Inexpensive 12-Inch Stainless-Steel Skillets
How We Tested
In 1967, metallurgist John Ulam patented a game-changing discovery. The Pennsylvania native created an innovative method of heating and rolling sheets of steel and aluminum together to form a single strong sheet, with no adhesive. Ulam sold his “clad” metal technology to the aircraft industry and even to the United States Mint; look at the edges of quarters and dimes and you’ll see stripes of different-colored metals. By 1971, Ulam had turned his attention to cookware, founding All-Clad Metalcrafters in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.
Ulam’s process worked like a charm. The layered sheet, with aluminum sandwiched between steel, combines the best characteristics of each metal. Aluminum conducts heat quickly, making the pan responsive to temperature changes; steel conducts slowly and retains heat, so the pan cooks remarkably evenly across its surface. Aluminum reacts to acidic foods, but stainless steel doesn’t, so you can cook anything without fear of flavor transfer or damage to the pan. Aluminum is softer and more easily dented; stainless is harder, giving the pan a more durable structure.
In the test kitchen, a 12-inch stainless-steel skillet is the very definition of a kitchen workhorse, especially when we want deep, even browning and delicious pan sauces. With its all-metal construction, this pan goes from stovetop to oven effortlessly, so it’s perfect for cooking thicker cuts of meat and fish (which we often finish in the oven), baking skillet pies,and pan-roasting whole chickens. Our longtime favorite, the All-Clad d3 Stainless Steel 12" Fry Pan with Lid, sells for more than $100. Do you have to spend that much to get great performance and durability?
We bought eight 12-inch skillets, priced about $50.00 to $100.00, and tested them against our old favorite. All share its fully clad construction. We skipped “disk-bottom” pans, in which metal layers are found only in a disk attached to the bottom of a single-layer pan. In our previous tests, disk-bottom pans heated erratically and food scorched around the thinner pan sides. To test each pan, we seared four strip steaks and made pan sauce, and we browned a cut-up whole chicken on the stovetop, finished cooking it in the oven, and then built a pan sauce from the drippings. We pan-roasted asparagus and had test cooks sauté diced onions and green beans. We cleaned pans by hand and in the dishwasher. Along the way, we noted how easy they were to cook in, lift, pour from, and clean. Finally, we assessed their wear and tear and even knocked them around to simulate years of use.
Not All “Clad” Skillets Perform Alike
Even though all our pans look similar, our cooking results—and the amount of effort it took to achieve them—varied. No pan failed outright, but about half gave steaks a deep sear on the first side and then struggled to recover their heat, so the second side came out gray and steamed, with sparse fond that made paler, weaker pan sauce. Those pans also gave us more unevenly browned chicken and onions. Why? These pans had less space, so they trapped moisture, preventing browning. All the pans in our testing measured 12 to 12¾ inches from rim to rim, but when we factored in the angles of their walls, some had usable cooking surfaces of just over 8 inches in diameter, which was too small. This effect worsened if the sides were high, which trapped condensation. On the flip side, bigger pans had more space but often came with extra weight: A pan that’s nearly 4 pounds when empty is a bear to remove from a hot oven with a sizzling whole chicken inside. Our highly rated pans weighed about 3 pounds; still, none felt as light and balanced as the All-Clad at 2.8 pounds.
Another factor that mattered: Handles that were easy to grab securely (even with potholders), stayed cool on the stovetop, and didn’t splay our fingers or twist in our grip. We didn’t like helper handles, which are meant to assist with hoisting heavier pans. They added weight, threw the pans off balance, and were useless when we had to hold a pan one-handed while scooping food. They also heated up over adjacent burners and trapped grime.
Warping Plagues Inexpensive Pans
If your pan doesn’t sit perfectly flat on the burner, oil can pool and the pan can feel unsteady. This is slightly less of a problem if you cook with gas, but with induction or glass-top electric stoves, a warped pan’s lack of full contact can translate into uneven cooking. Before and after our cooking tests were complete, we used a carpenter’s level to check whether each skillet was flat. Shockingly, five of the eight less-than-$100.00 pans warped with routine use.
We went ahead with planned abuse tests to challenge the pans’ sturdiness and simulate years of use. Manufacturers warn that you should never heat a pan dry or run a hot pan under cold water, but who hasn’t done those things from time to time? The effect is thermal shock, which can warp metal and loosen rivets. We heated each pan to 500 degrees, plunged it into an ice bath, and then banged it with moderate force against the edge of a concrete block three times. All the pans dented, some more than others. Three of the pans emerged with wiggly handles. In the end we had just one pan priced at less than $100.00 with a strong handle, minor dents, and no warping. But it had other issues (more about that later).
