After more than 50 collective hours devoted to research, three years of long-term testing, and time spent comparing eight pans against one another in a side-by-side cook-off, we still think the tri-ply All-Clad Stainless Steel 12-Inch Covered Fry Pan is the best skillet for the money. Offering the best heat conduction, it’s also durable and comfortable to use. The All-Clad is even easier to clean than other tri-ply skillets. And no other pan gets the kind of raves the All-Clad receives from professionals, enthusiasts, and home cooks alike. Yes, it’s expensive, but we think it’s worth the money considering that you’ll get a lifetime of use out of it.
Even though the Tramontina Gourmet Tri-Ply Clad 12-Inch Fry Pan underwent a makeover that reduced the cooking surface area to 8½ inches, we were still impressed with its performance. It seared a chuck steak as decently as pans almost twice the price, and even though a whole cut-up chicken was a tight fit, it did an adequate job of browning the skin. Cooked-on food released easily, but the Tramontina developed some mild discoloration on the underside that was almost impossible to clean.
If you require a larger cooking surface and a convenient helper handle, the Cuisinart MultiClad Pro Stainless 12-Inch Skillet with Helper can decently sear a steak, and it has the space to give a whole cut-up chicken some breathing room. It doesn’t offer the heat retention and balanced heat distribution of our top pick or our first runner-up, though, and the steel discolors after heating over medium-high. If you want a brand-new look after the first use, you won’t get it with this pan.
I’ve been cooking professionally for almost 20 years, and I’ve been writing cookware guides for The Sweethome for more than two years. I know my pans. In addition to relying on my personal knowledge and experience, we looked at trusted sources such as Cook’s Illustrated (subscription required), Good Housekeeping, and Consumer Reports. We spoke to experts such as Charlyne Mattox, food and crafts director at Country Living and the author of Cooking with Seeds; J. Kenji López-Alt, managing culinary director at Serious Eats; Geri Porter, test kitchen manager at Martha Stewart Living; Kellie Evans, former Saveur test kitchen director; and Russ Parsons, cookbook author, James Beard Foundation Who’s Who Inductee, and former Los Angeles Times food editor. This guide builds on the work of Wirecutter associate editor Michael Zhao, the writer of the first version of this guide.
A 12-inch skillet is perfect for making one-pan meals, searing steaks and other hunks of meat, stir-frying, and pan-frying. Its flared sides are great for creating pan sauces and reductions. If any or all of those cooking techniques are part of your repertoire, you might consider investing in a well-made skillet. If you’re using an old hand-me-down pan with poor heat distribution (think hot spots and cold spots that brown your food unevenly), you might want to think about upgrading.
If you have only nonstick cookware in your home and would like to do more high-heat searing and sautéing, a well built stainless steel tri-ply skillet is a great addition to your cookware collection. Nonstick pans aren’t appropriate for high-heat jobs, and the slick surface can’t develop the fond that’s integral for pan sauces.
Most skillets are made out of the following materials.
What is a skillet? Determining what exactly separates a skillet from other frying pans is a bit difficult, but the definition from America’s Test Kitchen 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.” An everyday skillet can’t be so heavy that you don’t want to pull it out of the cabinet, but at the same time it must offer decent heat distribution and retention. It should also have flared sides (although we have a straight-sided pick if you require a lot of cooking area) and an oven-safe riveted handle. It should be easy to clean, too.
We’ve found through our research and testing that a 12-inch skillet is typically a good size for many home kitchens. Most 12-inch skillets will have a cooking surface 9 to 10 inches in diameter (the All-Clad has a 9¾-inch-diameter base). That’s enough space for you to sear a large steak or to cook an entire broken-down chicken with room to breathe. When food is crowded in a pan, it doesn’t have enough room for evaporation. When you have more space around your food, it browns better because moisture has space to escape.
For an all-purpose skillet, we recommend a fully clad tri-ply pan. Fully clad cookware will distribute heat evenly throughout the pan, because the aluminum core extends all the way up the sides. Bargain pans with only an aluminum disk in the base (also called an encapsulated bottom) tend to have hot spots, which can scorch the interior and your food.
The weight of a pan is another important factor in its ability to cook food evenly. If a pan is too lightweight, your food will burn in spots due to uneven heat distribution. If a skillet is too heavy, it will retain too much heat, and adjusting temperature will become difficult. One pan we looked at weighed a whopping 5 pounds. In addition to the fact that heat control would be very difficult in a 5-pound skillet, such a thing is too heavy for everyday use. You want a pan that can hold heat well enough to sear meat but can also cool down quickly enough if your food is browning too fast.
