12-Inch Stainless-Steel Skillets
How we tested
We love stainless-steel skillets in the test kitchen. While cast iron, carbon steel, and even nonstick have been elbowing them out of the limelight, they're still our top choice for achieving golden, uniform browning and developing fond, the secret weapon of chefs. Those browned bits of stuck food are the source of deeply flavorful dishes and pan sauces—but only if you have a high-quality skillet; bad pans leave fond that's skimpy or scorched. We appreciate these all-metal pans for their ability to go from the stovetop to the oven, where we finish cooking thicker cuts of meat and fish, bake skillet pies, and skillet-roast whole chickens. Unlike carbon-steel or castiron pans, stainless doesn't react to acidic foods, so you can cook without fear of metallic flavors or damaging the pan's seasoning—plus, stainless will never wear out like nonstick will. If you want perfect searing, deeply flavorful sauces, and cook-anything, stove-to-oven versatility for a lifetime, you need a stainless-steel skillet.
New Competition for an Old Favorite
Our longtime winner is the All-Clad d3 Stainless Steel 12″ Fry Pan with Lid, it costs about $120.00. This pan has hidden technology: It's built from layers of different metals that are bonded together using a process patented in 1967 by metallurgist and All-Clad founder John Ulam. When the whole pan is made this way, it's called “fully clad.” Our favorite has three layers: aluminum sandwiched between stainless steel. That means you get the best of both metals: aluminum's speedy heat conduction modulated by slower-transmitting, heat-retaining steel. Recently we've seen many more fully clad pans on the market, boasting even more metal layers as well as other special treatments and features, some at pretty stunning prices. Even All-Clad launched a five-layer skillet, called the d5 Stainless Steel, making us wonder if our previous favorite was still the best choice. To find out, we bought seven fully clad pans, priced from about $100.00 to about $400.00. Based on previous testings, we skipped pans on which only the base is clad (this is sometimes called an “encapsulated” base; see “Don't Be Fooled by a Disk-Bottom Pan”).
We put them all through a gauntlet of cooking tests: sautéing diced onions, searing strip steaks and making pan sauce, pan-roasting green beans and asparagus, and cooking a cut-up chicken that started on the stovetop and finished in the oven and then building a pan sauce from the drippings. We scrubbed the pans by hand and ran them through the dishwasher. We also checked for warping and even knocked them around to see how sturdily they were constructed, simulating years of use. (These pans can be a great investment, but only if they last.)
Pricey Skillets Performed Well, but Some Were a Pain to Use
The good news? We cooked successfully in most pans in this lineup. By contrast, we had less success when we tested clad pans priced less than $100.00. It seems that in this product category, shelling out a little more money does pay off. Unlike their cheaper counterparts, all these more expensive skillets had broad cooking surfaces, ranging from 9¼ to 10½ inches across. Whether we were cooking four strip steaks, 2 pounds of asparagus, or eight pieces of chicken, food fit well without crowding, so it browned more evenly and deeply.
However, we saw major differences in how easy the pans were to use. While we enjoyed their large cooking surfaces, the biggest skillets were also heavy, weighing as much as 4.25 pounds when empty. Lifting these was no fun, especially when they were ripping hot from the oven, full of sizzling chicken. Our preferred pan was far more maneuverable at 2.8 pounds and remained light and well-balanced whether it was empty or full.
Handle shape and size contributed to our sense of control. Handles that were too narrow or thick strained our hands, and those that at first seemed pleasantly smooth and round often slipped and rotated in our grip when they were splattered with grease and the pans were full. The best had angled shapes of moderate breadth that let us lock in a secure grip. Some pans had Y-shaped handles meant to disperse heat, but most of these handles still got hot right where we wanted to grab them. Our favorites stayed cooler on the stove, letting us skip potholders.
Helper Handles Were Not Helpful
Each of the bigger skillets also had a “helper handle,” a loop set opposite the main handle and intended to mitigate the weight, but that was a misnomer. These handles added weight that threw the pans off-balance, and they were useless when we needed to hold a pan with one hand while scooping out food with the other. They also heated up over adjacent burners and trapped grime. Bottom line: We don't find a helper handle necessary on a skillet. In fact, these handles were a feature of our lowest-ranked contenders, which were bigger and heavier overall. These pans were broad and hefty, with tall, straight sides, shaped more like sauté pans, the kind of pans we prefer to use for braises and other liquid-heavy dishes. By contrast, a skillet works best if it's lighter, trimmer, and more well-balanced, with low, flaring sides that encourage evaporation for better browning—not steaming or stewing.
