Choosing the Best All-Purpose Skillets for the Kitchen

Anne Vassal talks about her picks for the best all-purpose skillets and shares the pricing and test results with MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers.
By Anne Vassal
August/September 2003
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Anne Vassal shares her picks for the best cooking skillets.
PHOTO: CLAIRE ANDERSON
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When finding the best all-purpose skillets these skillet makers are put to the test.

It would be nice if I could share with you the wondrous aspects of my long time favorite skillet, but until recently I didn't have one. Over the years, not a single one ever stole my heart. Having a quality, 12-inch skillet ought to be a necessity of life, though, along with shoes, cell phones and brie (ok, maybe not brie), so finally, I set out to find my "one and only."

As it turned out, when looking for the best all-purpose skillets I found several skillets that tickled my fancy: Calphalon's Commercial and Kitchen Essentials lines, All-Clad Metalcrafter's own brand (my favorite!) and Emerilware, developed by All-Clad with celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse. Here are the most important points to consider when you're searching for a skillet that will steal your heart.

Skillet Shop but not 'Till you Drop

Most all-purpose skillets have either flared or straight sides. Those with flared sides are called fry or omelette pans , and usually they come without lids; food just slides right out of these pans and onto a plate. Those with straight sides are called saute pans, and they come with lids.

I decided to limit my spending to less than $150, although it's possible to buy skillets that cost twice that price. I tested numerous skillets for "release-ability" (whether the food stuck to the pan), heat distribution and cooking time. I cooked a variety of foods, including eggs, pancakes, eggplant, plantains, tofu and chicken.

Appearance, durability, feel and whether the skillet was oven- or broiler-safe also were evaluated.

Appearance. This may seem frivolous, but a cookware's design is what initially will attract your attention. Imagine how the pan will look in your kitchen, on your stove. Evaluate its scratch-resistance. The best skillets I tested were heavy-gauge metal pans with stainless steel exteriors; they resisted scratches and dents better than either black enamel or anodized aluminum pans.

Durability runs a close second to appearance. All the skillets I liked were listed as dish-washer safe, but company representatives all recommended hand-washing. Although better cookware will come with a lifetime warranty, be sure to read the fine print before you buy.

Feel is an important consideration, too. With the exception of cast iron pans, you shouldn't have to pump iron to fry an egg. A skillet should be a comfortable weight, but keep in mind that quality skillets are heavier than bargain-basement pans. But don't confuse "heavy weight" with "heavy gauge." "Gauge" is a measurement of the thickness of the metal used in the cookware's construction, not its weight.

Skillet handles will vary in feel, too, so test them out to find which suits you best. Metal handles probably won't feel quite as nice as wooden ones, but they will last forever. For safety's sake, handles should have a "stay cool" quality and be riveted through the pan rather than screwed in place.

Options such as oven-safe or broiler-safe may be important to you, too. The skillets listed here are oven-safe up to a certain temperature, but all are not broiler-safe. If you love to brown your culinary creations under the broiler, you'll want a broiler-safe skillet.

If you have an electric range, especially a smooth top, you'll need a skillet that is ruler-flat on the bottom to ensure uniform cooking. And, if you're buying an omelet or fry pan, you also may want to find out whether a lid can be purchased separately, even though most of the time you won't need it.

The Best All-Purpose Skillets: Let's Talk Metals

Priced at about $40, Calphalon's Kitchen Essentials skillet, above, was the least expensive of the finalists. All-Clad, the author's favorite (see page 98 in this issue), was the most expensive at about $150.

Most top-quality skillets today are made of aluminum, anodized aluminum, stainless steel or, sometimes, copper, or a combination of these. The material, and how the pan is made, contribute to how well it conducts heat when you're cooking with it.

Anodized Aluminum. Anodizing is an electrochemical process that makes aluminum nonporous, nonreactive and 30 percent harder than stainless steel or cast iron. The best heat conductors are aluminum and copper, so the anodized pans have the same superior heat conductivity as regular aluminum, but they do not react with acid foods such as tomato sauce like an ordinary aluminum pan will. Calphalon was the first company to manufacture cookware with hard-anodized aluminum; such a pan has a dark-gray, matte finish. It is durable, but its exterior can scratch and its cooking surface can discolor because of high temperatures and baked-on food. Over time, these pans can begin to look very dull; Calphalon advises using Comet brand cleanser and a Scotch-brite scouring pad to clean its hard-anodized pans.

Stainless Steel. A few decades ago, everything stuck to stainless skillets, but today, the stick-resistant power of new, heavy-gauge stainless steel pans is amazing. Stainless is one of the most durable metals but not the best heat conductor, a critical factor in cookware performance. Quality cookware combines stainless steel with a better conductor, such as aluminum or copper, which often is added to the bottom of the pan or sandwiched between two layers of stainless and extended up the sides. Stainless requires minimal care. It's easy to clean as long as you don't burn food on the surface; avoid high heat and let your food cook a little longer. To keep your steel's reflective surface glowing, which nicely compliments whatever is cooking, treat your stainless steel with care — never clean your new stainless with steel wool or an abrasive pad.

