Inexpensive Skillets That Work as Well as Fancy Ones

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

After your knife and your cutting board, quality pots and pans are the most important tools in your kitchen, and a good set can run hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.

But it doesn't have to. These days, high-quality tri-ply pans can be had for a fraction of the cost of the fancy ones, often with performance and durability to match. I know: You see the word "inexpensive" and then wonder why the cheapest pan on my list is $40. The thing is, the jump in quality from the cheapest pans—the single-ply, stamped-metal, plastic-handled numbers—to the next tier up gives you far more bang for your buck than upgrading to the most expensive pans.

I tested a half dozen of the most popular inexpensive pan options on the market, and I'd be happy with a collection of any of these three.

The Winners, At a Glance

The Best Inexpensive Skillets

American Kitchen by Regal Ware Tramontina Cooks Standard
Price (at time of publication) $64.99, from Regal Ware $49.99, from Amazon $39.99, from Amazon
Responsiveness. (Note: Faster is not necessarily better. See testing notes below.) Fast Moderate Moderate
Searing Ability Moderate High High
Evenness of Heating High Very high High
Outer Rim Diameter 10.5 inches (26.7cm) 10.5 inches (26.7cm) 10 inches (25.4cm)
Cooking Surface Diameter 7 inches (17.8cm) 8 inches (20.3cm) 8 inches (20.3cm)
Country of Origin USA Brazil China
Weight 36.3 ounces (1.03kg) 37.7 ounces (1.07kg) 38.1 ounces (1.08kg)
Induction-Ready Yes Yes Yes
Warranty Yes, lifetime Yes, lifetime No

The Criteria

For this testing, I limited my selection to pans that were made of a combination of stainless steel and aluminum. Why? It has to do with the thermal properties of steel versus aluminum. Steel is dense, which means that, for a given volume, it can hang on to more thermal energy than aluminum can. On the other hand, aluminum is highly conductive, which means that it can transfer heat from one place to another very rapidly.

It helps to think of your pan as a bucket and water as energy. The bigger the bucket, the more energy you can store in it. Steel makes for a bigger bucket than aluminum. But all the energy in the world isn't important if you can't get it to the food quickly and efficiently, which is where the aluminum comes in. Aluminum is what allows the water in that bucket to slosh around and be poured out evenly and quickly. Because of this, pure aluminum pans show fewer hot and cool spots (i.e., the heat from the burners gets distributed evenly around the surface) and are more responsive (i.e., turning the heat up and down produces a corresponding change in the rate at which things are cooking) than pure steel pans.

Tri-ply pans try to split this difference by sandwiching a layer of aluminum in between two layers of steel. They heat evenly and store plenty of energy. Tri-ply pans are also more sturdily constructed than disk-bottom pans, which have aluminum disks attached only to their bottoms. These pans don't heat evenly up the sides, and tend to warp and fall apart more easily (I've seen the disks pop off of several), meaning a shorter lifespan. A good tri-ply skillet, meanwhile, is a lifetime investment.

Within this range, I also limited myself to pans that were induction-ready. That means that pans like the All-Clad Master Chef 2 series did not make the cut. (This line of pans has dual-ply construction with bare aluminum on the bottom; aluminum is nonmagnetic and does not work on induction ranges.) I also required all the pans I tested to be oven-safe, as many dishes call for starting in a skillet and moving to the oven.

Finally, I set a price cap at $65 for a 10-inch skillet.

The Testing

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For the sake of this testing, I tried only the 10-inch version of each of these pans, though all of them come in eight- and 12-inch versions as well. Ten inches is a very versatile size for a skillet. It's the ideal vessel for sautéing vegetables for a small family or searing a couple of large steaks, pork chops, or pieces of fish. Searing chicken to go into the pressure cooker or slow cooker? This is the pan for you. All-in-one meals for two to three people? This is your pan as well.*

* At home, I also frequently use an eight-inch skillet when preparing meals for one or two. I also regularly use a straight-sided sauté pan, like this one from Le Creuset, which I find to be much more versatile than a 12-inch slope-sided skillet.

To test responsiveness, I placed each pan over a burner and added a fixed quantity of water, then timed how long it took to come to a boil and how long it took to subsequently cool down. Note that responsiveness is pretty much directly correlated with the types of materials used and their relative quantities, and that more responsive is not necessarily better! For instance, a thin-gauge wok is incredibly responsive because there's so little material to heat up and cool down. This makes it great for stir-fries, but terrible for, say, searing a steak, for which you actually want a pan that is heavy and therefore not responsive.

I tested the pans' evenness by cooking crepes in them until they were well browned, noting the pattern of dark and light spots, and tested their ability to sear by placing steaks in them and cooking until they developed an even, brown crust.

For handle design, I noted how long it took for a pan handle to become uncomfortably hot and how comfortable it was to grip.

Finally, I spent a week cooking with each individual pan, taking notes on its general performance.

From these tests, three pans came out on top. Each is a worthy choice for stocking your kitchen, but minor details might sway you in one direction or the other.

American Kitchen 10-Inch Premium Stainless Steel Skillet by Regal Ware

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I hadn't heard of Regal Ware until a Kickstarter campaign offering American-made skillets at a reasonable price was brought to my attention. After some research, I found out that those skillets are actually available right now, direct from the manufacturer, Regal Ware, and for less than the price offered on Kickstarter. Good news for us! I placed an order and had the skillet in my hands within a week.

I'm a fan—particularly of the handle, which has a satin steel finish that feels nice in the hand and is shaped for easy shaking and tossing. It has a wide bottom surface for cooking and nicely sloped sides to make sautéing a snap. Of the pans I tested, it was among the most responsive, which is good for sautéing vegetables evenly, but not perfect for things requiring extremely high energy output, like searing a steak. This is the only pan I recommend that is manufactured in the United States, and it comes with a full lifetime warranty.

The pan is available directly from Regal Ware for $64.99.

Tramontina 10-Inch Tri-Ply Clad Fry Pan

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A Tramontina pan has been my go-to inexpensive skillet for years. I pitted it head to head with my All-Clad skillet several years ago, and it came out of the fight with only a couple bumps and bruises.

But the pans have changed over the years. The older model I have is styled more like an All-Clad, with a heavier build (it's about 3.5 ounces/100 grams heavier), a slimmer handle, and a wider cooking area. The newer ones have fatter, lighter handles and more gently sloped sides, which cut a few square inches off the effective cooking area in the bottom of the skillet. The good news is that, despite some design changes, the skillet is still a good performer. The loss in weight leads to a corresponding loss in its ability to sear effectively, but it's still on par with its present-day competitors.

The only downside of this pan is its somewhat small cooking area, but, at under $50 for a pan with a lifetime warranty, that's not a bad deal. Tramontina skillets are manufactured in Brazil.

Cooks Standard Multi-Ply Clad 10-Inch Fry Pan

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The least expensive option among the winning skillets is still a great performer, with cooking qualities on par with those of the other two pans. Its design has far deeper curves (see the bottom pan in the photo below), which can make tossing foods while sautéing a little more difficult, but it does mean that you get a nice, wide cooking surface to work with. Its outer diameter is a half inch smaller than the Tramontina skillet, but it boasts nearly a full 12 square inches more cooking surface, due to its sharply sloped sides. Its handle is the fattest of all the pans I tested, but had no problems staying cool during cooking. And it's $10 cheaper than the next cheapest skillet on my list.

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The one major downside? It does not come with a warranty, and, while I haven't had any issues with craftsmanship while using it, a warranty would give me better peace of mind.

Cooks Standard skillets are made in China.