My Favorite Skillets

By December 14, 2018 Obsessions No Comments

I’m biased, but it seems like a copy of Searing Inspiration and a new skillet could be the perfect gift for cooks in your life. If you have questions about cookware, here is a list of skillets I own and use for seared and sauced dishes. 

Clockwise, starting from top left: All-Clad, Mauviel, Lodge Carbon Steel, Finex, Cuisinart, Lodge Cast Iron

(Links are included for convenience, not as retail endorsements or recommendations.)

A few key points:

  • Avoid non-stick pans.
  • Don’t expect a great skillet to be maintenance free.
  • If you are forced to choose, go with “proven and reliable” over “new and improved”.
  • Inexpensive ≠ Bad. Expensive ≠ Good.

12” All-Clad Stainless Steel (around $175)

It’s large, light, and responsive without feeling skittish. The design is gorgeous, with a pan handle that is both comfortable and a good angle for me. The interior has plenty of usable real estate so I don’t worry much about over crowding. Perhaps more than with any other pan, I’m keenly aware of the material quality and “cladding”- the layering and bonding of the metals through and through. The sides heat up as evenly as the base. When I nudge the knob for “stay” or “go”,  this pan is as perky and obedient as an airport beagle. The interior is bright, so I can watch the subtle color changes in fond and reductions. I treated it tenderly when it first arrived, but I’ll knock it about now and then polish it shiny with some Bar Keepers Friend. No doubt it will show more scuffs and wear eventually, but so will I.

12” Lodge Cast Iron (around$30)

In complete contrast to the All-Clad, the Lodge skillet is inexpensive, heavy, dark, and the handle is stumpy. I love this pan, but I’m hesitant to take the stance of an expert because folks who are into cast iron are INTO it. I’m setting myself up for a public scolding, for sure. (That may be the thing I like the least about cast iron – it comes with zealots and rabid fundamentalists proclaiming all things either right or wrong.)

I always thought of cast iron skillets as rust-prone, cowboy camping gear until Gwen, a dear friend and professional chef, taught me otherwise. She perpetually used her ancient, blackened, sticky-seeming family heirloom by choice, not necessity. And she broke the rules. She’d give it a good scrub, even though I always heard soap and water were taboo. She’d simmer stuff with tomatoes and use vinegar and lemon with confidence, while I fretted about potential toxicity, metallic tastes, and rust. I was finally sold when she shared some advice from her time in the South.  “If you can’t get to the dishes right away, leave the greasy skillet on the stove, not in the sink. It helps the seasoning.” (It does!)

My Lodge skillet is a workhorse and good, all-around tool. There is an explosiveness in the metal that more refined metals can’t duplicate. Foods get a dark, even sear, and slight crust if that’s what you like. Just don’t expect it to be spry. The heat retention makes it trickier to nudge up and down, so you need to be attentive with delicate aromatics like finely chopped shallots and garlic. The dark color and deep side walls make monitoring the colors more challenging.

The weight and handle shape require strong wrists and forearms, especially when it’s full of food. I relied heavily on the factory “seasoning”at first, but the surface has been infinitely improved with a little extra effort.
The patina gives back what you put into it. Every now and then I’ll give all my iron pans the spa treatment – a good salt scrub followed by oil rubdowns and oven time. 

11.8” Mauviel Copper and Stainless Steel (around $275)

This is my Ferrari. The lines and balance are not just pretty, they’re artful. If you don’t hang this pan in full view, you’re kinda missing the point. It’s so fancy I hesitate to use it for simple weeknight chicken dishes, which is stupid.  It’s bright, sears like a dream, and is super responsive. The edge isn’t rolled, so it can seem thin and sharp,but that shows off the conductivity and material quality. This is the pan I reach for when I’m searing sole or scallops because I know I can get the exteriors brown in a flash so there is less carryover cooking, then I can whip it off the burner and quickly drop the surface temperature low enough that the aromatics soften and melt rather than sizzle. Is it $100 + bucks better than my other pans? Sure, but a lot of that is involves aesthetics. Rare is the dinner guest who will scoff at pork chops cooked in a “lesser” pan.  

