How to Find the Right Skillet Pan for Your Needs
- Skillet pans are essential all-purpose pieces in every kitchen.
- Skillets are known for wide, flat bottoms, and gently curved sides.
- There are three main skillet types — cast iron, nonstick, and stainless steel.
You’ve seen the many wonderful things that can be made in a skillet pan — a soft, scrambled egg, juicy pork cutlets, gooey skillet cake. You want to make these things.
It's true that skillet recipes are amazing additions to your cooking repertoire — which makes skillet pans one of the necessary pieces to have in your kitchen.
In fact, three out of five of Bon Appetit’s cookware essentials are skillets (a cast-iron skillet, a nonstick skillet, and a stainless steel skillet). And two out of eight of Martha Stewart’s recommended list are skillets (a cast iron pan and a nonstick skillet).
As you can tell, everyone who’s anyone in the world of cooking recommends that you keep a skillet or two on hand, whether you're a beginner or seasoned cook.
Read on for the different types and styles of skillets available and discover the best one for your needs.
Key Features of Skillet Pans
Skillet pans (also called fry pans or frying pans) are one of the most familiar pieces of cookware. Relatively shallow with flat bottoms and gently curved sides, skillets are the pans that usually come to mind when you think of pans.
Skillets are not known for their height, unlike taller sauté pans or pots. Rather, it’s their wide cooking space you’re after. The skillet’s wide, flat bottom makes almost full contact with the heat source. And if constructed in a thicker material (cast-iron, or a stainless steel and aluminum multi-ply), it offers optimal heat distribution and retention for cooking.
Popular sizes are 8-inch, 10-inch, and 12-inch skillets — small diameters are enough for fried eggs and pancakes, while larger diameters are able to hold family-sized portions and dishes with several pieces (chicken chunks, chili cheese french fries).
Unless you're buying a skillet for a specific purpose, it's always best to go bigger. You don't want the ingredients to “crowd” the pan, which could lead to uneven heat distribution and much longer cook times.
Another important point of note is the handle. Skillets typically feature one long handle, which is used for everything — shaking, tossing, flipping, and general ingredient maneuvering. As such, the handle should be securely riveted to the pan, comfortable to hold, and able to withstand high temperatures (some even stay cool while cooking).
Types of Skillet Pans
When it comes to cookware, skillets provide a lot of functionality — they can fry, sear, sauté, roast, bake, etc. They easily go from stovetop to oven. And they can be used for a number of dishes, from savory to sweet, from personal to family-size servings.
Which leads to the question — what’s cooking? Will you be whipping up some easy omelets and quick stir-fries, or do you prefer to slow-simmer stews and soups?
Knowing your personal cooking needs and preferences makes it easier to select which skillet (or skillets!) to purchase.
Cast-iron Skillet Pan
Cast iron skillets are lovely to look at and very heavy to hold. For this reason, they usually feature shorter iron handles (maybe even a helper handle on the opposite side), and dual pouring spouts. Cast iron can be a bit high-maintenance, compared to other skillet constructions. But if you’re craving that golden brown sear, crunchy crust, and rich flavor, this is the pan to have in your hand.
As one of the oldest cooking materials, cast iron is incredibly durable, excellent at retaining heat (although its high density takes some time to heat up), and if seasoned properly, it’s a naturally nonstick fry pan.
Seasoning is the most important part of caring for cast iron. Although many manufacturers already offer pre-seasoned cast iron skillets out of the box, we still recommend seasoning your own cast iron before first-time use.
Seasoning does two things: It creates a nonstick surface, and it protects the cast iron from rust caused by water or humidity.
Instead of the usual soak with soap, you season cast iron by preheating your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In the meantime, use a paper towel to wipe any food or grease from the pan. Then, under warm-to-hot running water, scrub the entire surface with a nonabrasive cleaning pad. A little mild soap can be used, as well.