We prefer skillets with flared sides over pans with straight sides. Curved edges make tossing food—which is important for toothsome sautés—easier. Flared sides also allow moisture to evaporate quickly, so seared meat and vegetables don’t stew in their own juices. A straight-sided skillet makes tossing food difficult and is better suited for dishes that require long cooking times, such as shallow braises.
Handle comfort is very important and can vary drastically from brand to brand. Going to a kitchen store to hold a few pans before you invest is a good idea. That said, our pick, the All-Clad skillet, has a universally loved handle style. The depressed top serves as a secure cradle for your thumb, and the design is meant to stay cool even over high heat. “I don’t like handles that are big, thick, and round,” cookbook author Charlyne Mattox told us. “The All-Clad handle … has a good balance.”
A pan needs to be oven-proof at high temperatures, which rules out most cheap pans. Even silicone begins to crack after repeated exposure to heat. Serious Eats’s J. Kenji López-Alt told us that plastic is a deal-breaker. “If it has a plastic handle, it’s out. I need to be able to put my skillet in the oven.”
We looked for pans that are easy to clean. Many of the pans we tested discolored after six minutes over medium-high heat, with some acquiring a dark gray hue that we couldn’t scrub off. We concluded we didn’t want a pan that would lose its luster after a single use.
During our testing, we considered the handle angle, the weight, and the overall shape of the pans. After heating each pan over medium-high heat for six minutes (we used the same burner in our test kitchen), we measured the temperature variations around the inside edge of the pan with an infrared thermometer, hitting the same nine spots. Then we let the pans cool for five minutes and took a temperature reading in the center of the pan.
After eliminating two pans following the heat-map and heat-retention test, we seared 1-inch-thick cross-sections of chuck roast to assess the pans’ searing capabilities. We then selected the three top-performing pans for a final test, roasting a whole cut-up chicken in each and following that with a simple white-wine pan sauce.
Using a patented sandwiching process back in 1971, All-Clad was the first company to make fully clad pans. It’s still widely regarded as one of the top cookware brands to this day. And after our extensive testing, our pick for the best skillet is the All-Clad Stainless Steel 12-Inch Covered Fry Pan. Esteemed food writer Russ Parsons 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 let’s be honest – we’re talking All-Clad).”
The All-Clad pan hits all of our requirements for a great skillet. This fully clad tri-ply pan has excellent heat distribution, a roomy cooking surface, and well-angled sides. The comfortable handle juts almost straight out from the pan, not at an exaggerated angle as on other pans we tested. Even though Cook’s Illustrated (subscription required) noted that the company redesigned the pan in 2014 to “have a slightly more steeply angled handle,” we couldn’t tell the difference between the old and new models. Despite being the second-lightest pan in our test group, the All-Clad is heavy enough to retain consistent heat. Lastly—and this is very important—it was the only pan in our testing that came out completely clean and didn’t discolor from the heat.
All-Clad’s fully clad skillet offered the most consistent heat mapping, with a difference of only 30 Fahrenheit degrees between the hottest and coldest spots (as measured with an infrared thermometer). Those measurements reflected the results we saw in our cooking tests: Steaks seared with even, deep crusts, chicken pieces browned deeply and consistently without burning, and white wine reduced without scorching, in the least amount of time.
This skillet’s superior handling is also due in part to its handle, which is long, concave, and straight—like a metallic celery stalk mounted with the curve opening upward. As with most of the pans we tested, the All-Clad’s handle stays cool on the stovetop, even when you’re searing (but not when the pan comes out of the oven, obviously). The cast stainless steel handle feels secure and ready to take a beating. Our testers appreciated the angle of the handle, which afforded more control over tossing and flipping food, unlike the severely angled Viking Contemporary pan’s handle.
Recall that a pan needs to have some heft to it to produce consistent heat, but if it’s too heavy, you’ll never want to use it. At 2.7 pounds, the All-Clad is the second-lightest skillet in our test group. That light weight aids in handling and cleaning, but it also allows for better temperature control. Conversely, the Breville Thermal Pro pan we tested weighs almost 5 pounds and retains too much heat due to its thick base, making temperature control difficult.
Cleanup of the competitors revealed surprising results. Every skillet, except the All-Clad, acquired a dark gray and iridescent patina inside and out after use. We scrubbed the skillets with hot water and dish soap, boiling water and baking soda, and a mild powder abrasive cleaner. The All-Clad was the only pan that came out completely clean, with no burnt spots or discoloration. Even after a year of regular use, our All-Clad looks relatively like new. All-Clad tri-ply pans come with a limited lifetime warranty, meaning the company will replace a defective pan, not one that the owner has subjected to misuse and abuse.
Most food professionals love All-Clad. Kellie Evans, former 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 told us that he has been using his All-Clad three or four times a week for over 25 years, and it’s still as good as new.
Charlyne Mattox said, “It’s still the one I go to all the time. … It cooks evenly, and it’s easy to clean.”
