Every kitchen needs a great skillet
Skillets, also known as frying pans, are useful for many kitchen tasks, from frying a single egg to putting a sear on a large roast before finishing it off in the oven. Stovetop-to-oven skillets are also a great choice for one-pot meals, which are becoming increasingly popular with today's busy lifestyles.
We focus on 12-inch skillets in this report -- perfect for a larger family meal -- because they typically are not included in cookware sets. However, most of the skillets we recommend also come in smaller or larger sizes. If you're fine with a smaller skillet or two and would like matching pots as well, cookware sets, which we cover in a separate report, offer the best value. Cookware sets also include lids, which you often have to purchase separately when buying a skillet by itself.
One of the most important things to know about using a skillet is that there is a learning curve, just as there is with any new cookware. Cast iron and stainless steel are not nonstick, so it's worth taking the time to learn how to properly use them and what kinds of foods are best to cook in that type of pan. Even a nonstick frying pan won't be suitable for everything; for example, it's not always the best choice for putting a sear on a steak or preparing more complex dishes that can benefit from the browned bits (called "fond") that stick to a pan and flavor gravies and sauces. Nonstick skillets also usually have a lower oven-safe temperature and often aren't recommended for use under a broiler. That's why experts suggest keeping a couple of different types of skillets around, so you always have the right pan for the job.
The main types of skillets:
Cast iron skillets are a versatile, economical option. When broken in and treated properly, cast iron will serve you well for many years, and maybe your children and grandchildren as well. Although it takes longer to heat than other types of skillets, cast iron retains its heat very well and excels at browning, searing and baking. It also goes seamlessly from stovetop to oven, and can be used on the grill or over an open flame -- making it very popular with campers and tailgaters. Over time, cast iron will develop some natural nonstick properties, although it may never be nonstick enough for that perfect over-easy egg. Cast iron frying pans are inexpensive and are virtually indestructible, but they're heavy and can be unwieldy. They need some TLC, too, starting with seasoning the pan before the first use. We also cover carbon steel skillets in this section. They're fairly uncommon in American kitchens, but are getting a lot of buzz from experts as they have a lot of the good qualities of well-seasoned cast iron, with few of the downsides.
Stainless-steel skillets are the go-to pan for professional chefs. Also often referred to as "clad," stainless steel frying pans have a core of fast-heating aluminum sandwiched between two layers of heat-tempering stainless steel. This material heats evenly on gas or electric stovetops, and experts say it does a superior job of browning food. Stainless steel skillets with oven-safe handles can typically withstand temperatures of 500 degrees Fahrenheit in the oven or under the broiler. These pans are not inherently nonstick, and it may take some trial and error to figure out the correct sequence of heat + oil + added ingredients, but foodies say it's worth going through the learning curve.
Nonstick skillets are the best choice for some cooking tasks. Every kitchen should have at least one nonstick skillet. They excel at cooking delicate foods like fish, and this is the pan you need for the perfect, intact, runny-yoked egg. The best nonstick skillets heat quickly and evenly, and they tend to be lighter and easier to maneuver than either cast iron or stainless. They should be used at lower temperatures than stainless steel or cast iron.
Nonstick skillets have a reputation as being inherently unsafe due to volatile chemicals that might leach into food and the environment and cause all kinds of havoc. In fact, while there are some concerns about the coatings used in older products, Good Housekeeping research showed that even most of that was overstated. In addition, nonstick cookware has become increasingly safe in recent years, and virtually all are now free of PFOA and other chemicals that used to be the source of most of the worry. When used properly, these pans -- even older ones -- are extremely safe. However, if you're still concerned, yet love the convenience of nonstick, ceramic and other "green" skillets, while still fairly new to the market, are performing better than ever as that technology advances. We review a few of those in this report as well.
How we found the best skillets
There are a good number of professional organizations that test skillets, including Cook's Illustrated, ConsumerReports.org, and TheSweethome.com. Also helpful are articles and reviews from individuals who are knowledgeable about cookware and cooking, and we found several articles at Chowhound.com, FineCooking.com and the Wall Street Journal, to name just a few
Since durability can't always be evaluated in the test lab, we also consulted thousands of reviews from users at retail sites, such as Amazon.com, Walmart.com and BedBathandBeyond.com. This gives us a lot of insight into determining how skillets perform in real kitchens, helping us to make recommendations for the best skillets for your home kitchen.