Skillet pans 101: A quick guide to choosing and using the best skillet for your needs

If you’re looking to up your cooking game, investing in a good skillet is worth considering. Skillets are versatile kitchen tools that can be used for everything from searing meats to sautéing vegetables to making pancakes.

But choosing one to buy is a bit of a hassle.

With so many options on the market, it can be overwhelming to choose the right one for your needs. In this guide, we’ll break down everything you need to know about skillets, from the different types available to how to care for them properly. We’ll talk about what skillets are made of, explore the pros and cons of each material, speak about the size, and other important things to help you make an informed decision.

Where to start

The first thing to consider when choosing a skillet is the material it’s made from.

Cast iron skillets are popular for their durability and heat retention, while stainless steel skillets are known for their even heating and non-reactive properties.

Nonstick skillets are great for cooking delicate foods that tend to stick, but they require special care to maintain their nonstick surface.

In addition to material, size is another important factor to consider when choosing a skillet. Skillets come in a range of sizes, from small 6-inch pans to large 14-inch pans.

The size you choose will depend on your cooking needs and the size of your household. A larger skillet is great for cooking for a crowd or making one-pan meals, while a smaller skillet is perfect for cooking for one or two people.

Types of skillets by material

Skillets, also known as frying pans, come in various materials and coatings to suit different cooking needs. Here are the most common types.

Cast iron skillets

Cast iron skillets are known for their durability and versatility. They can be used on the stovetop or in the oven and are great for searing, frying, and baking. Cast iron also retains heat well, making it ideal for cooking dishes that require high temperatures.

However, cast iron skillets require seasoning before use to prevent rust and sticking. To season a cast iron skillet, coat it with a thin layer of oil and bake it in the oven for an hour.

Multiple cast iron skillets in different sizes
Source: @Jo Zimny Photos, Flickr

Stainless steel skillets

Stainless steel skillets are durable and easy to clean, making them a popular choice for home cooks. They are also non-reactive, which means they won’t interact with acidic foods like tomatoes and vinegar.

However, stainless steel skillets don’t conduct heat as well as other materials, so they may have hot spots and uneven cooking. To avoid this, look for stainless steel skillets with a copper or aluminum core, which will improve heat distribution.

Source: @Marco Verch, Flickr

Non-stick skillets

Non-stick skillets are coated with a layer of PTFE or Teflon, which prevents food from sticking to the surface. They are great for cooking delicate foods like eggs and fish, and they require little to no oil for cooking.

However, non-stick skillets are not as durable as other materials and can scratch easily. They also cannot be used at high temperatures and should not be put in the oven.

Other types of skillets

Other types of skillets include copper and aluminum skillets.

Copper skillets are excellent heat conductors, but they are also expensive and require regular polishing to maintain their shine.

Aluminum skillets are lightweight and affordable, but they can warp at high temperatures.

Each material has its own unique properties, such as heat retention, weight, and durability.  Each type of skillet has its advantages and disadvantages.

When choosing a skillet, consider the type of cooking you will be doing and the level of maintenance you are willing to undertake.

Here is the table with the brief summary of it (you can filter and search the table with the controls below).

Skillet characteristics by material

MaterialsHeat retentionWeightDurabilityMaintenanceOther features
Cast IronExcellentHeavyVery durableRequires seasoningOven safe
Stainless SteelFair to GoodMediumVery durableEasy to cleanOven safe
Carbon SteelGoodLightweightVery durableRequires seasoningOven safe
Non-StickFairLightweightDurableEasy to clean, no seasoning requiredAvoid high heat, may need replacement after some time
CopperExcellentMediumVery durableRequires polishingExcellent heat conductor
AluminumFairLightweightNot very durableEasy to cleanInexpensive
Anodized AluminumFair to GoodLightweightDurableEasy to cleanNon-reactive, scratch-resistant

Other than skillet pans, there are electric skillets – a type of appliance that plugs into a power outlet and heats up with electrical power. They don’t need a stove to work, and you can put them anywhere, even on the table, and have them cooking during the meal.

