Much detriment can come from a poorly attended pot or pan in the form of dashed dinner dreams and limp vegetables intermingled with completely raw ones. Paying attention to both the surface area of your food and that of your cooking vessel is paramount in a kitchen.
Think about your favorite fast-paced cooking show (Chopped, Top Chef, Iron Chef), ever notice the cooks constantly giving their pots and pans a stir or a little shake? This isn’t a nervous tick or showmanship, they are leveling everything off so that they have evenly cooked product while visually assessing what’s going on in the pan itself. Vegetables in a pan can be quite fickle when it comes to being consistently tender and to counter act this we want to regularly rotate the layer of food that is in direct contact with the pan bottom. By leveling out the ingredients in the pan with a shimmy, shake, or stir, we can avoid having that rogue undercooked carrot or potato that never made its way to the business portion of our pan. None of this stirring and agitation will have the desired result if we have picked the wrong size pot to sweat our vegetables in.
Surface area comes into play when we look at our amount of foodstuffs versus the size of the pan that we are going to use. If we are sautéing onions and desire a bit of color on them, then we will need med-high heat and a pan that is big enough to let the onions settle in a single layer or two. As vegetables and proteins stack up in a pan, they suck heat from the metal and release water. If the temperature of the pan drops too much due to being overloaded, we will be steaming our onions rather delivering them to the world of crispy brown perfection. This is especially important whenever we are preparing vegetables and proteins with high water content (mushrooms, onions, potatoes, fish, etc.).