You’re headed to the store to buy a new skillet, and suddenly it hits you: There are so many of them – every price range, size, material and style imaginable. Where do you begin? Don’t worry, we can help you narrow things down and get a pan that will become a long-lasting workhorse in your kitchen arsenal.
Materials: Let’s start with materials, what the skillet is made of. Metal is our first choice, but you have options: copper, aluminum, stainless steel and cast iron. Copper is great for evenly conducting heat but it’s expensive, heavy, fussy to maintain (requiring polishing to look its best) and can react with acidic foods like tomatoes. (Don’t confuse true copper pans with the as-seen-on-TV copper-like skillets that have been showing up in discount stores recently. These are copper colored with a nonstick surface, and aren’t considered authentic copper cookware.)
Lightweight aluminum also conducts heat well, heats evenly and is more economical than copper. The downside is that it’s quite soft so the skillet’s surface can pit and scratch easily. Aluminum can also react to acidic ingredients. Stainless steel isn’t great at conducting or retaining heat but is durable and inexpensive. Cast iron is durable, inexpensive and retains and conducts heat well, but it’s heavy and requires special care (called “seasoning”) to prevent rusting and sticking. Acidic foods can be cooked in cast iron if it’s well-seasoned. Enameled cast iron cookware is essentially standard cast iron that has an enamel coating on its inner and outer surface. This gives you the benefits of cast iron without worrying about seasoning or rusting. Enameled cast iron is significantly more expensive than its cast iron counterpart, and the enameled interior tends to discolor over time and requires a little extra maintenance.
One way manufacturers capitalize on the best qualities of each material (while minimizing their weaknesses) is to layer them – copper or aluminum core with stainless steel surface. The process is called “cladding” and creates a pan with the best of all worlds.
Construction: After materials, how the skillet is constructed is critical to its performance. A good skillet will be thick so heat is evenly distributed and the pan doesn’t warp with use. Some skillets are designed with a thick base and thin sides, but you’ll get more even results if the pan’s thickness is consistent on both the bottom and the sides. When it comes to handles, we opt for pans with metal handles so the skillet can go into the oven, and they should be riveted to the side of the skillet. If they’re welded or fastened by screws onto the pan the handles will likely fail. Finally, be sure the skillet is equipped with a well-fitting lid, again with ovenproof handles. Tempered glass lids are helpful because you can see inside the skillet but keep in mind that they can break (although it is difficult).
Surface: Nonstick or stainless? We have both in our kitchens – we like the browning that we can get with a stainless surface, but appreciate the nonstick qualities for delicate foods like eggs and fish. Because the nonstick surface can deteriorate over time, we won’t buy a top of the line nonstick skillet. Instead we’ll buy something more moderately priced with good thickness but spend more on a skillet with a stainless steel interior.
Shape: There are two basic skillet shapes: one with sloped sides and one with straight sides, and they both have their strong suits: sloped-sided skillets (sometimes called “frying pans”) make it easy to use a spatula to flip foods over or toss lightly while sautéing – they’re great for making stir-fries. Straight-sided skillets (sometimes called “sauté pans”) tend to be a little deeper and are good for braising. Generally speaking, you can use the pans interchangeably.
Size: We suggest buying a 10- or 12-inch skillet – of course, it depends on how many people you cook for, but these options are the most versatile for large or smaller batches.
Price: When it comes to skillets, the saying, “You get what you pay for” rings true. A well-crafted pan will literally last a lifetime with proper care but you’ll pay a premium – over $100 depending on size and features. Warehouse stores often sell restaurant-quality skillets which are sturdy and reasonably priced ($30 to $50), but they lack visual appeal and the stores don’t carry a range of sizes or features. Eventually these skillets will need to be replaced, but your initial investment was minimal.
Regardless of what you choose in terms of materials, construction, shape and size, a well-crafted skillet will make cooking easier and more enjoyable, something you’ll come to appreciate every time you use it.