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How to Pick the Best Frying Pan Material for You

A simple guide to getting the perfect frying pan for your needs.

George Steckel|Aug 04, 2021
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If you’re in the market for a new

frying pan

,

you’ll have a dizzying array of options to choose from. That includes stainless steel, carbon steel, cast iron, non stick, and more. The good news is that it’s actually pretty simple to make a smart choice. You just have to know which questions to ask.

In this post, we’ll break down the costs and benefits of the major frying pan materials. But first, let’s get a few common misconceptions out of the way.

What is the Best Frying Pan Material?

When you’re buying a frying pan, the first thing to understand is that

no material is perfect

for every chef in every situation. Each type of cookware comes with different advantages and drawbacks. So instead of hunting for the perfect cooking surface, you’ll need to think about what you value most and consider the tradeoffs.

For example, if you fry a lot of delicate, sticky foods and don’t mind taking special care of your cookware,

a traditional non stick frying pan

will be best for you. On the other hand, if you prize durability over all else and want a pan that can deliver the perfect sear, a carbon steel skillet may be ideal. And if you need quick heat-up and cool-down and are willing to pay top dollar, copper cookware may be best. We’ll dive deeper into these pros and cons shortly.

What is the Safest Cookware for Your Health?

There has been an upsurge in concern over cookware material in recent years — and for a good reason! Home chefs want to know that they’re cooking with safe, healthy equipment, and avoiding exposure to toxic chemicals.

Unfortunately, these discussions aren’t always grounded in solid science and can end up scaring consumers away from perfectly safe cookware. The trick is to find a high-quality, well-built frying pan and learn to use it safely. Here are a few tips to help you navigate the field:

Tip #1: High-quality Non Stick Pans are Safe

Traditional

non stick frying pans

are made of a substance called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Before 2013, these pans were made with an unsafe substance called PFOA, which sometimes contaminated consumer products. Today, however, PFOA is

no longer used

to manufacture non stick cookware. That means non stick pans are perfectly safe, as long as you maintain them well and don’t use them at super high temperatures (i.e., stay below 500° Fahrenheit). It’s also important to use non-scratching utensils (think wooden, plastic, or silicone tools) and store your nonstick pan properly to protect its surface. Read more

non stick maintenance tips

.

Tip #2: High-quality Copper Cookware is Safe

Copper has some amazing properties that make it perfect for chefs, such as lightning-fast heat transfer. But it can make people sick if we ingest too much of it. That’s why it’s important to buy only high-quality copper pans, which are lined with a food-safe, nonreactive metal (such as stainless steel). This locks in the copper so it stays safely out of your food. If you’re buying copper cookware, make sure it’s properly lined and manufactured by a trustworthy supplier. Be sure to also maintain it properly — use soft, non-scratching utensils and hand wash it gently. Read more about

copper cookware safety

and learn more about

what is a nonreactive pan

.

Tip #3: Ceramic Cookware is Safe (but not very durable)

Ceramic cookware was only recently invented, but has been growing in popularity among consumers. It’s made by coating a metal body (typically aluminum) with a material called

sol-gel

. When heated, this coating then releases silicone oil onto your food, meaning you don’t need additional cooking oils. Is this oil safe? Yes — but when it’s depleted, the pan’s non stick properties vanish. At this point, you’re stuck with something little better than a standard aluminum pan that doesn’t heat evenly and needs cooking oil with every use.

Read more here about ceramic cookware

.

What are the Pros & Cons of Different Frying Pan Materials?

So we’ve established that many safety concerns are overblown, as long as you’re working with a high-quality frying pan from a trusted manufacturer. And you’re already aware that every material comes with its tradeoffs. Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty. What should you know about the various types of frying pans?

Stainless Clad Frying Pans

You’ll find stainless clad cookware in professional kitchens around the world for a reason. It’s made from several layers of metal sandwiched together — typically aluminum surrounded (or “cladded”) by stainless steel. This gives it the outstanding heat transfer properties of aluminum, with steel’s sturdy, non-reactive aspects. It’s highly durable, quick-heating, and almost impervious to rust and scratches.

A stainless steel pan

is also safe to use with high heat cooking, meaning it can serve on a gas stove range or in an oven equally well. It cleans easily, can handle abrasive materials and utensils, and never imparts old flavors to your food. The only downside of stainless cookware is the fact that its cooking surface is

not

nonstick. As a result, you’ll need to use oil every time you cook, and it may not perform well for delicate or sticky foods.

Buy a stainless clad frying pan if:

You want a trusty, versatile kitchen workhorse and don’t mind cooking with a bit of

oil.

Non Stick Frying Pans

If you haven’t ever cooked with high-quality

non stick cookware

, you’re in for a treat. As we discussed above, modern non stick cookware made without PFOAs is entirely safe. And with a cooking surface this slick, your whole approach to certain foods will change. This is how professional chefs can whip up delicate delectables like eggs, crêpes, cheesy quesadillas, and more. It’s also a simple way to get excess oils out of your diet when using a saute pan.

