Cooking for Beginners: How to Pick a Cooking Pot or Pan

When you’re getting ready to make dinner, you probably grab a specific pot or pan depending on what and how you’re cooking. Have you ever stopped to think about why? While some reasons for using a pot or pan are obvious, like you use a pot to boil water for pasta, others aren’t. And while some of the differences between pots and pans may appear small, they can massively change the outcome of your dish.

Knowing the factors that define why you use the cooking pots or pans that you do can make you a better home cook. With that in mind, let’s look at a few these factors!

The Difference Between Pots and Pans

First, let’s define pots and pans. Taking this step is actually pretty important, because it’ll help us (and you!) differentiate a lot of the cooking factors that we’ll discuss throughout the rest of the article. While there are many specific types of both, there are several general characteristics that separate pots and pans.

A pot tends to be deeper with straight sides, while most pans have shallow sides that slope at a gentle angle outward.

A pot tends to be deeper with a circular bottom and straight sides. Most pans are round with shallow sides that slope at a gentle angle outward. This isn’t always the case, though. Pans are a little more versatile. They aren’t always circular (think a square grill pan) and may have straight sides. Pans also differ from pots because they tend to have a single long handle, unlike pots, which tend to have two smaller handles on either side. There can also be a hybrid of pots and pans called a saucepan. These tend to be shallower than regular pots, but deeper than pans, and have a longer, singular handle like pans.

Depth

So, we’ve already mentioned one obvious differentiating factor between pots and pans — depth. This has a lot to do with what’s intended to be cooked inside. Generally, pots are used in cooking methods primarily involving liquids like boiling, simmering, or braising, making their greater depth valuable. For this reason, many pans aren’t suited for dishes that require large amounts of liquid, since they’re likely to spill over the side. The tall sides of a pot are also useful when cooking liquids or certain dishes, because as the sides of the pot heat, they become a heat source, helping to cook everything in the pot.

Generally, pots are used in cooking methods primarily involving liquids, making their greater depth valuable.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to use a shallow pan or pot. Shallow cooking vessels, like pans, tend to be for when you’re crisping foods or cooking them at higher heats — like when you’re pan-frying, sautéing, and searing. Interestingly, the tall sides of a pot can slow steam’s escape, which in turn, slows the browning or crisping of the ingredients.

Size

The size of a pot or pan is also a factor that can influence how your food turns out. Obviously, the size of the pot or pan is important because you need to be able to fit in all the necessary ingredients to cook a dish. The size of what you’re cooking in can also influence the cook time, since if the ingredients can’t all fit in at once, you may need to cook them in shifts, which will take longer. It also pairs with the depth of the vessel. Since pots are used for liquids and have tall sides, they are often thinner than many pans. On the other hand, pans tend to be wider since they are used for solids and for browning or sautéing on a single layer of food.

If there’s not enough room in a pan, it can create an unintentional lid that causes the ingredients to be steamed instead.

It’s important that ingredients you’re browning or sautéing are on a single layer because being against the bottom of the pan directly influences the browning or crisping. If there’s not enough room in a pan or the ingredients are overlapping, it can create an unintentional lid that holds steam in and causes the ingredients to be steamed instead. Overcrowding can mean the difference between crisp pan-fried chicken tenderloins and limp, mushy breaded chicken.

Material

The material of the pot or pan is also worth considering when choosing a cooking vessel. While many pots and pans are stainless steel these days — a great go-to option — there are materials that can add something to your dish. For example, non-stick pans can help you cut back on the oil that you need to cook with. The downsides are that you need non-stick-safe tools, like wooden utensils, to stir ingredients in these vessels. And, high temperatures can cause the non-stick coating to break down. Another common material that pans are made of is cast iron. These pans hold heat magnificently, making them a top pick for high-heat cooking. They do require extra upkeep, though, to keep them from rusting.

Cast iron pans hold heat magnificently, making them a top pick for high-heat cooking.

When picking a pan based on what it’s made of, you also want to consider whether that material is oven-safe or not. Some pans can be used to cook a dish on the stovetop, and not inside the oven if you need to finish a dish that way. The defining characteristic of whether or not pans are safe to put in the oven is the handle. If the handle is covered in rubber or the pan isn’t metal or ceramic, it likely isn’t oven-safe. Non-stick pans are also not ovenproof. So, if you’re making a recipe that calls for you to finish the dish in the oven, either make sure you’re using an ovenproof pan or have an ovenproof dish nearby to transfer the ingredients into when you’re ready for that step.

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In cooking, the smallest aspects can change the way your recipe turns out, so it’s important to pay attention to which pot or pan you’re using. Not only can the type of cooking vessel — either pot, pan, or saucepan — deeply influence your dish, little things like the size of the sides of the vessel or the type of metal that it’s made of can make the same set of ingredients in a completely different way. If you’re new to cooking or have never really considered why you use certain pots and pans in different situations, this lesson will, hopefully, greatly improve your ability as a home cook!

To learn more about how pots and pans can influence your cooking, or other key components of cooking, we highly suggest Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, linked below. It’s become an invaluable resource to not only this article, but many of our posts and our cooking since its publication.

Further Reading

Samin Nosrat — Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking
Medicareful Living — Cooking for Beginners: Frequently Asked Questions (& Their Answers!)
Medicareful Living — Cooking for Beginners: Meal Prep and Safety Tips