We love stainless-steel skillets. They’re our top choice for achieving golden, uniform browning and developing fond, the secret weapon of chefs. Those browned bits of stuck food are the source of deeply flavorful dishes and pan sauces—but only if you have a high-quality skillet; bad pans leave fond that’s skimpy or scorched.
Our longtime winner is the All-Clad d3 Stainless Steel 12" Fry Pan with Lid ($119.95), which has a layer of aluminum sandwiched by stainless steel, bonded together using a process patented in 1967 by All-Clad founder John Ulam. That means you get aluminum’s speedy heat conduction and steel’s heat retention in one pan. Recently we’ve seen many more clad pans on the market, boasting more metal layers as well as other special features. We wondered if our former favorite was still the best choice.
We bought seven fully clad pans, priced from $100.00 to $400.00. Based on previous testings, we skipped pans on which only the base is clad (sometimes called an “encapsulated” base; see “Don’t Be Fooled by a Disk-Bottom Pan”). We put the pans through a gauntlet of tests: sautéing onions, searing strip steaks and making pan sauce, pan-roasting green beans and asparagus, and cooking a cut-up chicken that started on the stove and finished in the oven and then building a pan sauce from the drippings. We scrubbed the pans by hand and ran them through the dishwasher. We also checked for warping and knocked them around to simulate years of use. (These pans can be a great investment, but only if they last.)
The good news? We cooked successfully in most pans in this lineup. By contrast, we had less success when we tested clad pans that cost less than $100.00. It seems that in this product category, shelling out a little more money pays off. Unlike their cheaper counterparts, all these more expensive skillets had broad cooking surfaces, ranging from 9¼ to 10½ inches across. Whether we were cooking four strip steaks or 2 pounds of asparagus, food fit well without crowding, so it browned more evenly and deeply.
However, we saw major differences in how easy the pans were to use. While we enjoyed their large cooking surfaces, the biggest skillets were also heavy, weighing up to 4.25 pounds when empty. Lifting these was no fun, especially when they were hot from the oven, full of sizzling chicken. Each of these skillets had a “helper handle” set opposite the main handle and intended to mitigate the weight; however, these handles threw the pans off-balance. Our preferred pan was more maneuverable at 2.8 pounds and remained light and well-balanced whether empty or full.
Handle shape and size also contributed to our sense of control. Handles that were too narrow or thick strained our hands, and those that were smooth and round often slipped and rotated in our grip when they were splattered with grease and the pans were full. The best handles had angled shapes of moderate breadth that let us lock in a secure grip.
In a word: No. During our tests, five layers cooked about the same as three, so why pay nearly $100.00 more for more layers? Plus, the special high-tech features on these pans were mostly a bust. Do you need nanobonded titanium on the surface of your stainless-steel frying pan, as on the handsome gunmetal-gray Hestan skillet? We didn’t see any functional benefit; in fact, the darker color made it harder to monitor the browning of fond.
If we pay a lot for a pan, we expect great durability. So at the end of our cooking tests, we checked to see if any of the pans had warped or were otherwise damaged. We checked again after thermally shocking the pans (heating them to 500 degrees and plunging them into ice water) and then striking them three times on a concrete block. In our testing of skillets priced less than $100.00, nearly all the pans warped and three of the eight pans came out with wiggly handles. Astonishingly, in this lineup, only one pan showed very slight warping after this substantial abuse and none of the handles loosened. We could see dents where we’d struck them, ranging from very noticeable to barely there. Our old winner from All-Clad held up with no warping, an intact handle, and almost undetectable dents.
To understand why these pans were more durable, we consulted Michael J. Tarkanian, senior lecturer and metallurgy expert in the Materials Science and Engineering department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who explained that thicker pans would be less prone to warping and denting—and would tend to cook better: “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 bases, all these pans were 3 to 3.3 millimeters thick except for the lone pan that had warped, which was significantly thinner at 2.5 millimeters. (Like that pan, all but one of the inexpensive skillets we’d tested had measured less than 3 millimeters thick.)
In the end, none of the pricier pans surpassed the performance, ease of use, and durability of our former winner, the All-Clad d3 Stainless Steel 12" Fry Pan with Lid. And at $119.95, it’s one of the least expensive pans in our lineup. We know we’ll be cooking in this pan for years to come. ■