But the ultra-slippery surface of a nonstick cookware set isn’t just great for cooking. It makes cleanup a breeze — just hand wash your non stick frying pan with warm water and a soft cloth. The only downside here is that you’ll need to take extra care to avoid damaging the PTFE coating. Be vigilant about using soft, non-abrasive utensils, and ensure this piece never goes in the dishwasher.

Buy a non stick

 

pan

 

if:

You want to fry sticky or delicate foods with incredible ease and no extra oil — and you can be diligent about care and maintenance.

Carbon Steel Frying Pans

You might think of

carbon steel

as Europe’s best kept secret. This cookware is just beginning to find its way into U.S. kitchens, and it already has a devoted following.

Carbon steel

is like a hybrid of stainless steel and cast iron and offers the best of both worlds: cast iron’s natural non stick slickness with the lightweight and heat control of a stainless steel skillet. Although you can use a carbon steel frying pan for almost anything, it truly shines when you need a picture-perfect sear, as you’d see in high-end restaurants. 

The downsides of

carbon steel

are similar to those of traditional cast iron. You’ll need to keep it seasoned and cared for carefully to avoid rusting and corrosion. And like cast iron, this pan won’t work great for acidic foods, as they can easily strip the pan of its seasoning.

Buy a carbon steel frying pan if:

You want a lightweight skillet with a natural non stick interior surface, you don’t need it for highly acidic foods, and you don’t mind doing some special maintenance.

Cast Iron Frying Pans

When it comes to durability and

essential pots and pans

to have, nothing tops cast iron cookware. A rusty, eighty-year-old skillet you find at a yard sale can be made good as new with some love and elbow grease. And thanks to cast iron’s superb heat retention properties and natural nonstick surface, many chefs consider these old-school frying pans a culinary must-have. Cast iron is also safe to use at high temperatures, meaning you can bake breads, desserts, and more.

The downsides of cast iron are similar to those of carbon steel: The natural nonstick surface requires seasoning and ongoing maintenance. You can’t wash it with soap, or use it for cooking highly acidic foods. It’s also important to note that cast iron is strong but brittle — meaning it can crack or even shatter if dropped on a hard surface. And, of course, cast iron is

heavy

. This makes it slow to heat up and cool down and sometimes unwieldy to work with. However, it is considered

induction compatible cookware

.

Buy a cast iron frying pan if

You want a highly durable piece with heat retention, and don’t mind the extra weight and special care it requires.

Copper Frying Pans

As we discussed above,

copper

offers jaw-dropping thermal properties, meaning it heats up and cools down in a flash. This gives chefs incredible control over the cooking process, allowing you to precisely fry and simmer foods and avoid burning. And from a purely aesthetic perspective, copper is

gorgeous,

brightening your kitchen with its lustrous mirror sheen.

If you’re purchasing a copper pan, it’s crucial to buy from a trusted manufacturer, as copper cookware requires a steel or tin lining to make it food-safe. It should be gently hand-washed to protect this special lining, and may need to be periodically resurfaced by an expert. Note that copper is a very expensive metal, so these top-of-the-line pans tend to be pricey.

Buy a copper frying pan if:

You value precise, heat-responsive cooking above all else, and you don’t mind paying top dollar for it.

Ceramic Frying pans

Ceramic cookware is often marketed as a “clean” alternative to PTFE nonstick cookware since its silicon-based ceramic pan coating is made of natural materials. But as we noted above, this coating is “self-sacrificing.” The non stick coating wears out over time and is no longer considered a non stick frying pan, and eventually requires cooking oil like any metal frying pan. Additionally, these pans are usually pure aluminum under the ceramic finish — and aluminum cookware doesn’t heat very evenly.

Buy a ceramic frying pan if:

You want “cutesy” cookware, and you understand that it won’t have a very long lifespan and will end up in a landfill sooner rather than later. 

Enameled Cast Iron Frying Pans

Manufacturers can give it a strong, resilient skin by lining cast iron with a layer of hard, scratch-resistant enamel. This means you lose the natural nonstick properties of a cast iron pan and will have to use oil every time you cook. But it protects against the major weak points of “naked” cast iron — a high-maintenance seasoning layer and vulnerability to rust. Otherwise, an enameled cast iron skillet has all the same great properties as traditional cast iron, including excellent heat retention and safe use at high oven temperatures.

The downsides of enameled cast iron cookware are its heaviness and its susceptibility to chipping if handled improperly. Even a small break in the enamel surface can lead to rust and corrosion, and will mar the inherent beauty of these pieces. Also, note that enameled cast iron tends to be made by legacy manufacturers who charge steep prices for their wares.

Buy an enameled cast iron frying pan if:

You want a beautiful skillet that retains heat well and you don’t mind the high weight.

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