The Best Skillet

For some items, it’s worth paying extra for reputation because that reputation is hard earned and well-deserved. The All-Clad 12-Inch Stainless Steel Fry Pan is one of those things. It’s beloved by professionals, enthusiasts, and home cooks alike for their superior heat conductivity, balanced handling, and durability.

Last Updated: April 6, 2015
Expand Most Recent Updates
October 21, 2014: We switched the buy links in this guide to the version of our All-Clad pick that is cheaper and comes with a lid.
July 18, 2014: We updated the Caring for Cast Iron section with notes from one of our editors who seasoned a new skillet with flaxseed oil.
January 23, 2014: We updated the "Caring for Cast Iron" section with this amazing post on the scientifically ideal method for seasoning cast iron on Sheryl Canter's personal blog.

However, there is a compelling case to be made for cast iron and many experts we asked recommended getting both, which shouldn’t be a problem considering the Lodge Logic 12-inch cast iron skillet costs only $25 (get the cheaper 10.25″ version if you’re also getting an All-Clad).

How we picked

We spent a total of about 20 hours researching the subject, asking experts for their opinions, and reading as many reviews as we could get our hands on. We then called in or bought the best of the best and did some of our own hands on testing involving both controlled experiments and cooking.

When it came time to test, we wanted to keep it simple. The All-Clad was the clear front runner but we wanted to make sure that it was worth paying extra for. I compared it to a 12-inch Lodge Logic skillet I bought and first seasoned about half a year ago, as well as a Calphalon Tri-Ply Stainless 12” skillet (which came in second in ATK’s testing). The purpose of this was mostly just to confirm that the All-Clad was indeed a top performer compared to the Calphalon, which is widely regarded as another top tier pan.

I used them all in rotation in my home kitchen (which I should add has the worst electric stove I’ve ever had the displeasure of using so if a pan could conduct heat well on this, it’ll do well on anything) for a couple months to get a general feel of how well they cooked (and how easy they were to clean) and also made some measurements of weight and size. I also subjected them to some more scientific tests as outlined in J Kenji López-Alt’s Tramontina vs All Clad article. I also used each to sear some steaks.

Our pick

There’s not much to say about All-Clad that hasn’t already been said, and that’s a good thing. All-Clad was the first to make fully clad pans using their patented sandwiching process back in 1971, and they’re still widely regarded as the best to this day. A lifetime warranty is just icing on the cake. It’s America’s Test Kitchen’s (we love these guys, please subscribe if you’re serious about food) only “highly recommended” traditional skillet, is the de facto official pan of world class restaurants all over America, and comes highly recommended from just about every food writer ever. There are those who live and die by cast iron, but Russ Parsons, esteemed food columnist and senior food editor at the Los Angeles Times put it best in an email interview: “Ideally, everyone should have a cast-iron skillet as well as a stainless steel/aluminum one. But if you had to pick only one, for me it would definitely be the stainless steel/aluminum (and lets be honest – we’re talking All-Clad).”

The All-Clad also hits all the other requirements for a great skillet. It’s just heavy enough that it does a great job of retaining heat, but not so heavy that it’s difficult to maneuver. In their review, ATK said that the All-Clad “controlled heat for excellent browning… [and] the weight balance was outstanding; it was easy to manipulate and lift”

The base strikes the perfect, Goldilocks balance of thickness…
At 2.75 lbs, the All-Clad is pretty heavy, but in all the right ways. The base strikes the perfect, Goldilocks balance of thickness: not so thick that it takes forever to heat up, and not so thin that it requires constant adjustment to avoid burning your food. I never found myself burning things on accident due to the pan getting hotter than I had anticipated. On the other hand, the Calphalon, despite being a bit heavier at 3.2lbs, had some difficulty maintaining a steady heat level without getting too hot, which too often led to eggs that wouldn’t unstick and onions that burned instead of softened. This makes sense given its thinner 2.44mm base compared to the All-Clad’s 3.18mm. (Measurements from Cook’s Illustrated). The All-Clad definitely took a bit longer to heat up, but it’s worth waiting in order to avoid having to adjust while you cook.

