Each week J. Kenji Lopez-Alt drops by with a tool you might want to stock your kitchen with. Kenji also writes The Food Lab column here on SE. You can follow him as The Food Lab on Facebook or on Twitter for play-by-plays on his future kitchen tests and recipe experiments. —The Mgmt.
A good skillet is the primary pan used in any Western-style kitchen. It's used for everything from sauteeing vegetables to searing meat and reducing sauces. Along with a good saucepot, an 8-inch skillet and a 12-inch skillet should be the first pans in your kitchen's arsenal.
Most professionals would agree that All-Clad skillets are the cream of the crop. Made with two layers of heavy gauge stainless steel sandwiched around a core of aluminum, they offer the rapid heat distribution capabilities of aluminum (which leads to more even cooking), along with the weight, heat retention, and non-reactive properties of stainless steel. They combine the best of both worlds to create the ultimate cooking surface.
The problem is, the things are expensive. Real expensive. The classic series run around $100 per pan. Figure you need at least 5 pots and pans, and you're looking at almost half a K just to get your kitchen on its feet. That's where Tramontina comes in. Although the pans are sold exclusively through Walmart, they've been championed by home users and professionals alike as offering performance just as good as All-Clad, at a fraction of the price (try $150 for a 5 pan set!). They feature the same triple ply construction, the same basic dimensions, and the same sturdy riveted handles (welded handles have a tendency to fall off with use).
So what's the deal? Do they really perform as well as people say they do?
Fortunately, I have both All-Clad and Tramontina 8-inch skillets at home, so I decided to put them through their paces in a series of side-by-side tests.
Neither gas nor electric burners give off heat evenly. Hot and cool spots are inevitable. It's the job of a good skillet to even these out as much as possible. It's the aluminum core in a clad pan that helps it do this. Heat travels very slowly through steel, but quite rapidly through aluminum. As soon as that core starts heating up, it quickly distributes the heat all around the base of the pan. At least, that's the idea.
In order to gauge their performance, I cut out circles of paper and weighted them down on the bottom of each pan, which I then placed over the same burner over medium heat until the paper started browning. The pattern of browning on the paper should be a good indication of the pattern of hot and cold spots in the pan.
As you can see, both pans do a relatively good job. The black leopard spotting is distributed over the whole piece of paper, but the All-Clad does it better. Rather than having very dark and very light spots, the darkest darks are still medium brown, while the lightest lights are at least pale yellow. On the Tramontina, the dark spots are much more distinct, and the light spots are nearly white.
While this won't outright ruin a dish, it means that you'll have to stir the contents of your Tramontina pan a little more frequently than in the All-Clad.
- All-Clad: Excellent heat distribution. Even browning with minimal stirring.
- Tramontina: Good heat distribution. Relatively even browning, but frequent stirring is required.
- Winner: The All-Clad is the clear winner here.
There's nothing worse than preheating a skillet on a burner until it's smoking hot, then adding a couple of pork chops, only to have them end up slowly bubbling and steaming in their own juices instead of acquiring that perfect crust you were after. Why does this happen? Low heat retention.
Let's say you've got your pan up to around 400°F—in the prim range for delivering maximum browning, which doesn't really begin to take place in earnest until food reaches around 300°F (149°C) or so. Now when you add cold food to this hot pan, the food saps energy from the pan. If your pan is thin, or made from a material with a really poor capacity for storing heat (known as a material's "mass-specific heat capacity," or "specific heat" for short), the temperature will rapidly drop to well below the ideal browning range. If, on the other hand, your pan is able to retain lots of energy (it has a high specific heat and a high mass), the temperature will remain high enough to sear.
Weight is generally a good indicator of how well a pan will retain heat, since for a given material, the amount of energy it can store is directly related to its mass. The Tramontina pan weighed in at 1 pound, 11 ounces, while the All-Clad was slightly lighter at 1 pound 9 ounces. However, some materials can hold more energy per unit mass than others. Depending on the relative ratios of aluminum and steel, their retention abilities could very. A little more testing was in order:
I placed both pans in a 350°F (177°C) oven for a full hour until they maintained a completely steady temperature of 335°F (168.3°C) as read by my laser thermometer. Traditionally, the next step would be to dump the pans into a well-insulated body of water and note the change in temperature of that water to gauge how much energy was stored in the metal. However, that would give me the capacity of the entire pan, and honestly, I don't care how well the handle or lips retain heat. I'm most interested in the cooking surfaces only.
Rather than dump the pans in water, I dumped water in the pans—1 pint of 60°F (15.6°C) water into each one—and waited for two minutes before measuring the change in temperature.
- All-Clad: 114.1°F (45.6°C) increase in two minutes. Weight: 1 pound, 9 ounces
- Tramontina: 115°F (46.1°C) increase in two minutes.
- Winner: Both pans are monsters in the field of searing, but Tramontina takes it (by a hair)
The speed at which a pan reacts to temperature changes is also important. For the most part, with sautee pans, you want this to be relatively slow. A pan that reacts too fast will lead to unevenly cooked food. Turn the knob a tiny bit to the right and before you know it, your onions are burnt. A pan that takes a long time to heat up may require a longer initial investment of time waiting until it's hot enough to sear your meat, but gentler heating and cooling cycles when adding ingredients or modifying the heat under the pan more than compensates for this initial investment in time.
Having cooked countless batches of onions, steaks, and other foods in both of these skillets, I've not noticed much difference in the way they react to heat. But in order to put a qualitative value on their speed, I needed a more precise measure: in the end I added 1 pint of water to each skillet at room temperature, placed them one at a time over the same burner at high heat for two minutes, then measured the change in temperature.
- All-Clad: 91.4°F (33°C) increase in two minutes.
- Tramontina: 101°F (38.3°C) increase in two minutes.
- Winner: All-Clad
There are other, less measurable characteristics that make for a good pan:
- Sturdy construction that won't warp or crack even under rapid temperature changes.
- Easy washability. Both the inside and outside surfaces should be easy to clean and robust enough to withstand a little elbow grease.
- Balance. The pan should feel nice in your hand, making it easy to shift on and off the heat and easy to shake and flip.
- Well-shaped sides that allow for flipping with minimal effort. This requires gentle curves and shallow sloping sides.
- Riveted handles that will stay attached to the pan for as long as you are (hopefully a lifetime).
- It must be able to make my dumplings nice and crispy*
*not to be confused with my Dumpling
Fortunately, both pans meet all five of these quality standards. I've used my All-Clad intensely for around 8 years, and my Tramontina set even more intensely for the last year. Neither show any signs of warping or damage.
So there you have it. While the Tramontina actually edges out the All-Clad as far as heat retention goes, the All-Clad is an all-around better performer. But is it worth paying three times as much for it? Not a chance. Only by using controlled quantitative tests could I find any difference at all in how the pans perform. Even then, the differences were minimal. If money is absolutely no object, go ahead and buy the All-Clad. For the rest of us, the Tramontina set should do just fine.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.