An essential guide for choosing frying pans for your kitchen
We demand a lot from our frying pans. We use them to fry, sear, braise, poach and simmer. We use them to cook delicate items like eggs and crepes. They have to be comfortable to handle and easy to clean. Commercial fry pans have to withstand the daily punishment they receive at the hands of busy cooks. It’s a lot to ask.
The basic frying pan configuration hasn’t changed much, but materials, coatings and designs have. Now, there’s a frying pan for every use and every budget.
Let’s have a look at what’s out there.
Frying Pan Materials
All materials have their pros and cons. Copper, for example, conducts heat wonderfully and looks gorgeous, but it’s prohibitively expensive (which is why we aren’t including it here). The chief criteria for materials are strength, weight, heat-conduction properties and cooking surface characteristics.
Induction Cooktops - A word of caution if you’re using an induction cooktop or stove: check to make sure that your pans are induction ready. As a rule of thumb, aluminum is not, carbon steel and cast iron are, stainless steel and laminates: not always, best to check.
The two basic finishes of frying pan materials is natural or nonstick. Natural means that the "finish" is the material. Nonstick is a layer or layers added over frying pan material, but only on surfaces that come in contact with the food.
When considering the best material for your frying pan needs, also remember to look at thickness, also called the gauge. The thicker the material, the lower the gauge number.
Aluminum Frying Pans
Aluminum frying pans outsell all the others by a mile, mainly because the earth’s crust contains plenty of aluminum, so they tend to be more budget-friendly.
Aluminum frying pans have definite advantages. They are lightweight, something appreciated by chefs working long shifts juggling food-laden pans for hours on end. Aluminum is also an excellent heat-conductor; it responds to changes of temperature quickly so little time is wasted waiting for oil to come up to temp.
Many manufacturers offer heavy duty aluminum frying pans. Yes, this will increase the weight of the pans, however the added durability in commercial setting is appreciated
One downside with aluminum is that it reacts with any acidic foods which can change the food’s taste and colour. Another is that aluminum, a relatively soft metal, can warp if treated to prolonged high heat or rough treatment. Heavier, thicker aluminum frying pans can take a lot more punishment. Aluminum pans, especially when new, are the very opposite of non-stick unless they’re given a non-stick surface.
Anodized Aluminum Frying Pans
Moving up the price range, anodized aluminum frying pans have a hard, non-reactive coating that solves the acidic food problem. In practice, all anodized, or “hard-anodized” aluminum frying pans are nonstick because they have nonstick materials coating the cooking surface.
Stainless Steel Frying Pans
Stainless steel frying pans are tough and can take lots of abuse. They are not too heavy, are completely non-reactive and easy to clean. This makes them ideal for quick frying and sautéing.
And they look rather nice, too. Easily moving from cooking surface to buffet display or to the table.
Stainless Steel-Clad Aluminum Frying Pans
Stainless steel is not a great heat-conductor; it takes a while to heat up. A solution, also at a price, is stainless steel-clad aluminum. Here, the steel is layered with aluminum so you get the best of both worlds: aluminum’s superior heat conductivity combined with stainless steel’s rugged, non-reactive qualities.
Layered materials are typically indicated as ply. 2-Ply for 3-Ply (Tri-Ply) being the most common. What that means is there are two or three layers of different materials.
Carbon Steel Frying Pans
Carbon steel is a relative newcomer to the frying pan family of materials and it’s well worth checking out.
Carbon steel is less brittle than cast iron, which means that carbon steel pans can be made thinner and lighter than cast iron pans. They retain heat as well cast iron, but because they’re thinner they heat up faster.
Another advantage is that carbon steel pans, once seasoned, are non-stick. And unlike coated non-stick pans, with proper care they remain non-stick over time – in fact, repeated use only improves their non-stickiness (if that’s a word).
Just like carbon steel knives, carbon steel frying pans can discolour or rust, especially with anything acidic. Although some would say they attain an attractive patina.
If you are looking for an all-purpose frying pan, don’t mind a bit of extra care and maintenance and don’t care about cosmetic appearances, carbon steel is hard to beat.
Our customers love the de Buyer Mineral B Element Steel Fry Pan.
