How we tested
We can cook almost anything in our 12-inch skillet, whether we want to sauté, shallow-fry, pan-roast, or even stir-fry. In the test kitchen, we prefer a skillet with a traditional, rather than nonstick, surface precisely because we want the food to adhere slightly, in order to create the caramelized, browned bits called fond that are the foundation for great flavor. What’s more, while even the best nonstick surface will wear off eventually, a well-made traditional skillet should last a lifetime.
Skillets are simply frying pans with low, flared sides. Their shape encourages evaporation, which is why skillets excel at searing, browning, and sauce reduction. Traditional versions come in three main materials: stainless steel, anodized aluminum, and cast iron. We’re not big fans of the dark surface of anodized aluminum, as it makes it hard to judge the color of fond. And while cast-iron skillets have their uses, they are cumbersome and can react with acidic sauces.
We prefer traditional skillets made of stainless steel sandwiched around a core of aluminum. Aluminum is one of the fastest conductors of heat, but it reacts with acidic foods and is overly responsive to temperature fluctuations, making cooking harder to control. Stainless steel is nonreactive, but it’s a poor conductor of heat (indeed, handles made of stainless generally won’t get hot on the stovetop). But a marriage of the two metals makes the ideal composition for a skillet.
One of the most common stainless-aluminum formulations is a style known as “clad,” where the entire pan is made of three or more layers (“tri-ply”) of metal. Manufacturers also sell skillets composed of up to seven layers, or with copper cores (the best heat conductor used in cookware), but these high-quality pans usually cost well over $200—more than most of us want to spend on a single pan. We chose seven skillets from leading manufacturers with a price range of $49 to $135. Four were tri-ply; one was a five-ply pan that offered extra layers of aluminum. The last two, the least expensive of the lot, had disk bottoms, where the aluminum core is confined to a thick plate attached to the bottom of an otherwise stainless steel pan. From prior testing, we knew that disk-bottom pans can sometimes perform as well as fully clad pans. Which style is best, and how much do you need to spend to get a top-notch skillet?
A great skillet will transmit heat evenly across its cooking surface. This helps you produce uniformly cooked food, with no under- or overcooked spots. It should never leave you struggling with the heat suddenly surging out of control and scorching your dinner—or stall out instead of sizzling when food is added.
To test our lineup, we seared steaks, made pan sauces, pan-roasted chicken pieces, sautéed onions, and flipped crêpes. With steaks, it was immediately clear which pans transmit heat steadily and evenly across their surface, allowing them to easily achieve a deeply seared crust on both sides, and which ones didn’t. (And all this time you thought it was your cooking skills.) One pan browned the first side of the steaks well—but after we flipped them, the pan temperature continued to surge, blackening the second side in just over a minute. Another pan lost its heat when we added the steaks, leaving the meat with a soft “steamed” exterior instead of a flavorful crust.
What made good steak go bad? The two worst performers in this test were the disk-bottom pans. The pan that lacked sizzle when we added steaks had the thickest cooking surface in the lineup, with a 5.5-mm bottom—but only 0.5mm was heat-conducting aluminum. With so much slow-responding stainless steel, no wonder it was sluggish. And how about the pan that raced ahead, scorching our steaks? Its construction was just the opposite—a full 3mm of its 4-mm-thick bottom was composed of aluminum, with just a thin layer of steel to temper heat. A few of the fully clad pans suffered from similar problems, but they weren’t nearly as severe.
A great skillet has a steady, moderate sauté speed and will not require endless fiddling with the temperature dial to balance any shortcomings. To test this, we sautéed chopped onions in each pan for 15 minutes over medium heat. Some skillets turned out soft, uniformly golden onions without us ever touching the dial, others cooked pieces that were too light and too dark in the same pan, while still others forced us to constantly turn the heat down to prevent the onions from burning.
To confirm how quickly each skillet came up to temperature, we tested with solder, choosing a tin-lead alloy with a melting point of exactly 361 degrees. We placed six small rings of solder wire in a circle an inch from the edge of each pan, placed the pan on a burner set to medium, and recorded the time it took for the solder to melt. Times ranged from just under three minutes to just over six. Our top two pans finished at a moderate pace of just over four minutes.
A great skillet will have a generous cooking surface. Almost all the pans were advertised as 12 inches (measured across the top), but actual cooking surfaces were often two or three inches smaller, depending on how the sides were angled. We preferred roomy pans; pans that crowded steaks or crammed together chicken pieces steamed the food instead of browning it. Top performers had lower sides, which made it easier to turn a crêpe without tearing. They had a well-calibrated distribution of weight between handle and pan for easy maneuvering.
* Note: One of our recommended brands, Gourmet Standard, is no longer in business.
We tested seven traditional skillets; five were fully clad with layers of aluminum and stainless steel covering the entire pan, while two had aluminum-steel disk bottoms. With one exception, we chose 12-inch skillets (measured across the top; the diameter of the actual cooking surface is indicated in chart).
Using a KitchenAid stove with 15,000- BTU-per-hour gas burners, we seared steaks, made pan sauce, and cooked crêpes to look for hot and cool spots. We also pan-roasted chicken pieces, starting on the stovetop and finishing in the oven. Additionally, we measured the time for rings of solder (with a melting point of 361 degrees) to melt in each pan. Scores of good, fair, or poor were assigned in each test, and a composite of these scores constitutes the overall performance rating for each pan.
We sautéed chopped onions in vegetable oil over medium heat for 15 minutes, rating pans highly if the onions turned soft and uniformly golden. Pans that produced onions that were overly dark or cooked unevenly rated fair; pans that burned or crisped onions rated poor.
We evaluated factors including whether the pan accommodates eight pieces of chicken without overlap, how the weight and handle shape influenced maneuverability, and whether the handle remained cool and comfortable.
To see if pans warped when exposed to thermal shock, we heated them to 500 degrees on the stovetop, then plunged each into ice water. We also held each pan by the handle and whacked it three times on a towel-covered concrete platform to check solidity of construction. Pans that showed the least damage rated highest.