If you’d rather go for electric skillets, check out our Electric skillets: Quick buying guide.

What else to consider: heat distribution, size, handle design, and more

Lets take a look at each of those parameters.

Choosing the right size of skillet

Skillets come in a variety of sizes, ranging from small omelet pans to large 12-inch frying pans. When choosing the size of your skillet, consider how many people you are cooking for and what type of dishes you will be preparing.

A 10-inch skillet is ideal for cooking for one or two people, while a 12-inch skillet is better suited for larger families or cooking multiple dishes at once.

Handle design 

Look for a handle that is comfortable to grip and securely attached to the skillet.

A riveted handle is a good choice as it is more durable than a welded handle.

Additionally, consider the length of the handle, especially if you plan to use your skillet in the oven.

Heat distribution 

Look for a skillet that has minimal hot spots and even heat distribution.

Skillets with multiple layers of metal (such as tri-ply or alloy), or ones with thick walls (aka iron skillets), are great at providing that.

Compatibility with cooktops

Consider the type of cooktop you have when choosing a skillet. Gas ranges work well with most skillets, but induction cooktops require a magnetic skillet to work properly.

Additionally, make sure your skillet is the appropriate size for your cooktop.

Skillet - cooktop compatibility comparison

MaterialInductionGasElectric
Cast ironYesYesYes
Enameled cast ironYesYesYes
Stainless steelDepends on the compositionYesYes
AluminumNo, unless it has a magnetic layerYesYes
CopperNo, unless it has a magnetic layerYesYes
GlassNoSome brandsSome brands

Maintenance

Look for a skillet that is dishwasher safe if you prefer easy cleaning.

Avoid using harsh chemicals or detergents on your skillet – they can damage the surface. Instead, use paper towels or a soft cloth to clean your skillet.

Additionally, store your skillet properly to prevent warping and damage.

How to do maintenance and take care of your skillet

Proper cleaning, seasoning, and storing techniques will help maintain your skillet’s quality and prevent warping.

Here are some tips for that.

Cleaning tips

Clean it after each use to prevent food residue from building up and affecting the flavor of your next dish.

Here are some cleaning tips to keep in mind:

  • Clean your skillet while it’s still hot. This will help prevent food from sticking to the surface.
  • Use a soft sponge or brush to scrub the skillet. Avoid using abrasive materials that can scratch the surface.
  • Do not use soap when cleaning your skillet. Soap can strip the skillet’s seasoning and affect its non-stick properties.
  • Rinse the skillet with hot water and dry it thoroughly with a clean towel.

For particularly stuck-on foods, you can use a mixture of kosher salt and water to scrub the surface.

Seasoning cast iron skillets

New cast iron skillets need to be seasoned before they are ready to use.

Here is briefly how that process looks:

  • Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C).
  • Apply a thin layer of vegetable oil or melted shortening to the skillet’s surface. Make sure to coat the entire surface, including the handle.
  • Place the skillet upside down on the oven’s middle rack and bake it for one hour.
  • Turn off the oven and let the skillet cool inside.

Frank Proto on Epicurious runs a nice demonstration and an explanation on how this can be done:

You might need to repeat the seasoning every six months to keep it working.

Storing skillets

Protect the skillet from rust and warping:

  • Store your skillet in a dry place to prevent moisture from building up.
  • Place a paper towel or cloth inside the skillet to absorb any moisture.
  • Do not stack your skillets on top of each other. This can cause them to warp or scratch.

Common mistakes to avoid when taking care of a skillet

  • Do not put your skillet in the dishwasher. The high heat and harsh detergents can damage the skillet’s surface and seasoning.
  • Avoid cooking delicate foods, such as fish or eggs, in your skillet until it’s properly seasoned. Otherwise, the food may stick to the surface.
  • Do not use metal utensils on your skillet’s surface. This can scratch the surface and damage the seasoning.

Summary

If you are in the market for a new skillet, you’ll find a lot of types available – cast iron skillets, tri-ply pans, copper, non-stick frying pans, and more. Each type has its own unique benefits and drawbacks, so take your time and think about what would suit your cooking needs.

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