Inexpensive 12-Inch Skillets

From Cook's Country | December/January 2013

Overview:

Update: March 2014

Recently, our favorite inexpensive 12-inch skillet from Tramontina changed. Although the updated Tramontina 12-Inch Tri-Ply Clad Open Frying Pan sports a comfortable new handle, its 8-inch cooking surface (the flat bottom of the pan that you actually cook on) is 1 inches narrower than that of the old pan. It couldn’t hold eight pieces of chicken, and two 12-ounce steaks were a tight squeeze. Its new brushed-finish interior was also hard to clean. Luckily, our second-ranked inexpensive skillet can step up: The shorter handle on the Emeril Pro-Clad Stainless Steel Tri-Ply 12-Inch Fry Pan brought our hands a little close to the heat, but the roomy pan uniformly browned and sautéed foods and produced a quick, dark sear on steaks and chicken (it’s also induction-compatible). For cooks looking for a cheaper pan, the Emeril Pro-Clad is a solid choice.
_________________________________________________________

A 12-inch skillet is a kitchen workhorse, and a well-made one should last a lifetime. Still, our longtime… read more

Update: March 2014

Recently, our favorite inexpensive 12-inch skillet from Tramontina changed. Although the updated Tramontina 12-Inch Tri-Ply Clad Open Frying Pan sports a comfortable new handle, its 8-inch cooking surface (the flat bottom of the pan that you actually cook on) is 1½ inches narrower than that of the old pan. It couldn’t hold eight pieces of chicken, and two 12-ounce steaks were a tight squeeze. Its new brushed-finish interior was also hard to clean. Luckily, our second-ranked inexpensive skillet can step up: The shorter handle on the Emeril Pro-Clad Stainless Steel Tri-Ply 12-Inch Fry Pan brought our hands a little close to the heat, but the roomy pan uniformly browned and sautéed foods and produced a quick, dark sear on steaks and chicken (it’s also induction-compatible). For cooks looking for a cheaper pan, the Emeril Pro-Clad is a solid choice.
_________________________________________________________

A 12-inch skillet is a kitchen workhorse, and a well-made one should last a lifetime. Still, our longtime favorite sells for $155, leading us to wonder if we really need to spend so much to guarantee great performance and durability.

We bought seven 12-inch skillets, all for less than $100 and none nonstick. Six share our favorite pan’s fully clad, tri-ply construction, meaning three layers, with stainless steel sandwiching aluminum. Fully clad pans usually transmit heat more gently and evenly across the cooking surface because the aluminum core conducts heat quickly while the slower stainless steel layers hold heat and reduce temperature fluctuation. The only pan in our lineup not constructed this way had a disk bottom: The three layers of metal are confined to the base of the pan, where a stainless steel–covered disk of metal is attached to the stainless steel skillet. We haven’t liked disk-bottom skillets in the past, but this pan has a copper core, the best heat conductor in cookware, so it sounded promising.

We seared steaks, made pan sauces, pan-roasted chicken parts, and sautéed onions, tracking the pans’ heating patterns with an infrared camera. All completed each task without catastrophe, but some made us work harder for good results. A few gave steaks a nice sear and cooked them to a perfect medium, while others ran hot, threatening to burn the meat’s exterior before the interior was done. As we pan-fried chicken pieces, we encountered hot spots, so some pieces were pale yellow and others dark brown. We got similar uneven results when we browned onions. These pans required adjusting the heat more often or extra stirring. As for the disk-bottom pan, cooking was mostly even, but oil scorched around the perimeter, where the disk doesn’t protect it.

Weeks of cooking and moving multiple skillets of hot chicken from burner to oven made us appreciate pans that were lighter, thus easier to handle. The weight range was 2.75 pounds to 4.15 pounds. We need both hands to move the heavier pans, making us grateful for helper handles. Pans with short handles (less than 8 inches) had less leverage, which made lifting hefty full skillets awkward. And while larger pans offered more space to maneuver pieces of food, the extra space often came with extra weight.

