Expert and amateur chefs agree: You need a wide variety of skillets in your kitchen, including a good nonstick skillet for delicate items like fried eggs and fish, and quick-cooking dishes like stir fries that you don't want sticking and possibly burning. The perceived downside to nonstick pans is that they are unsafe to use in cooking, but most experts say that is simply not the case when used properly. In addition, most manufacturers have ceased using PFOA in their products, which is the main chemical that was causing people concern. All of the skillets in this report are PFOA free.
The big problem with nonstick pans -- even the very expensive ones -- is that they simply don't last all that long. Eventually, even with the best pans, the coating will start to wear off, scratch, and dull, and the skillet will lose its nonstick properties. Better to buy a pan that you feel will have given you $50 worth of service over the 12- to 18-months that you'll own it, rather than one that you'll feel bitter about having to replace after such a short time.
The clear standout in this category for both performance and durability is the T-fal 12-inch Fry Pan (Est. $30). It earns top marks in professional tests, heating up faster than its competitors, and evenly cooking a variety of foods. Its nonstick surface releases food with ease; owners say eggs just slide right out. Testers also say its silicone-coated handles are comfortable and its nonstick coating is surprisingly durable. It was the only nonstick skillet in this report that did not earn a lot of gripes from users about the coating wearing off sooner than it seemed as if it should. In one professional test, the skillet's handle rivets came loose after being pounded on a concrete surface, but the pan was otherwise unscathed so we recommend that you not do that.
We did see a couple of other complaints. Some say the heat indicator in the center of the pan (which is supposed to turn dark red when the pan is up to temperature) either does not work or is just confusing -- most just ignore it. Others note that the pan's bottom tends to warp with use, bowing up in the middle so that oil pools near the edges. It seems to be an issue with the logo that's stamped on the bottom, and may be a problem only with certain lots, as the issue is reported in waves. It's also not frequent enough for us to not recommend giving it a try.
It's pricey, but owners love the All-Clad MS2 Stainless Steel Nonstick 12-inch Fry Pan (Est. $150). Its stainless steel shell is much heavier than that of the T-fal, with excellent heating and even cooking. Many owners say it combines the best of both worlds -- the excellence of traditional All-Clad stainless steel with the convenience of nonstick. It also gets kudos for its design from one professional testing organization. However, that same source says the coating did begin to fail during testing, and some owners report the same problem. All-Clad comes with a lifetime warranty, but you do have to deal with the issue of sending the pan back and having them evaluate it before a replacement will be issued, so you'll be without your pan for a while, at the very least.
We also found very good reviews for the Calphalon Contemporary Nonstick Omelette Pan Set (Est. $50). This two-piece set includes 12-inch and 10-inch skillets, both with gently sloped sides and stay-cool stainless-steel handles. Although these pans are not covered in any professional tests, they receive thousands of reviews from owners at various online retail sites, and excellent ratings. Owners say these skillets offer even heat distribution and a good nonstick surface.
The main gripe we saw is with the coating's durability, there are complaints that it began to scratch or flake after a year or so, but, as many others point out, that is the normal life of a nonstick pan. The Calphalon pans are also not for use on induction cooktops.
If you want a skillet that is free of any chemical coatings, ceramic is the way to go, say reviewers. However, they do not get as good reviews for their nonstick properties as coated skillets do; one source refers to them as "stick-resistant."
One ceramic skillet that gets very good reviews from experts and users is the T-fal Initiatives 12-inch Ceramic Fry Pan (Est. $20). Users say that it's very nonstick for an uncoated pan, and they need to use little or no oil when cooking. It gets particular raves for cooking eggs and stir frying -- two dishes that make a nonstick pan almost a necessity. Those who are leery of nonstick coated pans are thrilled that they can make those types of dishes without having to make a tradeoff in performance.
The T-fal Initiatives is also reported as quite easy to clean, even baked on foods will loosen with a short soak, owners say. They do note that the ceramic can be a bit delicate and may chip if you use metal utensils or put it in the dishwasher. A few say that the white ceramic surface stained as well -- although a couple say that happened after they accidentally put the skillet on too high of a heat setting, which is not recommended.
The Flamekiss 12-inch Ceramic Fry Pan by Amorè (Est. $40) is another highly rated ceramic skillet. It gets particular raves for its attractive appearance, with owners saying that it looks so good that they hate to put it in the cupboard. It also has a dark interior, as opposed to the white ceramic interior of the T-fal skillet, which reviewers say is much easier to keep clean. The Flamekiss also has a heat-resistant handle and a lip on each side for pouring liquids out of the pan, which users say works very well and is quite handy.
Like the T-fal Initiatives skillet, the Flamekiss gets particularly good reviews, for a ceramic skillet, for its nonstick properties, cooking delicate foods like egg dishes and fish without them breaking up. Like all ceramic skillets, we see some complaints that it chips easily, and of cooking surface scratching or losing its nonstick capabilities.
Elsewhere in this Report:
Best Reviewed Skillets: Every kitchen needs a great 12-inch skillet -- maybe even more than one. We recommend the best cast iron, enameled cast iron, stainless steel, nonstick, and ceramic skillets.
Best Cast Iron Skillets: Cast iron skillets are the most versatile choice for your kitchen. We found the best pre-seasoned cast iron and enameled cast iron; they go seamlessly from stovetop to oven.
Best Stainless Steel Skillets: Stainless steel is the material of choice for both professional chefs and passionate amateurs. While it can be pricey, there are great choices for any budget.
Buying Guide: You need the right skillet for the right cooking task. Our buying guide will help you make the best choice for your culinary needs.
Our Sources: These are the expert and user tests, comparisons and reviews we used to determine the best skillets. They are ranked in order of their credibility and usefulness.