Ahh, the frying pan. Cradle of eggs. Icon of cookware. Cartoon weapon. Point of departure into the fire. Honestly, what isn't a skillet good for?
Well, quite a bit, actually—it's no good for making stocks, stews, braises, or casseroles, to name a few cooking tasks. Still, no kitchen cookware collection is complete without at least one good skillet, either in a 10- or 12-inch size, depending on your family size, or, better yet, both.
A skillet is an essential tool for sautéing—its curved sides and relatively light weight make it easy to stir and toss ingredients for rapid, even cooking—and it does a bang-up job roasting smaller portions of vegetables, fish, and meat—like steaks, chops, chicken breasts, and more. In a larger 12-inch skillet, you can even roast a whole bird.
But I'm being vague here, so allow me to clarify. I'm not talking about cast-iron skillets or carbon-steel ones, and I'm not including nonstick options nor the inexpensive aluminum dealios you're more likely to find in a restaurant supply store. For this equipment review, I'm looking specifically at stainless-steel skillets, those nearly indestructible mainstays that, thanks to their nonreactive stainless exteriors, are perfectly suited for building pan sauces, no matter the acidity of the ingredient—not something one can say for reactive cast iron, carbon steel, and aluminum.
If you're in the market for a new stainless-steel skillet, the question is, which should you get? I tested 25 fully clad stainless-steel skillets to find our favorites. Here are the results.
The Best Stainless-Steel Skillet: Made-In 10- and 12-Inch Skillets
Made-In's skillet heated evenly and showed itself to be responsive to changes in heat. It seared chicken breasts beautifully and was easy and comfortable to hold and toss during sautéing tests. It's a solid, no-nonsense skillet at a reasonable price. Choose a 10-inch skillet if you're often cooking for two or three, and the 12-inch if you're serving upward of four or five (it's honestly useful to have both).
Also Recommended: Both All-Clad's D3 skillets and the ones from Le Creuset performed as well as Made-In's. They just barely got edged out from the top spot based on their higher price tags but not by much. Keep an eye on sales, and get one of these instead if their price drops to that of Made-In's skillets.
The Best Affordable Stainless-Steel Skillet: Tramontina Tri-Ply 10- and 12-Inch Skillets
The Tramontina's sides slope up a little too leisurely, reducing the usable floor for searing, but the overall performance was still strong. The price tends to fluctuate a bit, but it generally hovers about $30 less than our top pick, making it a strong contender if saving a few Benjamins is a priority.
The Criteria: What We Look for in a Great Stainless-Steel Skillet
Peruse your local cookware store or search options online, and you'll notice a staggering range of prices and specs. There are stainless-steel skillets going for as low as $30 and as high as $300. There are the tri-ply pans with a single layer of aluminum or copper sandwiched between outer layers of stainless steel; there are five-ply pans with a couple of additional layers of metal packed in for a steeper price tag and some purported benefit of more even heating and heat retention; there are even seven-ply pans, that, like a box of Lucky Charms, boast a rainbow's worth of metallic shades.
Some skillets come with a second "helper" handle on the far side to assist in lifting when it's loaded with heavy food. Others offer a lid. Most skillets can be used on induction cooktops but not all.
There are a lot of skillets on the market to choose from. And it doesn't help that it's maddeningly difficult to even get a group of professional cooks to agree on what makes for a good skillet. Preferences for handle design, weight distribution, curvature of the sides vary from person to person.
And what matters most for cooking performance? Is it evenness of heating? Sure, that's important—hot spots don't do anyone any favors—but minor differences aren't necessarily deal-breakers. After all, we love searing meat in a cast-iron skillet, and its absolutely atrocious at conducting heat (the solution is to preheat sufficiently, which can reduce some of the unevenness, and rotate foods if you do notice uneven browning).
Is it how responsive the pan is, such that any increase or decrease in the heat source can be felt rapidly in the cooking activity in the pan itself? Once again, it's important...to a point. You certainly want a stainless-steel skillet that's responsive enough that you can sauté in it with some agility—after all, that's what sautéing is all about. But you also want it to retain heat well enough that it can effectively sear a piece of meat.
In a way, the ideal stainless-steel skillet should split the difference between a highly responsive wok (excellent for sautéing and stir-frying small amounts of food, awful for searing large cuts of meat) and the heat retention of a cast-iron skillet (great for searing those steaks, pretty crappy and cumbersome for cooking a stir-fry). We want a pan that's solid at performing a variety of cooking tasks, across the board.
