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Dec 20, 2009 07:57 PM

How do you saute large batches of food? What piece of cookware?

So my mother wants to replace her electric skillet, which she uses to make most dinners, because she adores leftovers. Everything from spaghetti sauce to 8 chicken breasts. However, electric skillets seem to be a mercurial type of cookware, and she's already ordered and returned 2 for various reasons.

The only cookware I thought of was an extra large paella pan. So, what do you foodies use to cook for an army? Thanks!

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  1. E_M

    Are you really going to saute? As in tossing/jerking your foods around in a very hot pan?

    From the angle of able to toss foods in a pan, you do not want a super heavy pan because you want to able to move your pan easily. It is not easy to toss food with a cast iron pan and it has poor heat response. However, if you want to cook tons of food at the same time, then a cast iron pan is good because it has huge heat capacity. When you use a thin pan and put large amount of foods in it, the temperature of the pan will drop dramatically and then you will be cooking your foods in water. To me, sauteing and cooking huge amount of foods sort of go against one and another. I would ask myself which of the two are more important. Are you willing to pan frying instead of sauting for large amount of people? In that case, a large cast iron pan is good. Or are you willing to properly saute in multiple batches? In that case, you want a pan which has moderate weight and has good heat response, so it will definitely not be a large cast iron pan. Some believe a copper bottom pan is the best, other believe an anodized aluminum pan is good.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

      OK, you are right, not saute. More like cook large batches of anything. (Saute means different things to my mom than it does to a cook! She uses a wooden spoon to sort of stir and turn over anything she's trying to brown or cook.) And cast iron is out, she won't be able to lift it.

      1. re: E_M


        You mean saute means different things to your mom than a chef. I am sure your mom is a cook. :) Well, I would suggest a thick anodized aluminum pan. Just a suggestion. My reasons are these. First, aluminum has good heat conduction only second to copper in typical cookware materials. The excellent heat conduction will provide a more evenly heated pan, minimizing heat spots. Second, aluminum has a great specific heat capacity. Pound for pound it has twice the heat capacity as iron, steel and copper.

        In other words, an aluminum pan only needs to weight half of a cast iron pan to provide the same amount of heat capacity. This greater heat capacity allows you to put more foods into the pan without suddenly lowering the temperature of the pan too fast.

        Now, all other cookware materials have their advantages, but if you are looking for a pan to cook for a lot of people and yet light in weight, then you should consider an anodized aluminum pan. You can also decide if you like a nonstick surface with it or not, but if you want to brown food, then you do not want a nonstick surface.

        You can consider the Calphalon commercial anodized series, like this pan:

        or the Calphalon One Infused series

        Both series allow you to brown your foods, which also means foods, especially meats, will stick to it.

        Best wishes.

        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

          "In other words, an aluminum pan only needs to weight half of a cast iron pan to provide the same amount of heat capacity. This greater heat capacity allows you to put more foods into the pan without suddenly lowering the temperature of the pan too fast."

          Specific heat is pretty much meaningless when discussing aluminum cookware.

          Aluminum's thermal conductivity (4 times that of iron) completely negate it's ability to store heat.

          Aluminum's ability to heat up quickly also means that it's losing heat just as quickly. The heat exits the pan just as quickly as it enters. That's why you never see instructions to pre-heat an aluminum pan.

          It's quickly transferring energy (whatever energy the burner is feeding it), not storing it like less conductive iron. Overcrowding has nothing to do with the specific heat of the aluminum in the pan but the BTUs the burner is pumping out.

          1. re: scott123


            Thanks. It is true that aluminum has great heat conductivity which makes it great for even heating. Because it conducts heat so fast, I personally think it is a poor material for a wok. I know where you coming from and let see if I can explain my position better this time.

            Heat lost from a metal can occurs via different means, such as radiation and conduction. I am sure we are not talking about heat loss from the pan to the foods because that is a good thing, so we are talking about heat loss to surroundings. For a Blackbody, radiation is not a function of metal but simply temperature. It is described by the Plank's distribution:


            Any metal at same temperature will radiate the same power. I am pretty sure about that.

            For heat loss via conduction through air molecule, that will depend on the air molecules property and the temperature difference between the air and the metal. It does not depends on the metal conductivity. It is the surrounding air molecules which are carrying the heat away from the pan, so the energy transfer rate only depends on the carrier. For example, a fan blowing at a hot pan will carry more heat away because air molecules move and conduct at a faster rate, while a hot pan in vacuum will have no heat lost via conduction, only via radiation. If we are talking about an aluminum pan and a iron pan with same heat capacity, similar shape, at the same temperature, then their heat lost to the surrounding are exactly the same. The thermal conductivity of metal only dictates the heat transfer within a metal not outside the metal.

            In real situations, it is slightly more complicated because a iron/steel pan will start to develop a deep heat gradient and creating hot and cold regions on a pan. The cooler part of the pan will lose heat at a much slower rate. Meanwhile, aluminum will have a very shallow heat gradient and allow heat to transfer out at a faster rate because the heated area is larger and that is where the whole BTU may come in. This is why I believe a steel wok is better than an aluminum wok. For a wok, I want a heat spot at the bottom and I do not care the if the rest of the wok is cool, so a steel wok is great. For a saute pan which many people want even temperature across the larger cooking surface, then aluminum is not a bad choice.