The All-Clad’s superior handling was also due in part to its handle, which is long, concave, and straight–like a metallic celery stalk mounted with the curve opening upwards. It’s not as comfortable as a curved handle that’s just the right size for your individual hand, but the odds of finding that are slim to none. This handle won’t feel like Excalibur to anyone in particular, but you get used to it, and the straightness helps it handle predictably. In my testing, I was able to compare it against 2 pans with curved handles and although one of the others had a very comfortable handle that fit my hand nearly perfectly, I found that I still preferred the straight handle.

It’s also tough as nails. Cook’s Illustrated’s durability tests managed to loosen or ding up every other pan in the roundup, but the All-Clad came out good as new. Ask anyone who’s been in the food industry for long enough and chances are that they’ll have an All-Clad that they’ve been using for a decade or more. In fact that’s just what we did.

Who else likes it?

Everyone. Seriously, ask anyone in the food world what they think about All-Clad and you will hear nothing but good things.

Kellie Evans, the director of Saveur magazine’s test kitchen said in an email interview, “[I] love All-Clad! Well made and sturdy. 14″ high sided skillet with lid is their best product ever.”

Russ Parsons from the Los Angeles Times told us that he has been using his All-Clad 3-4 times a week for over 25 years and it’s still as good as new.

Both of our food writers, Ganda Suthivarakom–former director of, and Christine Cyr Clisset–a former cookbook editor at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia–use All-Clad in their personal kitchens.

All-Clad’s skillet is also beloved by major publications like Cook’s Illustrated, who rated it first among 8 tested. It was the only “highly recommended” skillet that received 3/3 stars in every category: performance, saute speed, user-friendliness, and durability. Their testers described it as having  “everything you need in a skillet and nothing you don’t.”

Good Housekeeping also liked it and gave it an A- and the title of “Chef’s Choice.” Their only gripes were that it was expensive, and hard to clean. Both are fair points but you have to pay for quality and it’s only hard to clean because they were comparing it to non-stick pans. It’s no harder to clean than any other stainless clad pan.

Food & Wine tried 50 different skillets (a combination of cast iron, stainless, and nonstick) and picked the All-Clad as first among the best stainless pans.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The most common complaint against All-Clad is the price. And it’s a fair one–similar offerings from Calphalon and Tramontina cost a fraction of what the All-Clad costs. In fact, All-Clad even makes their own cheaper competitor: Emerilware. All these pans run from about $50-$90 and perform more or less as well as the All-Clad, they’re all made in China as opposed to the US, and you don’t have the same guarantee of quality control. With All-Clad, you know you’re getting the best ratio of steel to aluminum and you know they stand behind their warranty (not that you’ll need it). Food Channel celebrity chef Alton Brown put it best in a fansite interview: “Personally, I believe in having the best tools that I can afford. They make the job easier and make my cooking more successful, and I keep them forever. If you buy good stuff once, you won’t have to buy it again. The secret in this, especially if you are on a budget, is to start by buying the most versatile pieces. For instance, a 12-inch All-Clad sauté pan with a lid is probably $150-200 retail, and well worth it because you could live with that one pan for quite a while if you needed to.”

There are also those who find the handle to be too uncomfortable. They’re a bit wider than most and straight as opposed to curved, but this makes it easier to control. It’s a trade off that’s worth it for most, but may be a dealbreaker for some. If you can, I would suggest trying one out if you get the chance to make sure you’re not in the latter category.

So far as we could discern, most other complaints against the All-Clad are the result of user misconceptions or unfamiliarity with proper usage and maintenance.

