Let's say you're in the market for a really varsity-class pot. Let's say you want to buy the best pot in the world. (Or a pan; for these purposes we don't need to specify.)
How do you distinguish the best pot in the world -- or in its class -- from all the other pots? First of all, we're assuming that you're looking for a metal pot, and one that will do more for you than just hold the boiling water and receive the boil-in-the-bag frozen dinner. For that, go to the nearest hardware store or supermarket and buy the cheapest pot you can get your hands on. In five years you may need to replace it with another cheap pot, but who cares?
For those whose business it is to identify all of a pot's salient features -- manufacturers, retailers, professional chefs -- describing the great pot is sometimes difficult. Listen, for example, to Charles Lamalle, a New York-based wholesaler who, over the last 50 years, has imported some of the finest French cookware to visit this side of the Atlantic. "Well," says Lamalle thoughtfully, "You just know. You pick it up, you feel it, you look at it. You just know."
Charles Lamalle does know, but how can you tell?
First of all, the pot should feel heavy. The business of a pot, no matter what its material, is to conduct heat in the most efficient manner possible to the food. And it's the heavy gauges of any given metal that do this the best. (Copper and aluminum are the best heat conductors, by the way. And stainless the very, very worst.)
The walls and especially the bottom of the pot should be thick relative to other pots of the same metal. A thin bottom, no matter what the material, will be more likely to buckle and become deformed when you use it over high heat. This is not only a matter of cosmetics. A rocky bottom will inevitably mean hot spots.
Make sure that the bottom of the pot, when you plunk it down on a flat surface, doesn't wobble. If it wobbles it will be sure to have hot spots -- spots where the food cooks much faster than in other spots.
So you want to buy the heaviest, thickest pot you can find (and can lift, of course) and one with a stable bottom.
The pot should also feel balanced when you heft it. Even the heaviest copper pot with the heaviest iron handle should feel in equilibrium when you lift it and then put it down again. It shouldn't tip from side to side.
An important part of this equation is the handle and how it works with the body of the pot. The handle should be shaped so that your hand fits around it comfortably and securely. Any ridges or other unusual shape will eventually become an impediment. The length of the handle should be proportionate to the body of the pot. The handle should be angled so that it seems like the most natural thing in the world to grab it and lift the pot with it.
If your pot or pan is very large and very heavy, it should ideally have two handles: one long one for lifting and another handle for gripping on the opposite side. A single handle on a very heavy or large pot should be long enough so you can grip it close to the pot with your hand and brace the end of the handle under your forearm. This technique, one that professionals use, makes it easier to lift a heavy pot with one hand.
On some very good copper or aluminum pots the handle is of a different material, often brass (on copper) or iron (on either copper or iron). The reason for this is that metals aren't so anxious to conduct heat to other metals as they are to metals like themselves. An iron handle on a copper or aluminum pot will be much cooler than the pot itself, though probably also too hot to handle directly if the pot is very hot.
While wood, hard plastic or other synthetic handles stay cool, they have other disadvantages. For one thing, you can't put a pot with such a handle in the oven. They are also vulnerable to scorching. It's often the case, too, that such handles are attached to pots of thin-gauge metal, usually stainless steel.
Then pay attention to how the handle is attached to the body of the pot. In the best pots, it will be riveted in two or three places. The base of the handle will have a fairly wide spread around the pot so that the handle is even more secure. Handles made this way will rarely if ever become wobbly.
If you're looking at tin-lined copper, make sure there are no bubbles in the tin lining -- it should look smooth. Most of the tin-lined copper pots available in Washington are very good quality, so there shouldn't be too much worry on this account. If your copper pot is nickel-lined it will be perfectly smooth.
Last, if the pot has a lid -- and some of the best-quality imported pots do not -- make sure it fits securely. If you are buying French copper or aluminum, the pot will probably not come with a lid but you can buy a couple of all-purpose lids that will accommodate several sizes of pot. These lids are perfectly flat, so they should fit snugly on top of the pot even if their edges hang over.
After a few heftings and examinings of pots of various prices and qualities, you, like Charles Lamalle, will just know.