To understand why our pans dented and warped, we consulted Mike Tarkanian, senior lecturer and metallurgy expert in the Materials Science and Engineering department at MIT, who explained that thicker pans would be less prone to warping and denting, and would tend to cook better, too: “A thinner pan would have less heat retention, because there’s less thermal mass, and it would probably run a little hotter, and have worse heat distribution.” Sure enough, when we measured the thickness of their cooking surfaces, all but one of the inexpensive skillets were thinner than our high-performing favorite from All-Clad, which is 3.0 mm thick. At 2.4 to 2.8 mm thick (plus one outlier at 3.2 mm that suffered from other design woes), these pans had less armor against damage.
Tarkanian also cut into the pans to reveal the layered construction. We noticed that a few of the lowest-ranked pans contained both thick and thin layers of steel, which could contribute to warping as different material thicknesses might expand and contract at different rates when heated or cooled. By contrast, the All-Clad pan appeared to have very uniform top and bottom layers of equally thin steel sandwiching a thicker layer of aluminum. “This is going to give you a much better thermal conductivity,” Tarkanian noted.
Two Choices for Inexpensive Pans
We were forced to admit that none of these pans truly matched the cooking, handling, or durability of our favorite high-end stainless-steel skillet. The best overall performance in the less-than-$100.00 pans came from the Made In 12" Fry Pan. We liked its balanced, maneuverable weight; sufficiently broad cooking surface; and low, flaring sides that helped it sear well. It aced our cooking tests and was a pleasure to handle. But even when new, this pan doesn’t sit flat: It bows slightly, though it flattens out to some extent when heated. By the end of testing, though, this pan became more warped. If you have a gas stovetop, where a very flat pan is less important, this is an acceptable choice, and it costs significantly less than the All-Clad pan, albeit with no lid. We recommend it with reservations.
However, if full contact with a flat stove is important, as it is to many home cooks, a better choice might be the Tramontina Gourmet Tri-Ply Clad 12-Inch Fry Pan with Helper Handle. It was the only inexpensive pan to match our high-end pan for sustaining abuse with the merest of dents and no warping. That durability comes with a compromise: Its cooking surface is cramped at just over 8 inches, leading to slightly uneven browning. (For comparison, the cooking surface of our favorite from All-Clad measures 9.5 inches.) It’s also heavier and harder to maneuver than the Made In skillet and, like that pan, does not come with a lid. For smaller households and those with flat-topped stoves, we also recommend this pan with reservations.
Bottom line: We can’t fully recommend any of the pans that cost less than $100.00. None of the truly cheap pans met our standards. A few of the pans closer to the $100.00 mark were OK, but none was as good as our longtime favorite, which also comes with a useful lid. If you can spend a bit more, we highly recommend the original fully clad skillet, which our tests proved is still the best: the All-Clad d3 Stainless Steel 12" Fry Pan with Lid. It’s an investment, but it will last a lifetime.
We purchased eight 12-inch skillets, priced from about $50.00 to $100.00, to compare to our high-end favorite, the All-Clad d3 Stainless Steel 12" Fry Pan with Lid. All models were fully clad pans made of bonded layers of steel and aluminum. We evaluated their cooking performance, ease of use, and cleanup, in addition to how well they stood up to routine use. We also conducted abuse testing to evaluate construction and long-term durability. All pans were purchased online, and prices listed are what we paid. The pans appear in order of preference.
Performance: We cooked steak and chicken and made pan sauces for each, cooking on the stovetop and in the oven.We also pan-roasted asparagus and green beans and sautéed diced onions. Pans that produced evenly browned food and good fond for flavorful pan sauces rated highest.
Ease of Use: We evaluated the weight, balance, and ease of handling of each pan, including the shape and comfort of the handle, whether the height and shape of the pan sides made it easy to sweep a spatula around its curves, and how comfortable the pan was to pour from and to hold aloft with one hand while scooping out hot food with the other. Pans rated highest if the handle was comfortable to grip firmly and didn’t feel insecure or slippery.
Cleanup/Durability: We scrubbed pans by hand after each test and ran them through the dishwasher, rating the pans on how easy they were to clean after cooking and docking points for handles, rivets, and helper handles that trapped grime. We evaluated the pans for warping and denting after normal cooking and after abuse testing.