All-Clad’s skillet is also beloved by major publications such as Cook’s Illustrated, which rated it first among the six tested. As the only “highly recommended” skillet, it received three out of three stars in every category, namely performance, sauté speed, user-friendliness, and durability.
The most common complaint against the All-Clad is its price. And that’s a fair complaint: Similar offerings from Calphalon and Tramontina cost a fraction of what the All-Clad does. But an All-Clad skillet will last you a lifetime, even with heavy use.
If you’re not ready to spend $100 or so on a skillet, you’ll be pleased to know that you can get a pan that’s almost as good for quite a bit less. The Tramontina Gourmet Tri-Ply Clad 12-Inch Fry Pan is a dependable budget pick. It’s a solid performer, and at 2.9 pounds it’s just a tad heavier than the All-Clad. In our tests it seared a steak better than most of the other skillets, giving us a thick and consistent deep-brown crust. The pan itself also came out (mostly) clean, retaining some heat discoloration on the underside and sides.
The handle is rounded and a bit bulky compared with that of the All-Clad, but ultimately we found it comfortable to hold. When we grasped the handle with a folded dish towel, it felt a little bulky, but we maintained control of the pan throughout testing.
When heat mapping with an infrared thermometer, we measured a 78-degree difference between the hottest and coldest spots in the pan (in contrast, our top pick, the All-Clad, had only a 30-degree difference).
Tramontina redesigned this skillet in 2014, and one of the big differences is a smaller cooking surface (8½ inches across). In our tests a whole chicken fit inside, but barely. The browning wasn’t as consistent as in the All-Clad; for the money, however, this is a solid skillet. When it comes to cookware, typically you get what you pay for, but this pan will probably give you a solid 10 years of service, if not more. It’s backed by a lifetime warranty, too. We plan to use the Tramontina regularly in our test kitchen to see if it holds up.
We think this pan is a great deal, but it can’t match the accolades and expert testimonials of the All-Clad. It also has a smaller cooking surface, which can be limiting. But at its current price, it’s an excellent pan, especially for a starter kitchen.
If you need a pan with a larger cooking surface, the Cuisinart MultiClad Pro Stainless 12-Inch Skillet with Helper is a good choice. Of our three picks, in our tests it had the second-best heat distribution (with a 50-degree difference between the hottest and coldest spots on the heat map) but produced the most inconsistent browning on chicken pieces. It seared a steak with no issues.
This skillet has straight sides and a long handle that’s positioned at a sharper upward angle than those on our other two picks. Such features make the Cuisinart better for stationary work at the burner. With the convenient helper handle on the other side of the pan, it might be a tight squeeze in a smaller oven, but we think the helper is a good feature for anyone who needs the extra grip. We saw some discoloration on the underside and in the bottom of the pan from the heat, but that’s more of a cosmetic issue.
Although you can put your stainless steel tri-ply pan in the dishwasher, that won’t keep it looking like new. Your dishwasher won’t release stuck-on food from the surface. We went to the test kitchens at Martha Stewart Living (my old stomping grounds) to get a step-by-step tutorial from Geri Porter, the kitchen manager for almost two decades. She is a pro when it comes to keeping cookware spotless, and some of the pieces she cares for have been in heavy rotation for over 15 years.
If you clean your pans using the above method from day one, they will stay (mostly) spotless for decades. If you scorch your pan badly, follow the steps above and remove as much blackened area as possible before taking the following additional steps.
This process will take a lot of elbow grease, and depending on the amount of scorching in your skillet, you might need to repeat the steps once more.
With its anodized-aluminum exterior, the Cuisinart MultiClad Unlimited 12-Inch Skillet with Helper is as decent a heat conductor as the company’s MultiClad Pro, but we picked the MultiClad Pro simply because stainless steel is easier to keep clean.
The Breville Thermal Pro Clad Stainless Steel 12.5″ Skillet is a behemoth that weighs almost 5 pounds. It’s fully clad and has an added disk of steel welded to the bottom. We found in our heat-retention tests that it held on to heat a little too well, offering poor temperature control. Charlyne Mattox specifically mentioned the Breville during her interview with us, saying it got too hot for her liking.
The five-ply Calphalon Signature Stainless Steel 12-In. Omelette Pan had a drastic 90-degree difference between hot and cold spots, and the patina it developed after two uses was impossible for us to scrub off.
At around $100, the Calphalon Tri-Ply Stainless Steel 12-In. Omelette Pan was a mediocre performer next to our top pick, registering a 70-degree difference in hot and cold spots.
Because the affordable Viking Contemporary 3-Ply Fry Pan discolored severely the first time we heated it, we had to disqualify it early on. The sharply angled handle made control and handling difficult, as well.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: May 10, 2016