            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

              All the theory about blackbody radiation, thermal conductivity, and heat transfer goes out the window the second you put real food (75-80% H2O by weight) into the pan. Nothing consumes thermal energy quite like turning water into steam.

              It's not just about how well a pan conducts heat, it's about how well it retains heat. That's why cheap, thin pans (pick your material, it don't matter) are miserable -- no thermal capacity so the heat from the burner takes the path of least resistance-- straight through the thickness of the pan rather than sideways -- and you end up with wicked hot spots.

              1. re: MikeB3542

                Thank Mike,

                I agree. I think when you throw in foods, the foods will suck out a lot of heat. A good example is water. Pouring water into a pan will really lower the temperature of a pan. Water itself has huge heat capacity, especially during phrase transformation from water to steam. This is why I cannot agree with you more about using a decently thick pan with good capacity -- you can see my first two replies. The last thing you want is to heat up a thin pan to a desirable temperature and then throwing in the foods, the foods suck up all the energy and now the foods start to cook in its water because there is not enough initial heat in the pan to transform the water into the steam. This is why I originally referred to heat capacity of a pan. What I was saying is that aluminum actually has good specific heat capacity. An aluminum pan only need to weight half of a iron pan to hold the same amount of thermal energy. So a 0.5 pound aluminum pan at 200oC actually hold the same thermal energy as a 1 pound iron pan at 200oC.

                My impression from Scott is that he was referring to heat lost to the environment and not heat lost to foods. Heat lost to food is actually a good thing. Afterall, that is how foods are cook. We want more heat transfer to foods and less to the environment. Because Scott has concerns about heat transfer from highly thermal conductive metals, I am guessing that he was referring to heat loss to environment, and answered as such.

    2. I agree with Chemicalkinetics that a large aluminum pan is probably the best choice if your mother can't lift a heavy pan (e.g., a big plain cast iron skillet or an enameled cast iron Le Creuset casserole - my first choices, actually). I recently started using a Swiss Diamond square covered casserole and have been very happy with it. It heats very evenly, has a large capacity (the square shape helps - just like an electric skillet), and isn't particularly heavy. Since it's nonstick, cleanup is a snap.

      2 Replies
      1. re: tanuki soup


        Oh yeah, is your swiss diamond casserole aluminum core and light weight (relatively speaking)? Maybe it is a good option for E_M? Hive him a weblink if you think it is a good option.

        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

          Hi CK,

          Yeah, Swiss Diamond pots and pans are cast aluminum with a "diamond" nonstick coating. They are oven and dishwasher safe. The square casserole can be ordered from

          PS. Since I use an induction cooktop, I bought the new induction-capable version.

      2. I think you're all missing the point -- mom loves her electric skillet because it isn't taking up space on the stove. The newer electric skillets are overall a pretty sad lot.

        First, see if you can find one at the Goodwill -- I'm not holding out a lot of hope but sometimes they turn up. (Watch for frayed cords and cords that don't match the skillet).

        I think I would take a look at a roaster oven (Nesco). They are remarkably versatile and can feed an army -- heck they can be modified into three-tray chafing dish. They do have something of a trailer park ambiance to them -- I say put the pride aside!

        1. I love my large 42" paella pan when I am cooking for large groups. I use it for breakfasts and doing large dinners for a bunch of people. I use it normally outside with a three burner paella setup on a tri-pod.

          3 Replies
          1. re: duck833

            I have a hunch that a 42 inch paella pan is not a good candidate. That would be bigger than the stove, since most cooktops are only 36 inches or so.

            My suggestion is to to find another electric skillet, since this is what she likes and knows best. A large pan on the stove, i.e., over 12 inches is dicey, because your burners need to be large in order for this to work well. A paella pan is also way too shallow for spaghetti sauce. Finally, and this will only be an issue with a smooth cooktop, even my expensive pata negra pan is not exactly flat on the bottom.

            If you really can't find an electric one that is decent, you need to get a large saute pan. In that case, I suggest stainless steel because of the tomato sauce. Make sure that it has a helper handle. You can find them in various sizes up to about six quarts, and the deep sides will make it very versatile. If you can spring for it, and she can lift it (big question, because I have a self imposed 7 quart limit on Staub and LC), you can also go for one of the enamel braisers sold by Le Creuset or Staub. They are quite versatile, and will hold heat for a long time for things like sauce and chicken breasts.

            1. re: duck833

              Is it 42" or 42 cm? 42 inches sounds incredible. On the other hand, 42 cm / 17 inch paella pans are advertised, e.g.,


              The biggest I've seen is 39", and it'll make 85 servings of paella!

              1. re: philly888

                I've seen both advertised, and the fact duck said it was used outdoors made me think that it was actually 42 inches. I have a 17 inch paella pan, and frankly, it is still way too shallow for a tomato sauce, and it is a bit awkward for me to move about my stovetop because it does not sit perfectly flat on my cooktop. It is a great pan for starting paella on the stove and finishing in the oven, but that is not sauteeing, or sauce making. Just the wrong shape.

            2. I use a 12 inch cast iron pan. And yes, I can toss food in it. It amuses me. Hey, I have a desk job, might as well have awesome cooking wrists.

              And to prevent crowding, I do batches. But I think most people who cook for a crowd are going to have this issue no matter what they pick. That's why lots of us dream of that big stove with multiple large burners.