Do I Need a Five-Ply Skillet?
In a word: No. During our tests, five layers cooked about the same as three, so why pay nearly $100.00 more for more layers? When we compared the cooking performance of the All-Clad d5 skillet to the same company's three-layered d3 skillet, we noticed that the five-layer pan was slightly heavier and cooked a bit more slowly. (This makes sense, since All-Clad's five-layer pan has an extra layer of steel at its core and steel transmits heat more sluggishly than aluminum). Other pans with five layers ranked even lower (primarily due to other design factors), and they all cost more.
What's more, the special high-tech features on these pans were mostly a bust. Do you need nanobonded titanium on the surface of your stainless-steel frying pan, as on the handsome gunmetal-gray Hestan skillet? Beyond cosmetic appeal, we didn't see any functional benefit; in fact, the darker color only made it harder to monitor the browning of fond on the cooking surface, and we needed to use the company's (included) proprietary cleanser to restore that luster after cooking. While the pan cooked very nicely, its price seemed like a stretch, and some testers docked points for its upswept handle, which felt less like a natural extension of their arms than the straighter handles on other pans. On a positive note, Demeyere Industry's 5-ply skillet was dipped in a chemical bath to remove iron (one of the components of steel) from its surface, leaving it a pleasing pale silver and helping the surface resist acquiring a golden hue from cooking. This feature worked, but even better was the simple fact that this skillet had no interior rivets to trap grime.
Skillets Stood Up to Abuse
If we pay a lot for a pan, we expect great durability. So at the end of our cooking tests, we checked to see if any of the pans had warped or were otherwise damaged. We checked again after thermally shocking the pans (heating them to 500 degrees and plunging them into ice water) and then striking them three times on a concrete block. In our testing of skillets priced less than $100.00, nearly all the pans warped and three of the eight pans came out with wiggly handles. Astonishingly, in this lineup only one pan showed very slight warping after this substantial abuse and none of the handles loosened. We could see dents where we'd struck them, ranging from very noticeable to barely there. Our previous winner from All-Clad held up with no warping, an intact handle, and almost undetectable dents.
To understand why these pans were more durable, we consulted Michael J. Tarkanian, senior lecturer and metallurgy expert in the Materials Science and Engineering department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who explained that thicker pans would be less prone to warping and denting—and would tend to cook better: “A thinner pan would have less heat retention because there's less thermal mass, and it would probably run a little hotter and have worse heat distribution.” Sure enough, when we measured the thickness of their bases, all these pans were 3 to 3.3 millimeters thick except for the lone pan that had warped, which was significantly thinner at 2.5 millimeters.
A Former Champion Wins Again
In the end, none of the pricier pans surpassed the performance, ease of use, and durability of our former winner, the All-Clad d3 Stainless Steel 12″ Fry Pan with Lid. What's more, at about $120.00, it's one of the least expensive pans in our lineup. We know we'll be cooking in this pan for years to come.
We purchased seven skillets that measured as close as possible to 12 inches in diameter (some were 12.5 to 13 inches in diameter). All are fully clad pans made of bonded layers of steel and aluminum. We evaluated their cooking performance, ease of use, and cleanup and how well they stood up to routine use. We also conducted abuse testing to evaluate construction and durability. All pans were purchased online, and prices are what we paid. The pans appear in order of preference.
Performance: We cooked steaks and chicken and made pan sauces, cooking both on the stovetop and in the oven. We also pan-roasted asparagus, pan-roasted green beans, and sautéed diced onions. Pans that produced evenly browned food and good fond for flavorful pan sauces rated higher.
Ease of Use: We evaluated the weight, balance, and ease of handling of each pan, including the shape and comfort of the handle; whether the height and shape of the pan sides made it easy to sweep a spatula around its curves; and how comfortable the pan was to pour from and hold aloft with one hand while scooping out hot food with the other. Pans rated higher if their handles were comfortable to grip firmly and didn't feel insecure or slippery.
Cleanup/Durability: We scrubbed pans by hand after each test and ran them through the dishwasher, rating them on how easy they were to clean after cooking and docking points for handles, rivets, and helper handles that trapped grime. We evaluated the pans for warping and denting after normal cooking and after abuse testing.