Every cook deserves a great pan. Here’s how to choose the best one for your needs.
From carbon steel to enameled cast iron, we think almost every single kind of pan has its merits. But if you’re just getting into the home cooking game, or you’re looking to expand your toolkit, the sheer variety of pans on the market can feel intimidating—especially if you’re just looking for a good all-purpose pan for weeknight dinners.
To help give you a running start, we’ve put together a guide to six of the most common pan materials, how to cook with them, what they’re best used for, and how to decide which one is right for you.
Carbon steel cookware boasts the naturally non stick properties and great heat retention of cast iron, combined with the cooking speed and heat control of stainless steel. We’d recommend reaching for carbon steel when cooking steaks, cornbread, or anything else cooked over high heat—though it’s versatile enough to use for low-heat cooking as well.
Similarly to cast iron, carbon steel pans need to be seasoned before use (though some, like ours, do come preseasoned). As if these pans weren’t already versatile enough, carbon steel is also safe to use on the grill as well as over an open flame.
Carbon steel pans are just as suitable for high heat cooking as cast iron, but with a lighter, less bulky profile. Here are some distinct advantages of using this pan.
While the drawbacks of using carbon steel cookware are few and far between, they do come with a slightly more complicated user manual than non stick or stainless steel pans.
Ceramic frying pans are often marketed as an alternative to traditional coated non stick pans. While they boast a glossy, ceramic-like coating, the name is actually a slight misnomer: typically, ceramic pans aren’t made of ceramic at all. Instead, they’re made from a metallic (typically aluminum) core coated with several layers of a self-sacrificing material derived from silicone.
Ceramic pans are similar to non stick pans, but with one crucial difference. Because part of the coating releases every time it heats up (that’s the “self-sacrificing” bit), ceramic pans become less non stick with every use, making for a pan with a shorter lifespan. On the plus side, ceramic pans’ aluminum core makes them relatively lightweight and easy to handle.
Ceramic cookware fares well when it comes to convenience, looks, and the ability to purchase in a set.
The main drawbacks of ceramic cookware include safety concerns, relatively poor heat distribution, and less longevity than many non stick pans.
Copper cookware is best known for its luxurious finish and excellent heat conductivity, as well as for its price—a small copper saucepan can fetch around $200, while a stockpot can cost upwards of $1,000. This makes copper relatively uncommon as a cookware material, though many cooks swear by it.
Aside from their looks, one of the distinct characteristics of copper pans is the fact that they cool rapidly once removed from the heat. Copper is strong and notoriously conductive, so it makes for long-lasting, high-performance, and incredibly responsive cookware—perfect for jam, caramel, and other delicate sauces, as well as searing and sautéing, as well.
Modern copper pans—including ours—tend to be lined with stainless steel, which makes for a more durable pan than the more traditional (but much higher-maintenance) tin-lined copper pans.
Copper’s ability to heat up and cool down rapidly makes for a great addition to your cookware collection.
The expense—and lack of induction compatibility—can be a deal breaker for some cooks when it comes to copper pans.
Enameled cast iron frying pans boast the same durable construction and heat retention as unfinished cast iron, but with a smooth, elegant enamel coating for easier cleanup. These pans are made the exact same way as an enameled cast iron Dutch oven: Molten iron-carbon alloy is poured into a proprietary frying pan mold and then left to cool, before being coated with an enamel made from powdered glass.
Aside from being available in a range of different colors, the main advantage of enameled cast iron over unfinished cast iron is that it’s much less likely to rust, and is also relatively easy to clean and maintain. And while these pans are more of an investment than mass-market unfinished cast iron cookware, they offer invaluable convenience and elegance that’ll last for several lifetimes.
Enameled cast iron pans offer all the benefits of unfinished cast iron, with the touch of added convenience usually associated with non stick.
The heft and price tag of enameled cast iron pans can be a potential deal breaker for some.
A good non stick pan is like a cozy pair of sweatpants—we reach for it when we want something quick, easy, and low-stress. While many pans, like cast iron and ceramic, offer non stick properties, non stick cookware generally refers to modern pans (typically aluminum and/or stainless steel construction) coated with layers of a durable non stick coating.
This non stick coating, which differs from manufacturer to manufacturer, makes these pans an ideal pick for delicate proteins like eggs and fish as well as for reheating leftovers.
While they don’t last as long as other types of cookware, a high-quality non stick frying pan like ours can last for a few years with proper maintenance. Our Non Stick Cookware is even oven-safe, so you can use it to sear steaks and chops on the stove before finishing them in the oven.
Lightweight and easy to clean, non stick frying pans are all about convenience.
Non stick pans have a relatively short lifespan, and require a bit of extra care to protect them from damage.
Stainless steel pans are a classic in both home and restaurant kitchens—not just because they look professional. Quick to heat up, incredibly responsive to temperature change, and lightweight enough for easy flipping and tossing, high-quality stainless steel does an excellent job cooking everything from delicate vegetables to thick, bone-in steaks and chops.
Stainless steel is an alloy of multiple metals like iron, nickel, and chromium, all of which contribute different characteristics to create a stronger, higher-performance material. You can also find pans labeled “stainless clad,” which are made from several layers—or ply—of different metals and alloys bonded together for optimized heat conduction and distribution. Our 5-Ply Stainless Clad features five layers of four different metals, resulting in an incredibly durable, corrosion- and rust-resistant pan.
Lightweight, easy to maneuver, and with unrivaled heat control, the advantages of stainless steel pans make these an absolute staple in any kitchen.
While stainless steel pans are incredibly versatile, you’ll need to take a little extra care to keep them from rusting or sticking.
Choosing a pan definitely doesn’t need to be stressful—and it shouldn’t be. But choosing a great pan definitely takes a bit of research and forethought. First off: what recipes do you actually plan to use it for? If you’re a single cook whose typical weeknight meals consist of single-serving dishes or reheated takeout, a non stick pan is a great affordable, low-fuss option. If seared duck confit, skillet cornbread, and Spanish tortillas sound more like your speed, it may be worth investing in a stainless steel, enameled cast iron, or carbon steel pan in any size.
Another thing to keep in mind when shopping for a pan is the amount of space you have available. If you have a farmhouse kitchen with ample drawer space and a pot rack, for example, you can justify picking up one (or more) of each. For more compact kitchens, however, a smaller multi-material set will allow you to do a lot with a little.
Worried about choosing the “best” frying pan? Well, don’t—it doesn’t exist. Instead, think about which pan is going to enhance your daily cooking experience. And while you don’t need to spend a ton on a good frying pan, we definitely recommend investing a little bit more: Not only will a higher-quality pan perform better, but it’ll also last longer.
If you still can’t seem to pick, however, we’d suggest our Multi-Material Frying Pan Set. This three-piece collection includes a Stainless Clad, a Non Stick, and a Carbon Steel Frying Pan, so you’ll have all of your bases covered—with room to grow.