Let's Talk Skillet Cooking Surfaces

Interior surface options of both anodized aluminum and stainless steel skillets listed here are not nonstick, but when small amounts of oil or fat are used, they're stick-resistant. I expected the anodized aluminum to be more stick-resistant than the stainless, but that wasn't the case; food will stick to either surface. A Calphalon representative explained that the anodized pan is great for browning chicken and other meats because the best heat conductor, aluminum, is in direct contact with the food. With the stainless steel pan, the aluminum or copper is underneath the stainless coating, producing a slightly different result. But, will it cook the darned chicken? Superbly, but differently.

Only a pan with an applied nonstick coating is truly nonstick. When the nonstick coating Teflon was introduced 30 years ago, it was thin and easily scratched, but in recent years, nonstick coating has improved so much it accounted for 76 percent of cookware sales in 1999 in the United States.

Nonstick pans are easy to clean, require little or no off for cooking, and you'll never have to chisel your fish out of one of these pan. But, if you're cooking without oil in a nonstick pan for any reason, you'll find some foods burn or dry out before they're fully cooked. Also, food takes longer to cook in a nonstick pan because the coating insulates the food from the heat.

Sometimes you'll want your food to stick — to brown or caramelize, to do more than simply cook. If you've ever picked only the crispy pieces out of a plate of fried potatoes, you know what I mean. Nonstick pans make mushy fried potatoes because the added oil doesn't adhere to the pans surface. It just forms fat puddles, and the food then slurps up the oil, defeating the pans low-fat purpose.

Today's quality nonstick skillets with heavy-gauge exteriors are built to last, and often have lifetime guarantees. To improve durability of the nonstick coating, some companies have developed a thicker version by creating a textured surface to which multiple layers of the coating are applied. The idea is that the wear will occur on the top of the bumps, preserving the nonstick surface underneath.

Despite these improvements, nonstick were not among my favorites. Depending on the pan's exterior metal, nonsticks don't heat up as quickly or brown foods as well as stick-resistant pans. Nonsticks also require special treatment: strictly forbidden are metal utensils, high cooking temperatures, and the use of dishwashers or abrasive cleaners.

According to a representative for one nonstick manufacturer, All-Clad, nonstick skillets discolor because of a buildup of food or of an oil residue both of which can be cleaned away with a nylon pad and Bar Keepers Friend cleanser. If the residue is burned on the surface, try soaking the pan in denture cleaner and water!

If a nonstick pan is your choice, you'll need to decide which exterior surface you prefer. I ruled out sorne nonsticks with black anodized and brushed aluminum exteriors because of concerns about scratch-resistance based on the condition of store samples and reports from owners.

Cast Iron Skillets

It's no wonder some folks swear by their trusty cast iron skillets. Virtually indestructible, they cook fast once they're heated and handle the highest temperatures with ease. They're great for Cajun-style blackening; we use my grandma's to blacken fish on the grill, and to make corn bread in the oven. Iron skillets improve with age and can last several lifetimes.

Secondhand 10- or 12-inch cast iron skillets can be better than new ones. They're inexpensive, too, at $15 to $20 in flea markets or antique shops, although the collectible Wagner or Griswold brands usually will cost more.

The downside is these skillets are heavy, the handles get hot and the food can stick if the cast iron isn't properly seasoned or cleaned. There also can be problems with uneven heating, and the reactive metal does absorb and release food odors.

But on a Wisconsin winter's morning, I just love my brother-in-law's fried potatoes, cooked in his favorite 16-inch iron skillet, on his wood-burning stove.

The Skillet Finalists

Calphalon Kitchen Essentials, about $40. One of Calphalon's less expensive lines, it's sold exclusively at Target. Various choices are available in 12-inch skillets, but the only one I'd buy is the hard anodized with nonstick interior. It's an especially good option for a college student or someone who cooks infrequently. 10-year warranty. (www.Calphalon.com)

Calphalon, about $85. Calphalon has created more lines than I could test, so I focused on the company's best commercial skillets in hard-anodized aluminum. These are simply the best of their type on the market. Lifetime warranty. (www.Calphalon.com)

All-Clad, about $140. Chefs use these pans because of their performance, but I'm hooked on the look. Don't think of money when you're investigating the choices. This stainless steel skillet has an aluminum core. Lifetime warranty. (www.Allclad.com)

Emrilware, about $70. Developed by All-Clad with celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, this attractive, hard-anodized aluminum cookware is exclusively nonstick. I never did care whether my oatmeal sticks, but some people do. If nonstick is your thing, then this durable cookware is for you. The anodized exterior held up well in the two months that I used it; a spokesperson said the "hard-coat" exterior was designed to repel scratching and wear. Lifetime warranty. (www.Emerilware.com)


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