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Inexpensive 12-Inch Skillets

By Cook's Illustrated Published December 2012
Update: March 2015
The Emeril Pro-Clad skillet is discontinued; our runner-up, the Cuisinart 12-Inch MultiClad Pro Skillet, is our new winner. In 2014, our favorite inexpensive 12-inch skillet from Tramontina changed. Although the updated Tramontina 12-Inch Tri-Ply Clad Open Frying Pan sports a comfortable new handle, its 8-inch cooking surface (the flat bottom of the pan that you actually cook on) is 1½ inches narrower than that of the old pan. It couldn’t hold eight pieces of chicken, and two 12-ounce steaks were a tight squeeze. Its new brushed-finish interior was also hard to clean.

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*