In the kitchen, we reach for a skillet, a saucepan, or a stock pot depending on what we’re cooking, but we rarely stop to consider how each different piece of cookware is ideally shaped for a particular task. The base, sides, and the handles are designed with purpose. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the variety of shapes of pots and pans.
The stock pot has tall sides and is designed to hold lots of liquid for long, flavor-developing simmers and boiling large amounts of water. Double handles allow easy transport of a pot that can weigh 20-plus pounds when full of stuff. Lower-end stock pots have thin bottoms, which is fine when boiling pasta water, but a thicker bottom is desirable to prevent scorching if you’re browning ingredients for a stew or simmering a big pot of rice.
The short flared walls of a skillet make it easy to stir and flip food while it cooks. This shape also maximizes the food’s exposure to the air, which lets moisture evaporate for better searing.
Sauté is French for “jump,” a reference to the way cooks toss food in a sauté pan. Rapid motion and high heat is ideal for cooking smaller pieces of food without overcooking. The walls of this pan are taller than a skillet’s, and usually vertical or gently flared, to contain food during lots of tossing and stirring. The pan’s large diameter also allows it to hold a large amount of food without crowding. In addition to sautéing, the shape is well suited to frying in a shallow depth of oil, wilting a large quantity of leafy vegetables, and searing pieces of meat or fish.
The saucepan is ubiquitous, with its modest dimensions and straight walls about half the height of its diameter. It’s fine for reheating soup, boiling water for tea, or making a small amount of rice; but it’s not, despite its name, great for making sauces. For that, there’s the saucier.
This is another French-named pan (the “r” is silent). It’s got the same proportions as a saucepan, but its sides curve outward from the base (versus a saucepan’s straight sides). This small difference means there are no corners in which ingredients can clump and burn—a whisk or spoon can reach every part of the pan. This curvature also means that the ratio of volume to surface area is lower, which helps a sauce reduce faster.