Think of a stainless steel skillet as the little black dress of your kitchen tool collection: whether you're searing chops, caramelizing onions, oven roasting, or stir-frying, there's almost nothing it can't do. Just as you wouldn't invest in a LBD with a flimsy zipper, when it comes time to choose the best frying pan, quality of construction is key.
To find the best stainless steel skillet in 2019, we tested four models from legacy cookware brands and four from new, direct-to-consumer startups. This year, we added two other legacy models to the mix, both of which had garnered praise from reputable home cooking sites over the past year. Our favorite two years running was the All-Clad Stainless Steel 12-Inch Fry Pan; with a current price tag of $100, it is definitely an investment, but we think it's worth every penny. Read on for why we loved the All-Clad pan; for the specifics of how we tested and what to look for in a stainless steel frying pan, scroll to the bottom of the page.
The Best Stainless Steel Skillet: All-Clad 12-Inch
If you've ever flipped through a food magazine or watched an episode of a cooking show, chances are you're already familiar with All-Clad frying pans. For decades, the company's range of bonded tri-ply cookware has been consistently rated best in class by publications like Bon Appétit and Cook's Illustrated. Indeed, All-Clad has dominated the stainless steel cookware landscape for so long that we couldn't help but wonder if, after all these years, they still deserved the accolades.
It didn't take much testing to shut that inner skeptic down. Though generously proportioned with a 12-inch diameter and gently sloping sides that taper to a 9.75-inch cooking surface—one of the largest we tried and big enough easily accommodate four chicken thighs or three breasts—the All-Clad skillet was surprisingly comfortable to maneuver. Weighing just under three pounds, it was hefty enough to hold up to serious use but not so heavy as to cause wrist strain. While we don't love the brand's signature skinny, concave handle, we appreciated its easy-to-grip angle and the way it stayed reliably cool even after a long session on the stove.
Of all the competitors, the All-Clad pan heated up the quickest, and browned both the flour and sliced onion consistently, without evidence of hotspots. The pan also seared chicken thighs deeply and evenly, and, because it is oven-safe up to 500°F, transferred effortlessly to the oven to roast. When we deglazed the skillet to make a pan sauce, the fond released easily and the sauce reduced silkily and speedily. Best of all, cleanup was a breeze: a light wash with Bar Keepers Friend was all it took to get the skillet looking brand new.
As an added benefit, we also liked knowing that the All-Clad pan had been crafted with 100-percent American steel at the company's longstanding mill in Canonsburg, PA, outside Pittsburgh. Sure, $100 is pretty steep, but you really do get what you pay for—and each pan is protected by a limited lifetime warranty. Plus, when you consider that it comes with a matching lid, unlike most of the other pans we tried, it really is quite a decent value.
$100.00, Sur La Table
Two Affordable Alternatives: Tramontina Gourmet 12-Inch and Calphalon Classic 12-Inch
Though neither quite measures up to the All-Clad, if your aspirations in the kitchen are considerably larger than your budget, both Tramontina and Calphalon's 12-inch stainless steel skillets offer serious performance at relatively affordable prices. We were especially taken by their strong searing and even-heating capabilities during our flour and onions tests. While the Calphalon was large enough to handle four chicken thighs at once, the Tramontina was less impressive; though the outer diameter is 12 inches, the steep slope of its sides creates a smaller cooking surface on the interior. At 8.25 inches, the Tramontina had the smallest interior of all the pans we tested, which resulted in more inconsistent chicken browning. But if you don't regularly feed a family of four, that probably won't be an issue. The one con for the Calphalon was its weight; at six pounds, it was one of the heavier pans we tested, which made it difficult to maneuver with just one hand. However, it does include a lid in its sub-$80 price tag.
$60.00, Bed Bath & Beyond
How We Tested
Before we did any actual testing, we researched how stainless steel skillets are constructed. Lightweight skillets don't retain or distribute heat as well as their weightier counterparts, which can lead to uneven cooking and troublesome hotspots; meanwhile, pans that are too heavy won't be comfortable to maneuver, making them impractical for everyday use. Beyond the pan's weight and material (in this case, we're focusing on stainless steel for its versatility, durability, and ease of care), the other important factor to consider is whether it's "fully-clad" or "disc-bottom."
Disc-bottom pans have, as their name suggests, an aluminum-core disc welded to the bottom—a design that prevents heat from distributing evenly up the walls of the skillet (as such, these pans are usually cheap). Fully-clad pans, on the other hand, have both a cooking surface and walls made from full sheets of bonded, or clad, metal—usually a core of highly-conductive aluminum sandwiched between two or more sheets of non-reactive, gently-conductive stainless steel. The combination is durable and nimble one that experts widely agree is the gold standard for everyday, functional cookware.
