Cookware sets offer an economical way to get the basics, but most sets do not include a 12-inch skillet. Because a pan this size is useful for cooking large portions, we endeavored to find the best model to add to your kitchen essentials. The terms "skillet" and "fry pan" are used interchangeably to refer to pans with a long handle. Some 12-inch skillets also have a loop-shaped helper handle opposite the main handle to make carrying easier. Skillets can have either vertical or sloping sides, but most don't come with a lid.
Skillets come in several materials. Many professional cooks like "clad" stainless-steel skillets, which 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. Skillets with oven-safe handles can typically withstand temperatures of 500 degrees Fahrenheit in the oven or under the broiler. Many stainless-steel skillets are dishwasher-safe, although manufacturers recommend hand washing.
Stainless-steel skillets don't have nonstick surfaces, so cooks have to use oil or nonstick spray, and they may also need to adjust their cooking methods to prevent foods from sticking. Stainless skillets can also become scratched and may discolor when heated to temperatures beyond 500 degrees. The best stainless-steel skillets covered in our sources fell in the $70 to $150 range. While we did find some budget models costing $50 or less, none gets consistently strong reviews.
Another skillet option is hard-anodized aluminum, made by subjecting aluminum cookware to a chemical process that makes it harder and nonreactive to acidic foods, such as tomatoes. Anodized aluminum is durable and conducts heat very well, but it is heavier and can become scratched or discolored. Hard-anodized nonstick cookware often comes with an interior coating that's usually made of Teflon or a similar material.
Experts say a nonstick surface can come in handy for cooking delicate foods like eggs and fish. However, they warn that any nonstick coating will eventually wear off with use. For this reason, some experts say it's not worth investing a lot of money in a nonstick skillet. While it's possible to pay $150 or more for a nonstick pan, we found some good performers that cost as little as $25.
Recently, many consumers have become concerned about some of the chemicals used in Teflon and its equivalents. These are made chiefly of a substance called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). When heated to more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit (which could happen if you leave an empty pan on the stove), PTFE can emit toxic fumes in concentrations high enough to kill birds and cause flu-like symptoms in adults. A second chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is used in producing Teflon, has been linked to birth defects in animals.
Though most scientists say nonstick cookware is perfectly safe when used correctly, a growing number of manufacturers are making nonstick cookware with alternative coatings that avoid the use of PFOA and/or PTFE. These alternative coatings, which are typically silicone- or ceramic-based, are often marketed as eco-friendly. PTFE-free cookware is improving in quality, but we didn't find any eco-friendly skillets in our sources that could match the performance of Teflon. They also cost more, typically between $50 and $100 for a 12-inch skillet.
A more economical option for users concerned about PTFE is cast iron, which has some natural nonstick properties if properly cared for. Cast-iron pans cost around $25 and are virtually indestructible. Their extra heft helps them heat food evenly and hold heat longer, but it can also make them unwieldy. They can withstand high temperatures, but their handles can get very hot. Some cast-iron skillets are pre-seasoned (coated with a small amount of oil that is baked into the surface) by manufacturers. If a cast-iron skillet is not pre-seasoned, it must be seasoned before use to prevent the formation of rust. To prevent rust, cast-iron pans shouldn't be put in a dishwasher or soaked overnight.
The editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine conducted detailed tests of nearly every type of skillet, from stainless to eco-friendly nonstick. Their reports are our most important source of information about performance. We also looked at test results from other cooking and home magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Fine Cooking and Food & Wine.
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 Cooking.com. All of our Best Reviewed skillets have at least one strong review from a professional source, backed up by at least a dozen user reviews. Their reviews confirm that these skillets offer the best combination of cooking performance, ease of use and durability.