Beyond that, we want a skillet that feels comfortable to hold for most people (since consensus doesn't seem to exist, at least not in our surveys of users), one that does well in all our tests, and that has no obvious cosmetic or design flaws. Beyond that, price becomes an important factor—if little else helps to differentiate clear winners from the pack, cost sure can.
The first order of business was selecting the skillets to test. I looked at the top sellers on sites like Amazon, brands that were included in the reviews of competitors, and—particularly important in the age of Kickstarter—any new brands that had made a name for themselves in the space.
I decided to limit the test only to skillets that were fully clad, meaning the internal conductive core of aluminum or copper stretched up the sloping sides to the rim of the pan, as opposed to less expensive skillets that merely have a conductive disc on the bottom cooking surface of the pan (such pans are more prone to scorching on the thin-walled sides). I also made sure all the skillets were oven-safe, which I think is a critical feature in a piece of cookware that ideally can go from the stovetop to the oven without issue.
Because most companies make stainless-steel skillets in a range of sizes, I opted to test 12-inch skillets or the closest possible size offered by any company that didn't have a 12-inch option. I would just as heartily recommend a 10-inch skillet for most homes, but I figured if there were any conduction or balance issues, they would be more obvious on a larger pan, which would make it easier for me to rank them (it's fairly safe to assume that if a 12-inch pan conducts heat well, its 10-inch sibling from the same brand will also conduct heat well and possibly better; conversely, if a larger pan has trouble conducting heat evenly, that problem might exist, albeit to a less obvious extent, on its smaller-sized alternative).
To put our pack of skillets through their paces, I tested their evenness of heating and responsiveness. I did tossing tests to determine which skillets made sautéing foods easier or harder and had several of my colleagues of varied body types and levels of cooking experience repeat those tests to account for personal differences. I also roasted chicken in each skillet, then sautéed vegetables, and finally deglazed the pan as one would to make a pan sauce, just to run them through a more real-world cooking exercise.
First order of business: Finding out if there was a huge range in responsiveness among the pans. Responsiveness, to be clear, is related to, but not the same as, conductivity. Steel, for example, is a poorly conductive metal. But if you make a wok out of a very thin layer of steel, it'll be responsive even if it doesn't truly conduct heat well—that thin wall of metal will heat up or cool down quickly, simply because it's thin.
We want skillets that are decently responsive for rapid-fire cooking processes like sautéing or pan-sauce making—it's no fun having a sauce break because the pan doesn't cool down fast enough once off the fire—but are still able to retain enough heat that they can be used to sear a steak effectively.
To test this I filled each skillet with one cup of room-temperature water, set it over a consistent heat source, then timed how long it took to bring that water to a boil. I then moved each skillet off the heat and timed how long it took the water in each skillet to cool back down to room temperature.
By and large, the differences seemed small. Almost all of the skillets brought water to a boil within a 30-second window of each other, except for one outlier, the Breville, which took a full minute longer than the next-slowest pan. Cool-down times were also mostly bunched up within a minute or so of each other, once again except for the Breville.
At the time of the test, I wasn't sure what to conclude. A 30-second window in boil-time differences didn't seem terribly significant in terms of real-world cooking, but if it were, where within that range would you want a skillet to be?
By the end of my testing, I had something of an answer—all the winning skillets fell within a 15-second fast-to-moderate window, though I'm still not sure if that's because of their responsiveness itself or because those skillets tended to be lighter, which meant they scored well in the user-experience testing (few people like lifting and tossing a noticeably heavier skillet).
Responsiveness is one characteristic that relates to how well the pan conducts heat; evenness of heating is another. A pan that conducts heat well should minimize hot and cool spots from a concentrated heat source, allowing food in the pan to cook more evenly. This doesn't necessarily matter much for sautéing, where the food is jumping around in the pan enough to guarantee that none of it lingers in a too-hot or too-cold zone for long. But for getting an even sear on a piece of meat, it can make a difference.
To test this, I whipped up a big batch of basic crêpe batter, then made a crêpe in each skillet. Now, I wouldn't normally cook a sticking-prone food like crêpes in a stainless-steel skillet; I'd sooner reach for a well-seasoned carbon steel or nonstick pan for that. But to create a map of heating evenness, the crépe worked. In some cases, the crêpes did stick and tear slightly when I flipped them, but I was able to get a useable heat map from each one.
Once again, differences were minor. All the pans heated relatively evenly, with consistent browning in the crêpes throughout. This wasn't going to be the test to separate out the winners.
My early tests gave me data, but they didn't give me clarity. I was still staring at 25 skillets and not much of a sense of just how much better one was from another. It was time to put them into the hands of many people to find out if there were strong preferences around weight, handle comfort, and tossing ease.
