Choosing the Best All-Purpose Skillets for the Kitchen

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Anne Vassal shares her picks for the best cooking skillets.
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Cooking in a cast iron skillet.
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Calphalon's Kitchen Essentials skillet.

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)