If you’ve spent much time in the kitchen, you know that most cabinets are filled with an assortment of pots and pans. But which is which? And how can you tell?

For example, is a shallow pot actually a pan? What about a deep pan? Could it be a pot? And what about the saucepan? Is it really a pan or a pot in disguise?

Although the names may be confusing from time to time and there’s always room for debate, there are some general guidelines you can use when trying to tell pots from pans. Pots and pans are usually separated based on their size and shape.

Pots tend to be deeper with high sides that go straight up from a circular base. Pans, on the other hand, are usually shallow with sides that extend only an inch or two from the base. The sides of a pan may go straight up like a pot, or they may curve up at a gentle angle.

Pots and pans usually have different types of handles, too. Pots usually have two small handles located on opposite sides of the pot. Pans, on the other hand, tend to have just one long handle.

For the serious cook, another major difference between pots and pans is their purpose in the kitchen.

Chefs use pots mainly for liquids, such as making soups or boiling water for pasta. The high sides of a pot allow heat to spread evenly all around the liquid, so that liquid can be heated evenly rather than just from the bottom.

Chefs tend to use pans mainly for frying foods. The wide base and shallow sides of pans allow a thinner layer of food to cook quickly and evenly. Pans are used often for frying meats, eggs and pancakes.

At this point, it may seem like pots and pans are clearly different objects. Things can get confusing, though.

For example, a pot can correctly be called a pan, but a pan can’t correctly be called a pot. So if you ask a chef for a pan, you could get either a pot or a pan. However, if you ask for a pot and a chef hands you a pan, the chef would be wrong!

To make matters even weirder, you may have something in your kitchen called a “saucepan.” While its name implies that the item would clearly be a pan, saucepans are actually pots.

Despite the single handle that’s very pan-like, a saucepan’s steep sides make them perfect for heating sauces — liquids — just like regular pots.


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    • It’s fun to bang on those pots and pans and let your inner drummer come out, isn’t it, Kerrick Elementary School? We think we might just pull out all the pots and pans in our kitchen tonight and have a Wonderopolis jam session! Thanks so much for your comment today! :-)

  1. Dear Wonderopolis,

    Thank you for your article about pots and pans. We learned a lot of new things. It gave us an idea to make our own instruments. We are still wondering about cake pans. Are they really pans or are they pots?

    Mrs. Johnson’s third grade

    • That’s a GREAT question, Mrs. Johnson’s third grade! We can tell you did some extra “wondering” about this one!

      We think a cake pan might be a pan because pans are usually shallow with sides that extend only an inch or two from the base. The only thing it is missing that other types of pans have is a long handle! Thank you for letting us know you learned some new things from today’s Wonder of the Day®! :-)

    • We think it’s GREAT that you learned some new things from visiting this Wonder of the Day®, Tommy! Thank you for leaving us this comment! :-)

    • It makes us very happy to hear that, Stephanie! We love receiving comments from our Wonder Friends, and appreciate yours very much! Thanks for sharing Wonderopolis with the children in your life! :-)

  2. Today, I did the FUNNIEST thing in the store! I accidentally turned on a radio that was near a bunch of pots and pans SO loud that all the pots and pans fell!!

  3. We bet that WAS really funny, Maria! There must have been some people WONDERing what was going on! Thank you for leaving us this awesome comment today! :-)

    • Hey there, Wonder Friend Green Venom, we like your style! What a great name for something that you use so often! Thanks for sharing your comment with us! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What’s the difference between pots and pans?
  • How do chefs use pots and pans differently?
  • Is a saucepan really a pan?

Wonder Gallery

baby girl banging on pots_shutterstock_26235853Vimeo Video

Try It Out

So what’s lurking in the cabinets in your kitchen? Let’s find out! Make sure you get permission first, but then head on into the kitchen, and start rooting around in the drawers and cabinets.

How many pots and pans can you find? Put all the pots together in one pile and all the pans together in another pile.

What’s left? Do you have any kitchen implements that don’t fit neatly into either category?

As long as you have the pots and pans out, why not use them? If you enjoy cooking, here are some fun, easy-to-make recipes that will help you see how those pots and pans work:

If you’re not in the mood to cook, you could always play music. Pots and pans are some of the first “instruments” that youngsters use to make music.

Check out these inspired musical projects:


Still Wondering

Check out ReadWriteThink’s Get Cooking with Words! Creating a Recipe Using Procedural Writing lesson to explore the process of writing, including how to choose the right words.


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chef  Cooking  pan  pot  saucepan 

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