My crew for this test consisted of myself, a trained cook with strength to rival Goliath's and a height one could only describe as, "Wow, so tall"*; Sasha, another trained cook a wee bit—but only a wee bit—taller than me; and a handful of non-pro-cook coworkers spanning heights from do-you-need-a-stool to hellooooooo-up-there, and strengths from can-I-help-you-with-that to can-you-help-me-with-that. All in all, a nice little cross-section of body types and cooking abilities.
*Alternatively, one who isn't me might say I'm merely somewhat above-average in strength and height, but what would that person know?
Here, opinions were strong and...largely inconsistent. Some pans were unanimously denounced as too heavy, others as having unbearably uncomfortable handles. But many more elicited a wider set of reactions. Those with smaller hands tended to find wider, fatter handles too big to hold securely; those with larger hands found those very same handles comfortable. Some people liked the ridges built into some of the handles, others said those ridges pressed uncomfortably into the palm.
Shorter people tended not to like handles that arced up gracefully from the pan—those handles were too high to pick up comfortably. Tall folks often liked those arching handles. Opinions diverged on how easy or hard it was to toss food in the various skillets as well.
Interestingly, the perception of how heavy a skillet was didn't fully align with its actual weight. While the heaviest and lightest pans were recognized as such, there were several instances in which users complained of a pan being heavy despite its relatively light mass. This has to do with the pan's build and the user's body: Depending on handle length and shape, and the height and strength of the cook (as well as where along the length of the handle the cook decides to grasp), two pans of the same mass can seem heavier or lighter.
Where did this test leave us? Well, it helped eliminate outliers—pans that elicited more negative reaction than positive or that were roundly rejected as being too heavy for most mere mortals to sauté with. More importantly, it helped single out the skillets that were most widely liked.
Real-World Cooking Tests
With three sets of testing down and several skillets eliminated, but still too many left in the running to list as winners, it was time to do a bit more real cooking in the skillets. I decided to pan-roast skin-on, boneless chicken breasts; once done, I removed them from the skillet and sautéed snow peas and mushrooms, stirring and tossing all the while; as soon as those were done, I deglazed the pan with water (hey, I'm not trying to pour money down the drain here) and reduced it, as if to make a quick pan sauce.
This test mostly confirmed what I'd already seen in the other tests: Performance-wise, these pans had a lot more in common than not. They all seared the chicken well (within very similar amounts of time as well); they all sautéed the vegetables well; and they all deglazed and reduced the liquid as one would expect. This tracks similarly to my cast iron pan testing, suggesting that cookware may be one area where, assuming build specs are roughly similar, performance is pretty similar as well—basically, there's only so much difference that can exist between two metal cooking vessels of similar shape, design, composition, and size.
How We Chose Our Winners
In the end, the winners of this test distinguished themselves not by being obviously superior to the other contenders but by not being outliers in performance, ease of use, weight, or comfort. We didn't find any clear advantage to a five-ply or seven-ply construction compared to the more common tri-ply composition. Beyond that, our picks are based on price: Between a final set of overall winning skillets, we're recommending the ones that edged out their competitors in cost. Prices change, of course, so it's worth keeping an eye on that.
And if you have the opportunity, try to get your hands on the skillets you're considering buying: Your preference for handle design and skillet weight may not track perfectly with the opinions of others. It's not as important as holding a knife before buying it, but it might help you decide.
The Best Stainless-Steel Skillet: Made-In 10- and 12-Inch Skillets
Made-In's skillet performed well in all our tests. It conducted heat well, producing an evenly browned crêpe; it heated and cooled down water in similar time to the other skillets; and it aced its real-world cooking test.
Its handle was generally rated comfortable to hold. A couple people found its rounded handle hard to grip, but more gave it positive ergonomic reviews on that front. Overall, its construction and design are simple and utilitarian but solid.
It doesn't come with a lid, but we rarely find ourselves reaching for one when using a skillet anyway, so we didn't consider that of high importance. (Made-In sells a universal lid. Though if you have a collection of lids already, you're likely to have one in your cabinet that will fit well enough in a pinch.)
The Made-In pan is induction-compatible, though America's Test Kitchen did report (paywall) some warping over time that made contact with an induction cooktop problematic. If you have induction, that's worth keeping in mind and, perhaps, makes it worth considering one of our alternate picks.
Speaking of those other picks, the All-Clad D3 and Le Creuset stainless-steel skillets both performed just as well as Made-In's. Their prices bounce around a bit more, but they're offered at a reduced cost often enough to sometimes put them in the ballpark of Made-In. We've logged a lot more hours over the years cooking in the All-Clad and Le Creuset pans, and not only are they both also induction-capable, but we've had no issues with warping. They're both worthy of this top spot, especially when the price tag dips.
