Inexpensive 12-Inch Skillets
How we tested
A 12-inch skillet is a kitchen workhorse, and a well-made one should last a lifetime. Still, our longtime favorite sells for $155, leading us to wonder if we really need to spend so much to guarantee great performance and durability.
We bought seven 12-inch skillets, all for less than $100 and none nonstick. Six share our favorite pan’s fully clad, tri-ply construction, meaning three layers, with stainless steel sandwiching aluminum. Fully clad pans usually transmit heat more gently and evenly across the cooking surface because the aluminum core conducts heat quickly while the slower stainless steel layers hold heat and reduce temperature fluctuation. The only pan in our lineup not constructed this way had a disk bottom: The three layers of metal are confined to the base of the pan, where a stainless steel–covered disk of metal is attached to the stainless steel skillet. We haven’t liked disk-bottom skillets in the past, but this pan has a copper core, the best heat conductor in cookware, so it sounded promising.
We seared steaks, made pan sauces, pan-roasted chicken parts, and sautéed onions, tracking the pans’ heating patterns with an infrared camera. All completed each task without catastrophe, but some made us work harder for good results. A few gave steaks a nice sear and cooked them to a perfect medium, while others ran hot, threatening to burn the meat’s exterior before the interior was done. As we pan-fried chicken pieces, we encountered hot spots, so some pieces were pale yellow and others dark brown. We got similar uneven results when we browned onions. These pans required adjusting the heat more often or extra stirring. As for the disk-bottom pan, cooking was mostly even, but oil scorched around the perimeter, where the disk doesn’t protect it.
Weeks of cooking and moving multiple skillets of hot chicken from burner to oven made us appreciate pans that were lighter, thus easier to handle. The weight range was 2.75 pounds to 4.15 pounds. We need both hands to move the heavier pans, making us grateful for helper handles. Pans with short handles (less than 8 inches) had less leverage, which made lifting hefty full skillets awkward. And while larger pans offered more space to maneuver pieces of food, the extra space often came with extra weight.
After putting the skillets through their paces on the stovetop, we tested their sturdiness. While manufacturers recommend that you never heat a pan dry or plunge a hot pan into cold water, what panicked cook has never stuck a smoking pan in a sink to avoid a fire? This “thermal shock” can warp metal and weaken the rivets and disk-bottom bond, problems that are exacerbated with impact. To see if thermal shock or impact would hurt our skillets, we heated each one to 550 degrees and then plunged each into an ice bath; we then banged it with moderate force against the sidewalk three times. While no disk or rivets came loose, some of the pans got dinged up, and thermal shock caused one to warp. The top performers came out virtually unscathed.
In the end, none of these pans matched the performance of our favorite traditional skillet, but one came remarkably close. Our Best Buy provided steady, controlled heat (it browned steak slightly unevenly) and survived our abuse testing. Because it weighs over a pound more than our favorite traditional skillet, it’s somewhat harder to maneuver. Still, its performance, design, sturdy construction, and price make it an excellent choice. It’s our new Best Buy.