A step down

Also Great
Tramontina 12-Inch Tri-Ply Clad Open Frying Pan
Weighing at a full pound more than the All-Clad, the Tramontina is a bit heavy but a solid pick if you're looking for something a little cheaper. According to Cooks Illustrated, it performed better than the $95 Calphalon we tested.
If $140 is just too much to ask, you’ll be pleased to know that you can get a pan that’s almost as good for a fraction of the price. Tramontina’s $40 12-Inch Tri-Ply Clad pan is a solid pick in every sense of the word. It’s a solid performer, but it’s also just plain heavy. At 3.9 lbs, it weighs almost a pound more than an All-Clad of the same size.

Cook’s Illustrated found in a comparison of 7 moderately priced traditional skillets that the Tramontina was a great performer not just at its $50 price tag, but even compared to pans that approach the price of the All-Clad, like the $95 Calphalon we tested. In their assessment, they remarked, “In performance, design, and construction, this skillet resembled our favorite high-end All-Clad skillet.”

J. Kenji López-Alt also pitted the 8-inch Tramontina against his 8-inch All-Clad (the 12-inch only recently became available as a standalone purchase). After conducting numerous controlled tests, López-Alt concluded, “While the Tramontina actually edges out the All-Clad as far as heat retention goes [which makes sense given its heavier weight], the All-Clad is an all-around better performer.” He then talks about price, “But is it worth paying three times as much for it? Not a chance. Only by using controlled quantitative tests could I find any difference at all in how the pans perform. Even then, the differences were minimal.”

This brings up the age old dilemma–how much should I spend on this? Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide, but know this: you’re only going to have to buy this thing once, so it makes sense to get the best if you can afford it. That way you’re not tempted to upgrade unnecessarily down the road. Plus, if something did happen to your non-All-Clad pan and you’re forced to buy another, you’ll have spent enough to have bought the All-Clad in the first place anyway. Besides $130 is not that bad when you consider the fact that you’ll be using it several times a week for the rest of your life.

The competition

It wasn’t difficult to eliminate other possibilities after reading reviews from America’s Test KitchenCook’s Illustrated, Serious Eats, Good Housekeeping and other magazines as well as some experts. Basically everyone agrees, All-Clad is the best and there’s a bunch of others that are almost as good but not quite. Here are just a few of the others.

All-Clad has recently been making efforts to push their more expensive, newer d5 line of 5-ply pans, which have an extra layer of aluminum and steel in them. They’re supposed to work better with induction tops, but we found in our testing that this came at the cost of heat distribution on traditional electric/gas cooktops. Good Housekeeping noted the same thing in their review. For $50 more, we’d pass.

Calphalon is perhaps the second most well-known cookware brand and for good reason, they make solid stuff at reasonable prices. They’re especially popular for their non-stick anodized aluminum frying pans. Their $90 Tri-Ply stainless clad skillet is also quite good, but it’s far from the best. As previously mentioned, it’s a bit thinner along the base than the All-Clad and can often get too hot on accident as a result. This in and of itself isn’t a deal breaker, one can always learn to adjust, but what you can’t look past is the short, uncomfortable handle. The shortness makes the already heavier pan feel even heavier. It’s also curved and skinny, which makes it more difficult to control. To put the final nail in the coffin, Cook’s Illustrated’s durability testing showed it to be a bit on the fragile side when it comes to dings and scratches.

In a somewhat ironic twist, some of the All-Clad’s stiffest competition comes from All-Clad itself. The roughly $60 Emerilware Pro-Clad Tri-Ply is basically the made-in-China version of All-Clad which All-Clad created in conjunction with celebrity chef, Emeril LaGasse. It got second place in CI’s moderately priced skillet comparison, topped only by the Tramontina. It’s the same size and weight as the All-Clad and performs similarly to it, but evidently uses lesser materials since it suffered some dings in CI’s durability tests whereas the All-Clad was unphased.

There are a number of other offerings from brands of varying degrees of reputability, but none are as reputable as the All-Clad, and that’s a huge part of it. You’re not just buying a great pan with All-Clad, you’re buying one of the strongest reputations of any product around and the peace of mind that comes with it.