After putting the skillets through their paces on the stovetop, we tested their sturdiness. While manufacturers recommend that you never heat a pan dry or plunge a hot pan into cold water, what panicked cook has never stuck a smoking pan in a sink to avoid a fire? This “thermal shock” can warp metal and weaken the rivets and disk-bottom bond, problems that are exacerbated with impact. To see if thermal shock or impact would hurt our skillets, we heated each one to 550 degrees and then plunged each into an ice bath; we then banged it with moderate force against the sidewalk three times. While no disk or rivets came loose, some of the pans got dinged up, and thermal shock caused one to warp. The top performers came out virtually unscathed.

In the end, none of these pans matched the performance of our favorite traditional skillet, but one came remarkably close. Our Best Buy provided steady, controlled heat (it browned steak slightly unevenly) and survived our abuse testing. Because it weighs over a pound more than our favorite traditional skillet, it’s somewhat harder to maneuver. Still, its performance, design, sturdy construction, and price make it an excellent choice. It’s our new Best Buy.

less
  • Product Tested

    Results Key:

    Good ★ ★ ★ Fair ★ ★ Poor
  • Prices are subject to change.
  • Recommended - Winner

    Emeril Pro-Clad Stainless Steel Tri-Ply 12-Inch Fry Pan

    This pan (by All-Clad, maker of our favorite high-end traditional skillet) heated quickly but evenly, turning out uniformly browned crêpes and sautéed onions. Though the pan-seared steaks were browned a few seconds sooner than expected, the fond this skillet produced made a nice pan sauce. Though it felt well balanced, the short handle brought our hands a bit too close to the pan’s heat.

    • Cooking ★★½
    • Handling ★★
    • Durability ★★

    $34.99

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Recommended

    Cuisinart 12-Inch MultiClad Pro Skillet

    Fitting eight pieces of chicken in this spacious skillet was no problem, and the helper handle eased moving this somewhat hefty pan in and out of the oven. Inconsistent heating was a minor problem: The onions cooked slowly and evenly at the start, but later on hot spots appeared. Still, overall, the pan performed adequately in all of our tests.

    • Cooking ★★½
    • Handling ★★
    • Durability ★★

    $69.95

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Recommended with Reservations

    Cool Kitchen Integral 3 by Josef Strauss

    At more than 4 pounds, this was the heaviest skillet we tested. Its helper handle made it easier—but still not easy—to maneuver. It heated a little slower than other skillets we tested and slightly unevenly. The pan sailed through the durability tests unscathed.

    • Cooking ★★
    • Handling
    • Durability ★★★

    $99.00

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Calphalon Tri-Ply Stainless Steel 12-Inch Omelette Pan

    This pan was acceptable in every test but never impressive. It heats a little fast, requiring extra vigilance to avoid overbrowning or burning. In the durability testing it got a little dinged up. (Although the manufacturer labels it an “omelette pan,” it’s meant to be used as an ordinary skillet, not merely for omelets.)

    • Cooking ★★
    • Handling ★★
    • Durability ★★

    $94.95

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Cuisinart 12-Inch French Skillet with Helper Handle

    Although this was one of the heavier pans in our lineup, it was nicely balanced, with a long handle, and it felt good to cook with. The generous cooking surface seared steaks well, producing flavorful fond and thick sauce. Unfortunately, in the onion and chicken tests it heated unevenly. Worse, it warped after the thermal shock.

    • Cooking ★★
    • Handling ★★
    • Durability

    $89.95

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Tramontina 12-Inch Tri-Ply Clad Open Fry Pan

    This updated 12-inch skillet from Tramontina has almost a wok-like bowl shape, and while the pan worked well for making crêpes, letting testers swirl the batter to an even thickness easily, its narrower 8-inch cooking surface was too small. It didn’t accommodate all eight pieces of a 3½-pound chicken and was a tight squeeze for two 12-ounce steaks. The brushed finish of the interior, another modification to the pan, was hard to clean after we seared steaks.

    • Cooking ★½
    • Handling ★½
    • Durability ★★

    $49.97

  • Not Recommended

    T-Fal Ultimate Stainless Steel Copper Skillet

    We hoped the copper disk would make this pan a star performer. Oh well. While it heated slowly and for the most part evenly, there were hot spots where the disk ended. Also, grease that splashed onto the thin, stainless steel sides scorched on in an instant. The short handle flexed and was too hot to hold.

    • Cooking
    • Handling
    • Durability

    $36.52

In My Favorites
Please Wait…
Remove Favorite
Add to custom collection