What will you cook most? Experts say that every kitchen should have at least one of every type of skillet. Stainless-steel skillets (with an aluminum or copper core) are ideal for browning and braising. Nonstick pans are better for low-fat cooking, since they allow you to cook foods such as eggs without oil. A cast-iron pan can offer the best of both worlds, with a natural nonstick surface that still allows for searing. Cast-iron and many stainless steel skillets can also go from stovetop to oven. Most nonstick skillets are also oven-safe up to a given temperature, but that temperature is lower than would be the case with cast iron or stainless steel.
How strong are you? Though they have many advantages, cast-iron pans are very heavy -- a possible issue for users who don't want a workout in the kitchen. Perhaps more important than a skillet's weight, however, is how it's distributed. A pan with good balance and a well-constructed handle will be a lot easier to maneuver than one with a heavy base and an undersized handle.
What kind of cooktop do you have? For a smoothtop electric range, you need a skillet with a very flat bottom to make contact with the surface. In addition, if you have an induction cooktop, you'll need a skillet made of a magnetic material, such as stainless steel or cast iron. (If you're not sure about a pan's construction, you can test it by sticking a magnet to the bottom.)
We know, we know, life is a big enough hassle without having to hand wash, but, guess what? If you want to get the most out of your cookware -- any cookware -- you need to seriously consider making the dishwasher off-limits for your skillets. The harsh detergents, high heat and possibly banging against other dishware in the dishwasher will shorten the life of any pan. Here is a quick guide to how to care for your cookware to maximize its performance and durability.
Cast iron. Hand wash only, you don't even need to use soap, just hot water and elbow grease along with a scrubbing brush or pad. You should not soak these pans for long periods, but a brief soaking to loosen cooked on foods won't hurt. Dry thoroughly and rub a very thin coating of vegetable oil on the inside before storing it away.
Stainless steel. While stainless steel is usually billed as dishwasher safe, it's better to hand wash and, as with cast iron, you can use a variety of scrubbers without worrying about scratching the finish. Also, Barkeeper's Friend (Est. $7) or a similar abrasive cleanser is highly recommended to scrub out the baked-on bits. You can also safely soak stainless steel in hot water and dish soap for a few hours or overnight.
Nonstick. For the best results and long term durability, do not cook on high heat or use metal utensils; most nonstick pans are oven-safe only to 350 to 400 degrees. Wash in warm, soapy water and rinse well. If you see any scratches, or if the coating ceases to be nonstick, discard the pan. Ceramic skillets should be cared for the same as nonstick.