Dry the skillet immediately and thoroughly by hand — do not drip-dry, as this may leave the cast iron wet for a longer period and encourage rust. Pour 1-2 tablespoons of oil in the pan (flaxseed is best, but sunflower, soybean, or corn are okay). With a paper towel, spread the oil over the entire skillet, including the bottom and the handle, using circular motions.
When the oil is completely absorbed and the surface is dark and smooth, place the skillet upside down in the oven and bake for 1 hour. Turn the oven off, leave the pan inside to cool, and congratulate yourself for a proper seasoning.
In time, these layers upon layers of patina will impart a deep flavor and beautiful toasty-brown to your dishes, which is why they’re perfect for searing steaks, simmering rich sauces (avoid acidic sauces, though), non-stick frying, and most other hearty fare. A few notable cast iron skillet manufacturers are T-Fal, Lodge, and Le Creuset.
Nonstick Skillet Pan
Nonstick skillets differ from the others in this list in that they don’t need any added fat to cook. Their coating already allows food to glide effortlessly, which makes them great for quick sautés, stir-fries, and more delicate ingredients, like fish and eggs. (Don’t expect any searing or browning to be done with a nonstick pan — the ingredients will simply stew in their juices.)
The very same nonstick coating makes cleanup much easier, as well. Nonstick skillets have a convenient food-release quality, which means no burnt-up bits or caked-on gunk to scrape off. A simple wipe with a soft sponge and mild dish soap is usually enough to do the trick.
Nonstick skillets are usually composed of aluminum, stainless steel, or a combination of both, making them considerably lighter and easier to maneuver than their heavier metal counterparts.
However, the trade-off for these conveniences is that nonstick skillets generally don’t last as long as other pans — their nonstick cooking surface will wear off, and the pan will eventually need to be replaced.
To help them last longer, make sure to stick with wooden or silicone utensils (metal is a no-no), keep them to stovetop cooking at temperatures below 500 degrees Fahrenheit, and protect the nonstick surface when storing.
Since your nonstick cookware will still need replacing, however, look for brands that won’t break the bank. A few to consider are Cuisinart, Farberware, and of course, Misen (try our best seller nonstick pan — the one that started it all!).
Stainless Steel Skillet Pan
Almost all cookware comes in a stainless steel option. This is because, in addition to being easily available and affordable, stainless steel is a great, general-purpose metal. It can handle high heat, whether on the stove or in the oven, and be used with all kinds of utensils.
Stainless steel itself, however, does not conduct heat very well. Rather, it’s “clad” or layered with other metals — usually aluminum and copper, which are better heat conductors — in tri-ply, five-ply, or seven-ply. All these layers work together to offer superior heat conduction and heat retention under the stainless steel surface.
Even with these layers, stainless steel makes for a pretty light pan. The handles are also relatively long, which makes the entire pan easier to wield for that impressive toss, flip, or shake. Since you’ll be handling your pan quite often, look for handles that are oven safe, stay-cool, and are securely riveted to the base.
When it comes to skillets, stainless steel is the perfect middle ground. The material is lighter and more versatile than cast iron, going from a bubbling boil to a low, steady simmer in seconds. It’s also more multi-functional and durable than nonstick, able to achieve a decent golden-brown crust and last for decades.
Stainless steel is a non-reactive and non-corrosive metal. It can cook any ingredient, using any method — braising, pan-frying, searing, stewing, and more — which makes it shine as an all-around skillet, perfect for everyday cooking.
Stainless steel cookware is also dishwasher safe, or you can easily hand-clean it with a little bit of dish soap, warm water, and elbow grease.
There are a lot of amazing stainless steel pans, with some great ones coming from Calphalon, All-Clad, and our own multi-ply pan, which costs less than either of those household brands.
The Perfect Pan
There are so many reasons for a cook to have a good skillet pan or two in their collection. Skillets are affordable, multi-purpose, and easy to use in a number of ways. Depending on what you’re cooking, there’s a cast iron, nonstick, or stainless steel skillet that’s perfect for you.