Let’s get one thing out of the way real quick: a skillet and a frying pan are the same thing. These are just different names for one object, and you’ll occasionally hear “fry pan” as well. So when we use these words interchangeably, please do not be alarmed. It’s just a quirk of the English language. Now, onto the rundown.
What should you look for in an ideal frying pan? That’s a great question - although you’re sort of jumping the gun a bit. First off, you need to understand that there are a few different main categories of frying pans, organized according to the material used.
Stainless steel frying pans are, for example, made out of stainless steel. They’re durable, non-reactive, great at high temperatures, and typically oven-safe - but there are a few catches. First off, stuff will stick to them. For the professional chef who enjoys a good de-glaze, this isn’t an issue (more of an added benefit), but for the casual home cook who just wants an omelet, it can be a pain. Also, stainless steel is surprisingly not that great at conducting heat. That’s why the best stainless pans employ something called “cladding” whereby layers of more conductive metals (such as copper or aluminum) are sandwiched between the external layers. For rigorous, ambitious cooks, stainless (specifically cladded stainless) is essential, although you should know that these pans typically cost more than those that fall into the other categories.
Next, you have non-stick frying pans - and if anyone ever tells you that non-stick isn’t worthwhile, they’re most likely doing some form of gatekeeping and/or posturing. In the simplest terms, non-stick is convenient. Do not underestimate the value of convenience. This means your proteins won’t adhere to your pan, and it means you won’t spend an hour shouting at yourself in the mirror at 8am when your sunnyside-up eggs turn into a half-scrambled nightmare.
Currently, there are two different commonly used nonstick surfaces: PTFE (i.e. Teflon or something similar) and ceramic. Ceramic has gained in popularity in recent years, due in part to fears about toxic chemicals in PTFE coatings - but nowadays, those fears seem a tad overezalous. Ceramic is, however, magically stick-resistant, and we tend to gravitate toward it. That said, we’ll gladly use a PTFE pan as well. In truth, both have very similar benefits and drawbacks. Don’t use them on high heat (the coatings are vulnerable to damage, and PTFE coatings can leak fumes), and don’t use metal utensils. Also, as a part of your daily reminder that everything is ephemeral, we’d like to inform you that all non-stick coatings eventually wear down. Such is life.
Finally (for our purposes), there’s also cast iron. Ask just about any die-hard cooking enthusiast, and they will most likely sing its praises. And, yes, cast iron is amazing. But if someone close to you says, “I cook everything in cast iron,” it’s important that you remain skeptical. While cast iron is (relatively) non-stick when properly seasoned, it isn’t especially good at conducting heat, and you shouldn’t really cook acidic foods with it (the material is reactive and can lead to a metallic taste in some circumstances). Cast iron does, however, excel at retaining heat, and it will therefore sear the pants off a steak. If you don’t have the one cast-iron pan we list here, get it. It only costs about $20, which is yet another reason why you should own cast iron.
Add all of that up, and you’ll find that the ideal frying pan depends on A) how much you want to spend, B) what you want to use your pan for, and C) how serious you are about cooking. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, this list has an ideal option for you. (And if you already know you’re a very serious cook who demands the best and is willing to pay for it, you can go ahead and skip right to All-Clad.)
One last thing: unless otherwise noted, you can assume that these pans are oven-safe and suitable for induction burners as well. Let’s dive in.
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An All-Around Great Pan
Material’s Classic Pan looks like a close relative of the Starship Enterprise, but that’s only a minor part of why we like it. Aside from its sleek design, this piece of cookware also has a copper core (for optimal heat distribution) and is made from five-ply stainless steel, which gives it a nice, noticeable heft. Sautéeing vegetables or cooking a piece of fish? This is the pan you need. Or maybe you prefer nonstick. Fortunately for you, Material also offers this pan with a non-stick coating - and it has the same copper core and five-ply (stainless steel alloy) construction. We’ve absolutely put ours through the wringer, and it’s still holding strong - albeit with a slightly wobbly handle. We’ve made peace with this.
For When You're Ready to Go Pro
Is your mise en place always neat and organized? Do you check the progress of your steak with a poke of your index finger and occasionally tuck a pen behind your ear to pretend like you’re expediting dishes in a restaurant? You might be ready for an All-Clad D3 skillet. This immaculately sturdy skillet is made of three cladded layers of metal, with stainless steel on the outside and aluminum on the inside. Why? Because stainless steel is a good, strong cooking surface, and aluminum is great at conducting heat. Put them together, and you have a pan that can reliably retain heat and distribute it evenly, for all your frying, searing, and sautéeing needs. This is something you’ll hang onto and cherish for a very long time, and if you need something non-stick, All-Clad has some great options for that as well.
If You're Looking for Something Sturdy
Lifting Abbio’s non-stick frying pan in one arm and you’ll realize two things: 1. the handle is pretty easy to grip and maneuver, and 2. it’s a hefty, solid pan that could double as a self-defense weapon. While you’re probably not lifting it to ward off intruders, you will note its design makes it easy to toss and sauté veggies with one hand. Eggs are a breeze and it’ll even hold up to any stir fry that features a sticky sauce. The reason behind this? It’s made with a proprietary coating and scratch resistant coating while the combination of fully-clad steel and aluminum gives it durability and even heat distribution. If you’re the type that isn’t too gentle with their cookware, this one will last.