Using and caring for your clad skillet

Using a clad skillet, whether All-Clad, Tramontina, or some other brand, isn’t as easy as throwing it on the stove and filling it with ingredients. You should always let it preheat at least a few minutes before adding food and before adding food, add some type of fat, whether it’s oil, grease, or butter. If you do that, you should be able to maintain enough stick to develop a fond, but not so much that it gets difficult to flip the contents. If things start getting sticky, you can add more fat as needed while cooking.

Temperature is also important to keep in mind. First of all, there’s very few reasons to go above medium heat, unless you’re boiling liquids for some reason, or trying to get a really hot sear. For most normal sauteing and frying needs, medium is more than enough, and you might even want to go lower in some cases. If it gets too hot, your food will burn and since clad pans are good at retaining heat, they’ll stay hot for a while and continue to burn your food, even after you’ve reduced the temperature. Not only is this bad for taste, it’s bad for cleanup as well. Burnt food has a tendency to stick and not let go. In most cases, a scrubber, hot water, and some dish soap or baking soda will do the trick. But sometimes, you need to bring in the big guns. All-Clad recommends using Barkeeper’s Friend, a powder which you constitute into a paste that’s used for cleaning stainless steel surfaces.

The cast iron

Also Great
Lodge Logic Pre-Seasoned Skillet
Most food experts we asked advocated getting a cast iron in addition to, or on the extreme end, instead of a clad skillet. Lodge Logic has been making them for over a century and theirs are widely regarded as the best around despite their low price tags.
If $125 is just too much to spend on a skillet, that is a-okay, so long as you’re willing to be patient. In fact, even if you are willing to spend that much on a skillet, it’s worth spending a little extra to pick up a $25 Lodge Logic cast iron skillet as well (get the 10.25″ if it’s a secondary pan and the 12″ if it’s your primary pan). While it’s true that you’ll have to keep it seasoned in order to avoid rust, and also that it’s too heavy to pick up with one hand… And that it’s not the best choice for acidic foods like tomato sauce, but the 12-inch model only costs $19 for a naturally non-stick, made-in-the-USA pan that will last you a lifetime.

What’s more, nothing cooks meat like a well-seasoned cast iron. It’s perfect for searing steaks when the weather isn’t optimal for grilling, and it also works well for roasting whole chickens and its steep, straight walls make it great for frying.

New York Times food writer and columnist Mark Bittman, who is known for his practical approach to home cooking, is a huge proponent of cooking with cast iron. In his column titled Ever So Humble, Cast Iron Outshines the Fancy Pans (which I highly recommend you read), Bittman writes: “As cookware becomes more expensive and the kinds available become more varied, it’s increasingly clear to me that most ‘new’ pots and pans are about marketing. For most tasks, old-style cookware is best. So these days when I’m asked for a recommendation, I reply with an old-fashioned answer: cast iron.” While we wouldn’t go as far as to say that a cast-iron should be the first pan you should get, it’s certainly a great option for those who don’t want to spend a lot of money up front on an All-Clad pan, yet still want something that’s best in class.

Before we go further, I think it’s important to clear up a few misconceptions about cast iron. You’ll often hear folks say that cast iron is a great conductor of heat. This is wrong. It is a great retainer of heat because it’s very heavy. This makes it great for searing meats, deep or shallow frying, and really just about anything, since good temperature regulation is such an important part of cooking. However, as you can see in these photos on chef-cum-mad-scientist David Arnold’s blog, the All-Clad is a much better conductor in terms of evenly spreading heat throughout the pan.

How to (easily) care for cast iron

Arnold’s post also addresses the age-old tale of “seasoning” as a delicate fairy that might disappear if you sneeze on it, let alone wash it with soap: “Many cooks are unnecessarily worried about maintaining their cast iron cookware. The seasoning on a good piece of cast iron is very durable. Modern soap will not harm seasoned cast iron.” Besides, even if you completely blow it, you can always just reseason it with a bit of heat and oil.

