cooks to easily manipulate food, as there are no high walls to interfere with any utensils. Because they have a flat bottom, they can also be used for heating sauces and other high-liquid foods, like eggs.
Fry pans excel in frying food, where oil is used in the pan to sear food, and cook the outside faster than the inside. This is often used for meats and breaded vegetables, but nearly anything can be cooked in a fry pan.
Fry pans are usually measured using diameter (ie. 10 inch).
Manpans.com created this great infographic to show the points above.