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Equipment Review: Large Skillets

A 12-inch skillet is a chef’s must-have. Because it gets so much use, it’s important to have a high-performance model.

Fine Cooking Issue 90
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Many of our recipes call for a large skillet, preferably a 12-inch pan. We love its generous size for searing steaks, sautéing more than just a couple of boneless chicken breasts, making a quick weeknight stir-fry, or sear-roasting a pork tenderloin for company. It’s a pan that definitely gets a lot of use, and that’s why it’s good to own a high-performance model. After testing nine such pans, the good news is, we found a variety of excellent options. Each has its own appeal, so there’s a pan, we hope, for everyone.

Key pan features

As we cooked (see “How We Tested,” below), we discovered that these features were key:
Size of cook surface. Manufacturers measure skillets from rim to rim, but these pans have sloped sides, so the flat cooking surface can vary. One of the 12-inch pans we tested had such dramatically angled sides that the actual cook surface was just 8-3/4 inches—barely large enough to accommodate two boneless chicken breasts. We found the ideal cook surface to be 9-1/2 to 10 inches; anything bigger tends to heat unevenly.
Rolled rim. Whether we’re making a pan sauce or a stir-fry, we appreciate pans with a rim that lets you “pour” relatively cleanly.
Balance. A pan this large may be a bit cumbersome, but maneuvering it shouldn’t cause undue strain. A well-designed handle will make the pan feel balanced. And a helper handle (a small loop handle opposite the main handle) can make lifting a lot easier.
A stay-cool handle. Whether you’re lifting or tilting the pan, the handle should provide a comfortable, safe grip. And it can be neither of those if it’s too hot to handle. The handles on the pans we tested did get hot near the pan. We were OK with that, so long as the heat didn’t run more than a couple inches up the handle and there was enough room to get a comfortable grip.

Key capabilities

We found that the following capabilities made all the difference in a pan’s performance. While most of the nine pans in our review could do some of these things, our top choices could do them all well.
The best pans conduct heat evenly. With just about all of the pans, it took time for the heat to spread evenly over the pan’s cook surface. The first part of the pan to get hot was the area directly over the burner flame. But with the better pans, the heat then proceeded to spread evenly to the outer edges without overheating in the area that became hot first.
They also conduct heat at a steady rate. Plenty of pans heat up quickly but then become too hot and require you to lower the heat. The best pans in our tests responded well to heat, maintaining a steady surface temperature at high or low heats; this consistency gives you more control when cooking.
Our top choices recover quickly from heat loss. In our stir-frying test, we cooked ingredients in batches. The best pans stayed nice and hot, so that every time we added new raw ingredients, they cooked at the desired fast clip. In pans that needed time to rebound after the addition of ingredients, the stir-fry had a steamcooked quality.

Best Overall

CIA Masters Collection 12-inch fry pan
$200 at MetroKitchen.com
Cook surface: 10 inches
Weight: 4.4 pounds

Even at high heat, cooking with this pan always felt controlled. Onions developed a rich fond in the pan, chicken breasts browned beautifully, and the butter used to sauté the chicken never began to burn, resulting in a superb pan sauce (sauces made in half the tested pans were tainted with burned butter particles due to overheating). We appreciated the helper handle on this pan, because at more than 4 pounds, it’s a tad difficult to lift, and the tall arch on the long handle only compounds the issue for anyone who’s less than, say, 6 feet tall.
Construction notes: This 7-ply pan has four layers of aluminum and a copper core layer sandwiched between the pan’s stainless-steel interior and exterior layers. And it’s clad, meaning the inner heat-conducting metal layers extend across the bottom and all the way up the sides of the pan. It can be used on induction ranges.

Our Other Top Choices

Best Deal:
Cuisinart MultiClad Pro Stainless 12-inch skillet
$70 at CutleryAndMore.com
Cook surface: 10½ inches
Weight: 3.63 pounds

We liked how this more affordable pan’s short, subtly flared sides gave it an open, accessible feel and extra cook surface. Onions sautéed evenly, as did chicken, although the fond development wasn’t as rich as in some other pans. It stir-fried like a champ—at a fast but not unmanageable clip and without losing stride when a fresh batch of ingredients was added.
Construction notes: This pan has a thick aluminum core bonded to a stainless-steel interior and a brushed stainless exterior. The aluminum core runs across the pan’s bottom and up its sides.

Reliable
KitchenAid 12-inch clad skillet
$106 at Pans.com
Cook surface: 9 inches
Weight: 3.78 pounds

As in the CIA pan, sautéed onions caramelized evenly across the full cook surface of this pan. It ran a little hotter than the CIA and Cuisinart pans, but in a controlled fashion. (A slight heat adjustment easily resolves this, when needed.) This tendency to run hot worked great for stir-frying. Unfortunately, the handle gets hot in the 3 inches closest to the pan, leaving just 5½ inches relatively cool to touch.
Construction notes: This 5-ply pan has three heat-conducting metal layers (including an aluminum core that extends all the way up the pan’s sides) sandwiched between the pan’s stainless-steel interior and exterior layers.

The Classic
All-Clad stainless-steel 12-inch fry pan
$135 at CooksWares.com
Cook surface: 9½ inches
Weight: 3 pounds

Despite more and more commercial-style pans being introduced to the market, this pan continues to hold a place of esteem—and deservedly. Like the KitchenAid pan, it ran a little hotter than some of our other top picks (though not at the expense of heat evenness or manageability), and this was an advantage when it came to fast cooking. In the stir-fry test, it stayed good and hot, cooking the chicken and vegetables quickly (no steaming) and in a controlled fashion.
Construction notes: This 3-ply, clad pan has an aluminum core that runs across the surface and up the sides. It can be used on induction ranges.

How We Tested

We used the following criteria to select the skillets in our review. Each pan had to:

  • Be at least 12 inches in diameter but no more than 13 inches (rim edge to rim edge).
  • Have a rounded edge and sloped sides.
  • Have a stainless-steel exterior and interior.
  • Be oven safe to 500°F (for sear-roasting).
  • Be available through more than one retail source (i.e. not exclusive to any one vendor).
  • Cost no more than $200.

We used the following three tests to evaluate the pans:

  • Sautéed onions started cold in the pan. To evaluate rate of heat conduction and evenness of heat.
  • Sautéed chicken breasts followed by a quick, wine-based pan sauce. To evaluate evenness of heat, depth of browning and development of fond (caramelized drippings), rate of heat conduction, ease of pan maneuverability, and ability to pour liquids.
  • Stir-fried chicken and vegetables. To evaluate pan performance over high heat, ability to efficiently regain heat after the addition of ingredients, pan’s overall maneuverability, and ability of handles to stay cool.

Tests were conducted over a 10,200-Btu gas burner.

The other pans tested: Calphalon Contemporary stainless 12-inch omelet pan, Emeril stainless 12-inch fry pan, J.A. Henckels International Classic clad 12-inch fry pan, Viking Professional Cookware 13-inch fry pan, and World Cuisine 12½-inch stainless “Executive” fry pan.

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