As for how to season a pan, it turns out that there’s actually a scientifically best way to do it: flaxseed oil—which is the food grade version of the linseed oil that carpenters use to finish furniture. You can get it for about $20 at a health/organic food store (not on Amazon as it needs to be refrigerated).

As Sheryl Canter explains in a detailed post on her personal blog that’s very much worth a read, “The seasoning on cast iron is formed by fat polymerization, fat polymerization is maximized with a drying oil, and flaxseed oil is the only drying oil that’s edible. From that I deduced that flaxseed oil would be the ideal oil for seasoning cast iron.”  She goes on to explain the process, which is very time consuming. Step one, heat the pan to 200 degrees. Step two, coat it with the oil and rub it off until it’s completely dry. Step 3, bake at 500°F  for one hour. Step 4, turn oven off and let it cool for two hours. Step 5, repeat steps 2-4 at least five more times… You read that correctly. If you try to go faster by putting on thicker coats, “It just gets you an uneven surface – or worse, baked on drips. Been there, done that. You can’t speed up the process. If you try, you’ll mess up the pan and have to start over.” Again, she goes through the whole process on her blog and it’s definitely worth a read.

For what it’s worth, I’ve never done this on any of my pans, and am not exactly tempted. However, Sweethome Senior Editor Ganda Suthivarakom seasoned her new cast iron skillet Canter’s way and found that it works really well. The key is applying a very thin layer so there are no drips or globs. The thin coating of flaxseed oil hardens and dries into a super-smooth surface that keeps food from sticking. She spent $17 on a bottle of flaxseed oil but has used less than 1/4 of the bottle after seven or eight coats. Totally worth the (mostly passive) hours required, she says. Just make sure you ventilate the kitchen well while you do it. She’s trying it now on a new carbon steel wok — again with the thinnest coat over high heat.

Lodge pans come pre-seasoned and don’t require additional seasoning beyond using a bit extra oil for the first few weeks of use. Anecdotally, I have 4 cast irons that I’ve seasoned using canola or vegetable oil and all of them have developed robust seasonings over time on their own accord. That said, as Canter demonstrates, there is a best way to do it for those who are interested.

Similarly, many people are overly concerned that cast iron is difficult to take care of, which is simply not true. We asked J. Kenji López-Alt for his take on cast iron maintenance and here’s what he had to say: “The only real hard and fast rule is that you need to dry it thoroughly after each use. I do this by placing it over a burner, waiting for the water to evaporate, then rubbing it with a bit of oil on all surfaces using a paper towel. It also helps to cook fatty foods or to sear or deep fry in it. Basically, every time you cook with fat, you are improving the seasoning, while every time you simmer something in it, you are stripping a bit of that seasoning away. So long as most of your cooking is the fat-based kind (that’s what 90% of people use a skillet for), then there should be no reason that your skillet will ever have bad seasoning.” Basically, keep it dry and cook with oil. (If you want to learn more, Kenji has a whole article about maintaining cast iron over at Serious Eats.)

Who else loves the Lodge?

Now back to the Lodge. America’s Test Kitchen loves it. It’s their favorite cast iron skillet, and in a head to head comparison test against 7 other pans, including a nickel-plated $120 model and  $110 Le Creuset, they picked the Lodge as the best and gave it a 3/3 star “Highly Recommended” review : “Classic shape provided ‘plenty of room’ in steak and chicken tests, but small handle made pan feel heavy when lifted. Eggs stuck ‘considerably’ and took ‘tons of scrubbing’ to clean the first time around but barely stuck and cleaned up easily the second time. Corn bread was crusty, with perfect release.”

ATK also featured the 10-inch version is featured in their “Ideal Cookware Set a la Carte” in which they create a full cookware set consisting of their favorite pans for different purposes from different brands. To give you some context, other pans featured in this set include a $200 All-Clad saucepan and a $270 Le Creuset dutch oven.

Food & Wine’s 50 skillet comparison placed the Lodge at the top of the cast iron category, again above the Le Creuset.

The Lodge is also an Amazon user favorite, garnering a 4.6-star rating averaged over a staggering 1658 reviews.