With that in mind, we chose to primarily test fully-clad skillets, though we did include one disc-bottomed model for comparison's sake. To assemble our lineup, we sought recommendations from the Epicurious staff, surveyed hundreds of user reviews on Amazon, and consulted the results of past tests done by reliable industry sources like Cook's Illustrated, Serious Eats, the Wirecutter, and Good Housekeeping. When narrowing down our list of contenders, we decided to stick to skillets that were 10 inches or larger as they're the most practical when cooking for more than two people. With budget consumers in mind, we also tried to represent a range of price points.
After unboxing all the skillets, we eliminated two of the smaller models right out of the gate: the Brigade 9.5-Inch Skillet($70) and the Potluck 10-Inch Skillet ($160 for a 7-piece cookware set). The reason was simple: compared to their 12-inch counterparts, the cooking surface of these skillets was just skimpy. They may be fine for small tasks, but their size makes them an impractical choice for an all-purpose workhorse. (Neither Brigade or Potluck makes a larger stainless steel skillet; if they had, we would have happily given them a shot.)
The remaining six skillets were subjected to a series of five identical tests. First, to uncover any hotspots, we sprinkled the interior of each pan with flour, placed it over medium-high heat, and watched to see how evenly the flour browned. Then we sautéed an onion in each pan, checking to see how quickly and consistently it caramelized. Next, we pan-roasted four skin-on chicken thighs in each pan, watching to see how evenly the skin browned when seared on the stovetop and how the pan fared after we transferred it to the oven to roast. After removing the chicken, we used the fond to make a quick lemon, butter, and caper pan sauce, observing how well the skillets deglazed and the sauces reduced. Finally, we washed each pan, checking for any staining or wear and tear and noting how easy they were to clean up.
Factors We Evaluated
1. How does the frying pan combine form and function?
Before turning on the stove, we looked at each skillet's design and got a sense for how it felt in our hands. Was the silhouette attractive? Did the materials feel solid? Was the handle comfortable? Did the weight feel evenly balanced?
2. How versatile is it?
We looked for skillets that could fit enough food for a small family, conducted heat evenly, withstood high temperatures without staining, and transitioned easily from stove to oven.
3. Is it easy to clean and built to last?
A quality stainless steel skillet should last decades (in both function and appearance) so we paid attention to how easy the pans were to clean, and if they came with lifetime warranties.
Other Pans We Tested
Though intrigued by the promises of direct-to-consumer cookware lines like Brigade and Potluck, we eliminated each brand's 9.5-inch and 10-inch skillets early on because we found the small sizes less versatile—if you're going to invest in one stainless steel skillet, a 12-inch simply gives you more bang for your buck. (That said, if either brand begins making larger skillets, we would be eager to try them.) The Misen 12-Inch Skillet ($75) has a chic minimalist design and impressive, even heat control, but we didn't love the user experience: the extra-long handle felt like it was always in the way and the angle was a little awkward. Our favorite pan in the DTC category was the Made In 12-Inch Stainless Steel Frying Pan. It was pleasant to use and worked reliably, with good browning and only a few hotspots. However, at $85 with no lid included, it wasn't enough of a bargain to warrant a top spot.
The Anolon Tri-Ply Stainless Steel Fry Pan ($90) is a good-looking pan with decent performance, but it showed some unevenness during the flour test and ultimately didn't rise out of the middle of the pack.
Predictably, the only disc-bottomed skillet we tested, Cuisinart Chef's Classic 12-Inch Skillet ($31), trailed behind in nearly every test. The construction felt noticeably cheap, while the angle of the long handle was unwieldy. During tests, the cooking surface heated up fast and unpredictably, requiring constant babysitting. It comes with a nice see-through lid, but many reviewers on Amazon report incidents of the glass shattering.
There's a reason All-Clad has long been a favorite of professional cooks. Reliable, versatile, quick-heating, and meticulously crafted, the 12-inch stainless skillet is built to stand up to a lifetime in the kitchen. At $100, it's not cheap, but is an excellent value, especially considering it comes with a lid. That said, if you're new to cooking or just don't have the money to spare, the Tramontina Gourmet 12-inch skillet and Calphalon's Classic Stainless-Steel Skillet are serviceable budget alternatives that will get the job done and stand up well to moderate use.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious