With stainless skillets, to a certain extent, you get what you pay for. The best skillet is also the most expensive: the All-Clad Stainless 12-Inch Fry Pan (*Est. $140) . This skillet has an aluminum core sandwiched between two layers of stainless steel. The aluminum extends all the way up the sides of the pan to ensure even heating. In two separate professional tests, this skillet earns high marks for its great heat distribution and superior browning.
Testers also say its cooking surface is roomy enough to hold an entire cut-up chicken without crowding. Its weight and balance are comfortable, and it holds up well in durability tests. However, it has some trouble maintaining a steady simmer, and testers at Good Housekeeping say it's hard to keep clean. Amazon.com users generally agree with the professionals' findings. Although we read some complaints about food sticking to the pan, other users say this can be avoided with the right combination of oil and heat. Overall, the All-Clad earns a rating of 4.5 stars out of 5 from more than 60 users.
If you're willing to trade a bit of performance for a lower price tag, you might prefer the Cuisinart MultiClad Pro 12-Inch Skillet (*Est. $70) . In tests at a foodie magazine, this skillet doesn't perform as well as the All-Clad: Heat distribution was less even, and its heft makes it harder to work with. However, the pros find its performance adequate, and owners at Amazon.com are as pleased with this skillet as they are with the pricier All-Clad. In about 110 reviews, it earns an overall rating of 4.3 stars from owners, who say it's solidly made, distributes heat evenly and cleans up nicely. The most common complaint we saw is that over time, the bottom of the pan can start to bulge, so that it will no longer sit flat on a smooth cooktop.
At the bottom of the price range, a couple of skillets earn at least one good review. The T-Fal Ultimate Stainless Steel Copper Bottom 12-inch Fry Pan (*Est. $35) , earns a B-plus grade from Good Housekeeping for its balance of price and performance and gets reasonably good ratings from about 20 owners at Amazon.com. However, this skillet bombs in another professional test, earning bottom marks for cooking performance, handling and durability.
By contrast, the Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad 12-inch Saute Pan (*Est. $40) , sold exclusively at Wal-Mart, aces the same test, with good browning and superior durability. It also gets high ratings from about 100 owners at Walmart.com, and 97 percent of users say they would recommend it. However, when we contacted the manufacturer to inquire about this skillet's continuing availability, we learned that the entire Tri-Ply Clad line is undergoing changes and "will soon come out with a new handle and finish on the interior of the pans." Given that the 2013 Tramontina pans will be an updated version of the highly rated style, we aren't prepared to recommend this skillet without professional and user feedback.