Lodge pans come pre-seasoned, which means they’ve been impregnated with soybean oil in the factory, but while that’s great for protecting against dust and rust, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be frying up effortless eggs quite yet.

I suggest sticking to meats for at least the first few uses (or if that’s not an option due to dietary or other restrictions, use a bit extra oil). Fatty meats in particular like burgers, pork chops, chicken thighs, and bacon will help further develop the seasoning coat.

Another thing to keep in mind when using a cast iron is that they take a while to heat up and if you put food on early, you may end up with less browning than intended, or un-flippable eggs that stick to the base. You can check if it’s hot and ready by dripping some water on it. If it sizzles away immediately, then it’s ready.

It’s also important not to use more heat than necessary, especially when it comes to sticky foods like eggs. As a rule of thumb, unless you’re searing meats or trying to get something to a rolling boil, don’t go above medium heat. Cast iron pans do a great job of holding heat, no need to overdo it.

Who’s this for?

This is for people who cook regularly who will be able to appreciate the benefits of having good equipment. If you’re currently using some cheapo nonstick aluminum pan and have any interest in cooking beyond the occasional egg, get this pan. It will make cooking a lot more enjoyable and help you progress as a cook. If you already have a stainless pan that works for you, then you probably don’t need a new one, unless the handle is coming loose or something.

If you already have a stainless pan that works for you, then you probably don’t need a new one, unless the handle is coming loose or something.

But how much is a reasonable amount to pay? We asked J. Kenji López-Alt, Chief Creative Officer at Serious Eats, who said that “It’s not unreasonable to pay $200 for a large [clad skillet].” While $200 isn’t unreasonable, it’s also not necessary. All-Clad is generally agreed to be the best in the business and their basic, made-in-America stainless clad aluminum 12” skillet costs about $140 give or take. If you spend double that, you can get a version with a copper core, which would give you some serious bragging rights among your foodie friends and a nice heirloom for generations to come, but very little in terms of real, noticeable performance gains. If you spend less, you’ll end up getting something that’s made in China, with a lesser warranty and you lose the assurance that you’re getting the best ratio of steel to aluminum or even worse, a bottom clad pan.

What is a skillet anyway and what makes a good one?

It’s a bit difficult to determine what exactly separates a skillet from other frying pans, but America’s Test Kitchen’s definition (subscription required and recommended) is as good as any: “Skillets are simply frying pans with low, flared sides. Their shape encourages evaporation, which is why skillets excel at searing, browning, and sauce reduction.” The evaporation part is key because when vapor can’t escape, you wind up steaming your food which makes it soggy and less appetizing. The flared perimeter also makes it easier to flip food in a pan like a TV chef (easier than you think it is and a good skill to learn in an afternoon). Although the terms are often confusingly used interchangeably, steep and straight edged pans are for the most part called sauté pans, which are best for cooking down greens and deep frying–situations where extra steam and volume are beneficial.

If you cook every day, then you’re almost certainly going to use a skillet every day. Consequently, you will have plenty of opportunities to notice the flaws and shortcomings of your equipment if you wind up with something you don’t like. Through our own research and expert interviews, we’ve determined a few things to keep in mind when buying a skillet.

First and foremost, size matters–specifically, you’ll want one that’s 12 inches in diameter. It’s important to make sure that it’s large enough for all the cooking you want to do. A skillet’s measurements refer to the diameter of the pan from top edge to top edge. Since skillets have sloped sides, this means the actual cooking surface will be significantly smaller. Most 12-inch skillets will have a cooking surface 9-10 inches in diameter (the All-Clad has a 9.75” diameter base which is about 75 square inches of cooking area). This is enough space to cook an entire broken down chicken with room to breathe. The 8-inch skillet in my kitchen has only a 5.5 inch diameter cooking surface. That translates to a bit under 24 square inches of cooking surface whereas an 8-inch diameter cooking surface would be about 50 square inches–i.e. less than half the space you might be expecting and would barely fit a single steak. This problem can be more or less pronounced depending on the shape of the skillet and gets less serious the wider you get (since the width of the sides take up less of the pan as a fraction of the overall size).

