The Best Nonstick Pans Are the Cheap Ones

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I'm the last person to advise buying cheap stuff just for the sake of cheapness. I've invested in some fairly pricey kitchen equipment over the years, from high-quality enameled cast iron to top-notch Japanese knives; in almost every case, I've come to the conclusion that, while the initial purchase stings a bit, you usually make up for it when you're buying tools that can last a lifetime. Spread out over years of use, an item's high up-front cost can start to seem downright economical.

But not in the case of nonstick cookware. No, when it comes to nonstick, I say go cheap or go home.

First, a note about why and when you'd want to use nonstick in the first place. Truthfully, you don't ever have to use nonstick—you can rely solely on cast iron and carbon steel, both of which will develop a fairly decent nonstick surface given proper seasoning and care. But, no matter how well you maintain those old-school pans, they won't deliver the same degree of cling avoidance as a modern nonstick surface. (There's a reason why we compare slick politicians to Teflon and not cast iron.) In my own home, I keep just a couple of nonstick pans, which I use almost exclusively for cooking egg dishes like omelettes and scrambled eggs, though they're helpful for making thin pancakes like crepes as well.

Unfortunately, nonstick surfaces just aren't durable enough to last several years, let alone a lifetime. If you're determined to pay top dollar for nonstick, that leaves you with two equally unappealing options—spending a lot on replacing worn-out pans every few years, or continuing to cook with a degraded nonstick surface well beyond its useful lifespan. Not really much of a choice.

This nonstick pan has no visible signs of damage in its coating, but, as you can see from the torn and rough-looking underside of the omelette made in it, it's already past its prime and needs to be replaced.

The third option—buying it cheap—is therefore the best. In most cases, that means restaurant-grade aluminum pans, like this Farberware eight-inch skillet, which cost about $16 at the time I wrote this. That's the perfect size pan for a classic three-egg omelette. For most other tasks, like making frittatas and scrambling a bigger batch of eggs, a 10-inch skillet can serve you well.

Of course, while Farberware is a brand of skillet I've bought and used before, you don't have to choose that one. Any restaurant supply store and most well-stocked home-kitchenware stores should have similar options. Just keep a few things in mind:

  • Aluminum alone won't work on induction ranges, so if you have an induction stovetop, you may need to cough up more money for a skillet that's clad in stainless steel. (That, or rely exclusively on cast iron and/or carbon steel for all your nonstick cooking needs.) And while we haven't done any rigorous testing, Kenji recommends this fully clad stainless steel nonstick skillet for induction users.
  • Avoid any pans that are made from a very thin gauge of aluminum, since they can be prone to warping. A lot of pans don't advertise their gauge, so if you're buying in person, you may just have to judge thickness by eye.
  • Many pans come with the handle riveted onto the pan body. There's nothing wrong with that, but do note that those rivets can make cleaning a little less easy. They aren't a deal-breaker for me, but if you find a rivet-free nonstick pan, it'll be slightly less of a pain to wipe clean.

A nonstick pan in good condition will release eggs without any resistance, producing perfect French omelettes and other egg dishes with ease.

One final note: I know that I'm advocating a kind of pro-disposable mentality regarding nonstick cookware, which is not great for our landfills and the environment. Unfortunately, for nonstick, I don't really see an alternative. The coating will eventually fail, at which point replacement is the only course of action. If that reality just isn't an acceptable one, which it understandably may not be, then cast iron and carbon steel really are your only nonstick options. They won't provide a perfect nonstick surface like the modern ones many of us rely on for our egg cookery (and, hopefully, for not much else), but with proper care and treatment, they do come close. And they last more than one lifetime.