The Best Affordable Stainless-Steel Skillet: Tramontina Tri-Ply 10- and 12-Inch Skillets
Tramontina has long been one of our preferred brands for more affordably priced cookware, and these skillets held up that reputation. The sides slope up a little too gradually for our tastes, which also reduces the usable floor area for searing. It's enough of a difference to be plainly noticeable to anyone cooking in it next to most other skillets, but it's not a deal-breaker of a problem—especially considering that with full cladding, if food rides up a bit onto the sides, you shouldn't have much to worry about in terms of burning.
Overall, the skillet performed well in all its tests, heating evenly, responding to temperature changes similarly to other pans in the review, and cooking real food without trouble. It seared chicken breasts to an even golden hue, sautéd vegetables nicely, and deglazed as one would want. It too works on induction, for those who rely on that heating method.
Here are notes on the other models we tested for this review:
- All-Clad's D5 pan is its more expensive five-ply model, but we didn't see enough difference in performance to warrant paying more.
- American Kitchen offers a tri-ply pan, but it has mixed online reviews and a price that's not quite low enough to make taking a risk on the pan seem worth it.
- Many testers found the Brandless pan's handle too wide. [Editor's Note: Brandless has gone out of business.]
- Breville's Thermal Pro skillet was by far the heaviest and least responsive of the bunch; we wouldn't want to sauté in it given that.
- We got a sample to test from Brigade Kitchen, but because it only offers a small-ish 9.5-inch skillet, we ended up not being able to endorse it. To be clear, a smaller eight- or nine-inch skillet size is useful, but we'd want a brand to, at least, offer one or two larger options.
- Calphalon Tri-Ply Stainless Steel Skillet was described by several testers as feeling disconcertingly wobbly from side to side when holding it aloft by the handle.
- The Cooks Standard skillet felt heavy and showed an ever-so-slightly-less-even heating pattern.
- Cuisinart's MCP22 MultiClad Pro Skillet With Helper and Cover, 12-Inch was too heavy for most users.
- Cuisinart's MCU22 MultiClad Unlimited Dishwasher Safe 12-Inch Skillet With Helper Handle would have been our top affordable pick, but the brand discontinued it between our testing and publication of this review.
- I liked cooking in the Demeyere 5-Plus Stainless Steel Fry Pan, but its higher price ultimately kept it out of the top picks.
- Great Jones' Deep Cut is one of the newer entrants to the market. It performed well and has a cool design, but it has slightly higher and steeper walls than we like in a frying pan. It's also only available in one 10.25-inch size.
- Hestan's NanoBond skillet has a dark, obsidian-like finish that makes it seem like a frying pan from the future or maybe from Darth Vader's kitchen. It's a beautiful pan that performed well in our tests and was easy to clean, thanks to its fancy coating and flat interior rivets. But its seriously steep price made it hard to recommend, given that far less expensive skillets performed as well as it did.
- Hestan's ProBond skillet isn't quite as pricey as its NanoBond sibling, but it's still a very attractive and graceful pan that performed very well (and also boasts those nice flat inner rivets!). Still, its price places it beyond our top picks without enough of an obvious performance difference to make the cut.
- Ikea's Sensuell pan felt too heavy for its 11-inch size.
- Kitchenaid's 12-Inch Tri-Ply Stainless-Steel Skillet remained in the running right to the very end, but it ultimately felt just a little too heavy in real-world test compared to the winners.
- The Material Classic Pan was too heavy and had a balance several testers didn't love; given the slightly higher price, we took a pass on making it a top pick.
- Misen's stainless-steel skillet was another near miss on making the top-pick slot. It's reasonably priced, solid, and aced all its performance tests. The only reason it didn't quite make the cut was its weight, which felt noticeably heavier than our favorites in the competition. But I wouldn't dissuade anyone from getting one; it's still a good choice.
- Most of the testers found Oxo's Tri-Ply Pan a little too heavy.
- Another good skillet that just narrowly missed the top slots was Viking's 3-Ply Skillet. A few too many testers complained about the ergonomics of its more dramatically arched handle.
- Viking's Pro 5-Ply Skillet didn't make the cut because its steep price couldn't quite justify the rec. Still, it was a solid performer.
- Williams Sonoma's Signature Thermo-Clad Stainless-Steel Fry Pan is actually made by Hestan and sports many of Hestan's other appealing design features. But once again, the higher price meant we couldn't justify putting it in a top slot.
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