12-inches is typically a good size for most kitchens. It’s big enough to be able to handle most tasks but still light enough to use with just one hand (unless it’s made of cast iron). Dishes that might otherwise get crowded and soggy in a 10-inch pan have room to let off moisture in a 12-inch.

Weight is another important aspect of a pan that is dependent on materials. If a pan is too lightweight, it will lose too much heat when you add the food and as a result, produces soggy, off-color food that isn’t properly browned. If it’s too heavy, then it becomes difficult to use one-handed. Better heavy than light, but most fully clad pans offer a decent compromise.

Handle comfort is very important and can vary drastically from brand to brand. Not only in terms of staying cool to the touch, but also in terms of fit. If the handle doesn’t work for you, then the skillet won’t work for you. To make sure you don’t wind up with a skillet you hate, it might be a good idea to test out a couple before in a store like Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table you commit.

Handle material is also important. If it’s not oven-proof, you don’t want it.
Handle material is also important. If it’s not oven-proof, you don’t want it. This means anything with a plastic handle is out of the picture. This rules out most cheaper pans.

Build quality is also a big factor. You want something that will last. This rules out the vast majority of aluminum pans since even the best nonstick coatings will wear off over time. And you can also say goodbye to anything under $50. Those pans are designed to last maybe a couple years at best before they fall apart or wear out. Replacement costs will add up over time. Better not to have to worry about it.

Materials are also very important for a number of reasons, but each has its own drawbacks. We recommend clad pans which have a nonreactive stainless steel exterior sandwiching a heat-conducting aluminum/copper core. The vast majority of skillets are made of one or more of the following materials, each of which has its own unique properties: stainless steel, aluminum, cast iron, and copper.

  • Steel is durable and holds heat well, but is heavy, slow to heat up, and distributes heat poorly (i.e. it’s a poor conductor of heat). It’s also magnetic which means you can use it on induction burners, which tend to be more efficient.

  • Aluminum does a great job of distributing heat, is very light, and heats up quickly, but is less durable, doesn’t retain heat as well, doesn’t work on induction burners, and can react with foods if uncoated. That’s why aluminum pans typically have a nonstick treatment on them.

  • Cast iron has great heat retention, is super cheap, and develops a natural non-stick coating over time if treated correctly, but it is very heavy, a poor conductor of heat, can react with acidic foods, and can be a hassle to care for if it’s not coated with enamel. Like steel, cast iron can be used on induction burners.

  • Copper is the best conductor of heat, but it requires regular polishing, can’t be used on induction burners, and is prohibitively expensive for most people.

Basically, any pan that only uses one type of metal will be compromised in one aspect or another. But don’t fret, because manufacturers have long since figured out how to use multiple metals in the same pan.

(If you’d like to know more about the differences between the various materials, Michael Chu from Cooking for Engineers does a thorough job of explaining in this article using data, pictures, and science.)

Clad pans, like the All-Clad, tend to be the best all-around performers
If you’re only getting one skillet, make sure it’s clad. Clad pans are made by sandwiching either aluminum or copper between two layers of stainless steel and tend to be the best all-around performers. This construction method results in a skillet that combines the heat retention, non-reactivity, durability, and induction compatibility of stainless steel, with the the heat conducting properties of the aluminum/copper core. But watch out. Not all pans are plied equally.

Beware of cheap, bottom clad pans that only have the sandwiching on the bottom and not the sides. A good skillet must be able to distribute heat evenly throughout the pan, including up the sides. Cheaper, bottom clad pans simply can’t do that. You can tell them apart because they are much fatter on the bottom and look like they’re resting on top of a plate. This means the sides won’t heat up as evenly. What’s more, if you have a gas burner, the sides can actually overheat and cause food to burn along the perimeter. This is backed by ATK’s own comparison tests in which the two bottom clad skillets were only competing amongst themselves for last place.