12” and 10” Lodge Carbon Steel (around $40)

I have a loving, lifetime relationship with my carbon steel wok. We “get” each other and my fondness for these pans may be reflective of that. Carbon steel has similar properties to cast iron, but it’s thinner, lighter in weight, and the flared sides help with visibility. They have the raw metal explosiveness and browning properties I like but they are nimbler and more responsive. Nothing about these pans is inherently better than the others, they just feel right to me. Carbon steel can be cranky. It isn’t as conductive as copper or aluminum or as strong as stainless steel, which means there can be “hot spots”. Foods will inevitably stick a bit at first and you may fight rust if you struggle with seasoning, but once the patina matures “black iron” becomes the ultimate non-stick surface. These were the pans we used exclusively for crispy crepes and tender omelets. Water was forbidden. Detergent? Mon Dieu, Non!

I reach for my carbon steel skillets when I want a crisp brown crust with a little extra finesse – think seared oysters, tofu, and juicy chicken thigh meat. The handles are not designed for comfort so buy a heatproof handle cover. 

NOTE: At the start of my formal testing, I enthusiastically ordered a 12” Du Buyer Carbon Steel Skillet. I was convinced that THIS was going to be THE tool. Nope. Maybe I’d love it more if I were over 6” and back on a restaurant hot line 50 hours a week. It’s heavy as hell, or at least it feels that way. (It actually weighs almost 2 pounds less than the Lodge and Finex.) I think the handle messes with the ergonomics. It’s long, flat, and sharply angled upward, which makes it unwieldy. There is no “helper handle” or tab on the other side. It makes me feel weak and clumsy, so it’s tucked out of reach for now. On a positive note, it made me more sympathetic to the struggles people have with heavy cookware.

12” Finex Cast Iron (about $175 without the lid)

This is my newest acquisition. As of this writing, I have used it exactly once, for thick Prime tenderloin steaks, and it performed beautifully. I bought it after a walk-through of the factory where I could see how they lathed the bottom smooth, polished the surfaces with ceramic pebbles, and then tumble each pans in organic birdseed and flax oil as a seasoning treatment. Yeah, I know. Very Portland. The result is a fine-pored, shiny cooking surface that is notably stick resistant straight from the box. The coiled handle is cooler and perhaps more comfortable than the stubby alternatives, but I’m not yet sold on the octagonal design, touted as a pouring enhancement.

I like this pan more than expected, but do I think it’s $130 better than my Lodge? Not yet. I need to swat away some of the in-your-face branding and give it a dozen test drives before I’ll commit. I’m eager to see how it matures. This skillet has heirloom potential.

10” Belgique Stainless Steel

I don’t actually know where this pan came from. I may have inherited it, which is a good sign of durability. It’s a solid little skillet, nothing too flash, and the size is right for a quick, 2-person meal. It has a disk base made primarily of aluminum. The heat distribution is even and has a certain gentleness. I use it most for golden-brown searing followed by controlled sautéing. There’s a whopping big dent in the sidewall, but it doesn’t interfere with cooking and it’s illustrative of how pans like these are made – the money goes in the base. I like it. I would miss it if it were gone.

On further investigation, I see that this pan is almost always sold as part of cookware set. That adds to the mystery. 

15” Cuisinart 5 ½ Quart Covered Sauté Pan (about $60)

This pan does everything I ask of it. It was very reasonably priced. The materials are good and it’s nice to look at. Would I buy it again? Maybe. It’s a cheap replacement for a pan of similar size and shape that I loved, loved, loved, then left unmonitored on a hot burner and warped the bottom beyond repair. I needed a quick fix and bought this at the supermarket. The circumference is larger than my biggest burner but the base conducts heat well enough that there aren’t obvious cold spots around the edge. It works great for things like whole, jointed chicken or my favorite Singapore Chili Crab, smothered and simmered in sauce. 

Other stuff:

I’ve owned a lot of skillets over the years; ScanPan, Analon, Calphalon, Le Crueset, T-Fal, GreenLife, and who knows how many generic restaurant sauté pans. I’ve cooked with far more, but the brands have slipped my mind which is telling. Most of these “other” pans have non-stick or stick-resistant surface treatments. Some are quite good, but seared and sauced dishes taste best when they are built on a foundation of sticky brown bits. After several years of testing recipes, the pans I listed above have risen like cream in terms of usability, performance, and durability. That said, there is always a chance that I’ll fall hard for something new tomorrow.