An All-Clad Alternative
To say that Made In is not as good as All-Clad is A) technically correct and B) missing the point entirely. Take a peek at this pan, and you’ll notice it costs half what its All-Clad counterpart does. If you don’t want to spend $150 on a quality skillet, that 50% discount is meaningful - especially when you account for the fact that Made In cookware feels relatively high-end and will perform similarly to All-Clad stuff for the vast majority of casual, at-home purposes. The construction is five-ply, with stainless steel exterior layers and aluminum/aluminum alloy interior layers, and the build quality is top-notch (not quite as refined as All-Clad, but that’s to be expected). These pans are a wonderful middle ground between the absolute best cookware and the questionable stuff you find at big box stores.
Another Worthwhile Newcomer
At this point, we feel obligated to inform you that there has been a recent boom in quality, mid-range cookware startups. Misen first came across our radar due to their reasonably priced high-quality knives (solid, reliable, nice-looking), but, if anything, we prefer their cookware, which doesn’t seem to get as much buzz. Similar to Made In, Misen uses five-ply construction with stainless steel, aluminum, and aluminum alloy - but their pans are noticeably thicker and heavier. (A 10" Made In frying pan clocks in at 2.25lbs, whereas the Misen equivalent is 2.9lbs.) Consequently, that Misen fry pan is going to retain heat better and be a little more forgiving when it comes to temperature fluctuation, whereas the Made In one will heat up faster (with arguably better heat distribution). Just follow your heart on this one.
A Nonstick Workhorse
Don’t want to spring for an All-Clad non-stick? That’s why Calphalon exists. (That isn’t actually why Calphalon exists, but you get the point.) Like All-Clad, Calphalon uses anodized aluminum, i.e. aluminum that’s been treated to increase durability and eliminate reactivity. This aluminum is lightweight and great at conducting heat - but the thing is, it still isn’t non-stick. That’s why Calphalon applies three layers of a non-stick (PTFE, i.e. Teflon-esque) coating. We have fans at The Infatuation who stick by their Calphalon pans, so it seems as if that coating holds up fairly well. The price point is also appealing.
The Perfect Sear
A cast iron skillet is, in all likelihood, the cheapest and most practical heirloom you will ever purchase. Wash by hand, dry immediately, season with vegetable oil when needed, and this pan will last you forever. As mentioned above, cast iron excels at retaining heat (it gets hot and stays hot), so it’s great for searing a piece of meat. Ideally, this is what you cook your steaks in. If you want a nice crust on something, cast iron is the answer - although the one drawback (other than the bonkers weight) is that you shouldn’t really throw acidic things in here (they can react with the metal), and acidic things are delicious. But that’s why you should just pick up a cast iron skillet in addition to whatever other pans you own. Lodge has been in the game for over 100 years now, and their skillet is still the default. It costs roughly $18. Buy it now.
Our Pick for Casual, Everyday Use
Caraway specializes in non-stick cookware. But whereas most companies use something like Teflon, Caraway goes the ceramic route. Why ceramic? Well, you might think it’s because it’s safer than Teflon - but, as we mentioned, those concerns with Teflon-like materials seem a tad overzealous. Mostly, ceramic is A) attractive and B) an exceptionally slippery surface that excels at being non-stick. Some people claim it’s not as durable as traditional non-stick coatings, but, honestly, our Caraway pans have held up better than any other non-sticks in our kitchen. This fry pan, in particular, is something we’ve grown accustomed to using daily, due to its convenient size for one person (10.5 inches) and ceramic coating that makes the cleanup process ridiculously easy. It’s perfect for eggs and sautéeing vegetables, and, though you aren’t supposed to use ceramic pans (or any non-sticks, for that matter) over high heat, we’ve been known to occasionally sear things such as steak in this pan as well. (Feel free to do this from time to time, but don’t make a habit of it.) For the casual home cook, Caraway’s non-stick frying pan provides more than enough firepower.
For When You Just Want One Pan
The Always Pan is a frying pan. So why doesn’t it look like one? Because it’s also a saucier, a skillet, a steamer, and a few other things. This is designed to be a multipurpose pan that can take the place of a bunch of other pieces of cookware, and it largely delivers on that promise. We tested one out, and it handled everything we threw at it, from stews and dumplings to seared meat and eggs. The body is made from ceramic-coated aluminum (yes, it’s non-stick), and, if you’ve been following along, you should know that means that the Always Pan is exceptionally good at heating up quickly and distributing heat. Retaining heat? Not so much, but, for what it’s worth, we have yet to run into any issues with that. Overall, if you’re looking to save space in your kitchen and don’t want a bunch of different pots and pans lying around, this could very well be the ideal piece of cookware for you. Take note, however, that this pan isn’t oven-safe, and, due to the non-stick coating, you should avoid using it over high heat.
The Aesthetic Choice
You may or may not already know this, but Great Jones pans look really nice. Is that a good reason to buy something? Sometimes, but not usually when it comes to cookware. Fortunately, Great Jones pans perform perfectly well for what they are: easy, attractive, low-maintenance pieces of cookware for people who don’t necessarily use tweezers when plating their food but still want something highly functional. This Large Fry is made from stainless steel with an aluminum core (pretty similar to the rest of this list), and, as mentioned, the cooking surface is coated in ceramic. That ceramic makes cleanup a breeze, although, after several years of use, we have found that one of our Great Jones pans has a few spots where food likes to stick. But that was always going to happen. It is an unfortunate reality that no non-stick coatings last forever, and if you’re looking for a new veggie or egg pan to whip out a few times a week, this will serve you well and look quite good while doing so.