Performance can also be dinged if the aluminum core is too thin relative to the steel outer layers. This makes pans slow to heat up and limits heat conduction.

There are also pans that have aluminum exteriors with stainless steel interiors that achieve the same goal, but the lack of a steel outer coating precludes them from use on induction cooktops–they’re also slightly less durable against falls.

Why not nonstick?

If you’re only getting one pan, skip the nonstick treatment. Not only do stainless skillets last longer, they’re capable of producing better tasting food as well. America’s Test Kitchen puts it best: “we prefer a skillet with a traditional, rather than nonstick, surface precisely because we want the food to adhere slightly, in order to create the caramelized, browned bits called fond that are the foundation for great flavor. What’s more, while even the best nonstick surface will wear off eventually, a well-made traditional skillet should last a lifetime.”

Beyond taste, there’s also the matter of health. Most nonstick coatings are Teflon-based, which means they’re made using a chemical that’s classified by the EPA as a “likely carcinogen to humans” called perfluorooctanoic acid, better known by its acronym: PFOA. For what it’s worth, DuPont, the manufacturer of Teflon, contends that all the PFOA is burned off in the manufacturing process.

Speaking of burning, it’s worth noting that Teflon actually starts releasing gases that can be harmful to humans at 500 °F (260 °C), which is an easy temperature to reach on any given stove if a pan is left empty on the heat for too long. So if you do go with a Teflon pan, be sure to never leave it unattended.

Metal utensils that may scratch the finish are another thing to avoid with nonstick pans. But even if you take perfect care of your nonstick pan, the coating will fade and chip off eventually and it could end up in your food if you’re not vigilant about replacing it before it becomes an issue..

Chances are, you won’t get cancer from using non-stick pans. However, that still does not address the matter of fond-development.
Chances are, you won’t get cancer from using non-stick pans. There is no conclusive evidence that correlates use of Teflon coated cookware to cancer, or PFOA exposure for that matter, even the slightest exposure to PFOA can become a problem over time since it persists in both the environment and the human body. That said, research has shown the risk of significant PFOA exposure to be minimal at worst. Yet despite all this, the EPA and other government agencies around the world have been pushing companies to try and eliminate its use since at least 2006. Back in 2007, the Norwegian Pollution Control Authority put out a detailed and well-cited report on PFOA and why they’re trying to reduce its prevalence, which I found to be better than the EPA’s materials on the subject.

There are also Teflon-free alternatives, often billed as “green pans,” that purport to offer Teflon-like non-stick performance by using eco-friendly ceramic, or diamond-based coatings. The lower end offerings aren’t worth much for the most part, but higher end brands have managed to put out some impressive cookware that according to some reviewers, comes close to matching Teflon’s performance. However, that still does not address the matter of fond-development.

With all that in mind, we ultimately concluded that fully clad stainless pans with aluminum cores are the way to go.

Wrapping it up

There’s no two ways about it, the All-Clad 12-inch stainless is simply the best skillet around according to just about everyone in the culinary world. At $140, it’s a bit on the pricey side, but it’s worth every penny. If that’s too much to spend, or you want a second pan for cooking meats, the $19 Lodge Logic is another great pan. But if you could only have one, get the All-Clad.

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  1. “we prefer a skillet with a traditional, rather than nonstick, surface precisely because we want the food to adhere slightly, in order to create the caramelized, browned bits called fond that are the foundation for great flavor. What’s more, while even the best nonstick surface will wear off eventually, a well-made traditional skillet should last a lifetime.”
  2. Michael Chu, Common Materials of Cookware, Cooking For Engineers
  3. Kristin Donnelly, Stainless Steel Pans, Food & Wine, November 2008
  4. Kristin Donnelly, Testing Skillets to Find the Best, Food & Wine, November 2008
  5. All-Clad Stainless Steel 12-Inch Skillet, Good Housekeeping, November 2012
  6. Best Skillets, Good Housekeeping

Originally published: June 11, 2013

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