Although barbecue devotees may object, it’s not possible to cook everything over an open flame, as the myriad of vessels, pots and containers that we refer to as ‘cookware’ will attest. Some have changed little over the centuries - the oval frying pans found in Pompeii were almost certainly used to fry fish in the same way that we do today!
Modern cookware has evolved to suit the heat sources and cooking techniques of the day. Gone are the rounded bases of the cauldron, intended to maximise exposure to the heat of an open fire; replaced by flat bases and handles, intended for lifting and pouring.
During the Georgian era, grand houses would commission foundries to make individual pans for reproducing elaborate recipes by fashionable chefs. The Industrial Revolution brought standardisation of sizes, whilst modern technology has introduced such things as non-stick coatings and encapsulated cores to further enhance performance and ease of use. This series of blogs will look at the different types, materials and best uses of modern cookware.
OK, so how many types of pan are there?
Workhorses of the kitchen with tall straight sides, these are capable of far more than their name suggests. A good saucepan will do everything from boiling spuds to scrambling eggs or mixing porridge. They have a long handle for lifting and some larger models also feature a helper handle. Non-stick coatings are not generally considered essential on all saucepans, but as many sauces are prone to catching and overheating they can be an advantage. Lids are either glass or stainless steel. Whilst steel is lighter, glass lids let you see what’s happening in the pan!
Also known as Marmites, Cocottes, Dutch Ovens or even Daubieres or Doufeus, casseroles come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes and materials. Some modern casseroles are made from stainless steel or aluminium; more traditional ones are made from cast iron, earthenware and glass – all ideal for gentle heating and maintaining a stable temperature for long periods. Round or oval and generally with loop handles on each side, casseroles can be used on the hob and in the oven. They are perfect for stewing and braising where ingredients will benefit from long slow cooking at lower temperatures.
Similar in shape to casseroles but considerably deeper, stockpots were traditionally used for boiling down bones and carcasses over extremely long periods to make glossy stocks for gravies, soups and reductions.
A good preserving pan is twice as wide as it’s deep to expose all of its contents to the heat of the hob. This allows rapid boiling of great volumes of fruit and sugar, so the pectin in the fruit can develop and produce jams or jellies that set beautifully each time. Most have a loop handle which reaches over the top of the pan and a helper handle at the side to allow hot jam to be poured easily into the awaiting jars.
When held under pressure, the boiling point of water increases to above 100°C. This simple fact is used to great effect in the kitchen with pressure cookers. The lid on a pressure cooker forms a tight seal with the pan – this prevents steam from escaping and allows pressure to build up within the pan. Consequently the liquid in the pan becomes extremely hot and the pressure within forces this super-heated water into the food, which greatly reduces cooking time. Spring-loaded valves or weights on the lid of the pressure cooker prevent excessive build-up of pressure and a silicone or rubber gasket around the inside of the lid prevents leaks. Pressure cookers are wonderful for speeding up the braising of tougher cuts of meat.
Broad in diameter with straight sides of between 8cm and 12cm in height, these very versatile pans allow ingredients to be seared or fried. Sauté pans have the capacity for stocks or sauces to be added and gently simmered on the hob.
Oscar Wilde reckoned that a man could eat well in England if he simply ate breakfast three times a day. We think that Oscar must have been quite a devotee of the frying pan or ‘Skillet’ as our transatlantic cousins call it. Broad with gently sloping sides to allow thin foods to slip easily from pan to plate, the frying pan provides a generous contact area between food and heat for rapid cooking. By using small amounts of oil or fat, moisture is driven off the food which creates enticing crispiness! Frying pans are made in a variety of materials including aluminium, copper, stainless steel and laminates. Non-stick coatings are often considered essential on frying pans.
A more recent addition to the batterie de cuisine, the ‘chef’s pan’ is an adaptation of the kind of pan most commonly used in commercial kitchens. Chef’s pans are a cross between a saucepan, a sauté pan, a frying pan and a wok. They have a broad base and rounded sides similar or marginally higher than those on a sauté pan. These pans are multipurpose, suitable for conventional frying or stir-frying and deep enough for sautéing or poaching. The curved sides and broad base also allow for easy whisking and reducing of sauces.
The wok has broad-curved sides which are heated to allow food to be tossed and stirred, ideal for oriental dishes. This means that food cooks without absorbing too much oil and so retains its fresh flavour and colour. The large internal volume of a wok means that plenty of water can be heated within it for boiling or steaming, or oil for deep-frying. Traditional woks have round bases for use on gas burners with a supporting wok ring. Modern woks have a small flat base and therefore don’t need a ring.
If you love a juicy steak then you’ll soon fall in love with your griddle. Griddle pans are intended to produce an intense dry heat that will instantly sear meats and hold the wonderful juices and flavours inside.
Our Top Tips On Finding Your Perfect Pans:
Match your cookware to your cooking… If you cook lots of large family meals with plenty of vegetables, potatoes or pasta… you need plenty of large saucepans; don’t always be tempted to buy the traditional set of small, medium and large. Think about what you cook - three medium pans and a large casserole or stockpot may suit you best.
"I work long hours but I want a hot meal when you I get home"
Wouldn’t a slow-cooked casserole be fantastic in the evening? A cast iron casserole dish will allow you to put a braising joint or stew into the oven in the morning and have it ready and waiting when you come home. A very large casserole means that there could be plenty of food left over to freeze and reheat another day.
"I've just invested in a serious new gas range cooker because cooking is a lifelong passion & I want the very best pans that will be a lifetime investment"
Copper cookware is what you need; the control that this incredibly conductive material gives will allow you to develop your skills with even the most complicated and delicate of dishes. Copper pans are so durable that they might even become part of your legacy.
"Help! My teenage children have started to take an interest in cooking - how will my cookware survive the onslaught?"
You need cookware that can take the punishment! Stainless steel is really strong and easy to clean when something goes wrong. Frying pans with ceramic non-stick coatings will not be badly damaged by high temperatures, even if the food is burnt to a crisp.
"Over the years my grip has inevitably got weaker but I still love to cook."
Hard anodised aluminium pans will give you the best balance of cooking performance, durability and most importantly lightness of weight. Many models will also work on induction cookers, which are safe and controllable.
"My steaks are never cooked quite the way that I want them - do I have the correct kit?"
A ribbed griddle pan will allow you to use intense heat to achieve the perfect sear from blue rare to well done.