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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