According to the Food Lover's Companion, a sauté pan is "a wide pan with straight or slightly curved sides that are generally a little higher than those of a frying pan. It has a long handle on one side; heavy sauté pans usually have a loop handle on the other side so the pan can be easily lifted. "
Sauté pans are used to sauté foods, a cooking method where you cook food quickly in a small amount of fat (butter, oil), in a very hot pan over direct heat. It is very similar to frying but usually involves less fat and faster cooking.
While you can sauté in just about any skillet or fry pan, using a well-made sauté pan will be a lot easier and give you have more consistent results. It will be easier because the food will cook quickly without burning and form the perfect crust (fond) that is used to make pan sauces.
1. Heavy bottomed - a well-constructed pan will use heavy gauge, highly conductive materials. You want the pan to be thick enough to prevent burning from hot spots but still heat up quickly.
2. Overall conductivity - as important as the bottom surface is, a well built pan will have good conductivity up the sides as well.
3. Materials - copper, stainless steel, anodized aluminum, cast iron, enamel. Each material has its pros and cons. You want to look at each material and see how it fits in with the other requirements.
4. Size - It's great to have a pan big enough to hold everything you want to cook, but if the pan is too big, the juices released from what you are cooking will tend to evaporate quickly and burn. If the pan is too small, the ingredients will be too crowed and steam instead of sauté.
5. Straight sided - great for sautéing larger pieces of meat and vegetables that are turned with tongs rather than flipping. It is also better for deglazing when making pan sauces.
6. Sloping side - great for tossing foods including small cuts of meat, seafood, or vegetables.
7. Oven proof - you want your sauté pan to be able to go into the oven for pan roasting.
8. Long handle - better for leverage and ease of use, the new models have heat resistant handles.
9. Feel - how does the pan feel in your hand? If you are going to do a lot of cooking in this pan, it is important to find one that feels just right for you.
10. Cost - think of it as an investment. A well made pan will last you a long time so buy the best you can afford.
11. Stick or non stick - Although non stick pans are easier to clean and do prevent foods from sticking, it is the sticking that creates the fond that is so essential to making pan sauces. There are some new products on the market like Calphalon One are suppose to be non stick but allow for searing to take place.