Cast Iron Frying Pans and Skillets
Along with copper, cast iron frying pans are the only frying pans you’ll find for sale in an antique store because they can last for decades. They can be heated to high temperatures without warping.
Properly seasoned and maintained, cast iron pans attain what amounts to a nonstick surface. They retain heat beautifully, making them perfect for searing items like steaks. Cast iron pans are forged from a single iron ingot, handle and all, so you don’t have to worry about rivets, which are tricky to keep clean. Another feature is that they often have a pouring lip or two built into rim, so useful for pouring sauces.
Finally, they are inexpensive. So what’s not to like? Well, they are heavy; a shift working with cast iron pans could exhaust the strongest cook. They require maintenance: they have to be seasoned, although you buy them pre-seasoned. They are not dishwasher safe and need to be hand washed and coated with oil after each use to prevent rust and preserve the seasoned surface.
Lodge, a well-known brand that has been manufacturing cast iron cookware for decades has a multitude of sizes and styles of frying pans including the tradititional cast iron skillet.
Nonstick Frying Pans
When nonstick pans first appeared on the market, we thought our problems were over: Frying eggs? A breeze! Omelettes? Perfect every time! Crepes? They just slid off the pan!
And it’s true, for delicate items like eggs, pancakes and fish, nonstick pans perform incredibly well. You don’t have to use as much – if any – oil, so they are ideal for low-fat dishes. They are usually constructed from aluminum, so they are quite lightweight and conduct heat well. However nonstick finishes are available in other frying pan materials.
They are easy to clean, as you’d expect, so they don’t have to go to the dish-pit every time they’re used.
However, nonstick coatings, especially the early models, had a habit of wearing out faster than one would wish.
Since then, technology has addressed these problems: nonstick surfaces are now tougher and safer and come in a range of types and qualities.
It is still advised not to heat pans to more than 500°F (260°C), and to restrict use to food items that really need a nonstick surface. The use of metal utensils or wire scrubbers should also be avoided.
For domestic kitchens, nonstick frying pans have been a boon, no question. In the harsh environment of commercial kitchens, their limited lifespan is still considered a handicap but still beneficial.
Remember to refer to the manufacturers recommendations to see if their nonstick fry pan can go in the broiler or high temperature oven.
Frying Pan Handles
Sure, it can cook your locally caught perch to perfection, but your frying pan still needs a handle to take it to the plate.
Frying Pan Handle Length and Width
Almost all frying pan handles are just a bit shorter than the diameter of the pan. Any longer and they’ll get in the way and take up too much space on the cooktop or in the oven. Any shorter and you won’t have enough grip and leverage to lift and carry the frying pan safely.
The exception is cast iron frying pans: because of their method of manufacture, cast iron pan handles are stubby and short.
Frying Pan Helper Handles
A helper handle is a second U-shaped helper handle opposite the main handle that allows you to lift the pan with two hands. Helper handles are more prominent on fry pans that are made with a heavy material or are larger in diameter to safely maneuver the pan and its contents.
Frying Pan Handle Material
Ideally handles should remain cool even though the pan is screaming hot. On the other hand, they have to withstand high oven temperatures without melting.
Hollow stainless steel handles, being mostly air, remain comfortably cool.
Silicone heat-resistant sleeves keep the handles comfortably cool, but make sure they are oven-proof or removable.
Extra care has to be taken with cast iron and carbon handles, they can get very hot and, more importantly, stay that way for quite a while.
Frying Pan Handle Attachment
The vast majority of frying pan handles are attached by rivets. There is a hole in both the frying pan and the frying pan handle that are joined with a rivet (a smooth metal pin) that permanently, meaning it cannot be loosened, joins the two pieces.
The number of rivets and their location and spacing can affect the quality of attachment.
The only drawback to rivets is that it’s hard to clean around them, so grime can build up at the attachment points. However, rivetless frying pans handles are also available, the handles are still riveted to the pan, however, the interior of the pan is smooth.
There are frying pans on the market now that have handles welded to the pan walls, eliminating the cleaning problem.
Fry Pan Shapes and Styles
Most frying pans answer the same description: a flat-bottomed pan with low, sloping sides that allows you to toss and flip the contents. And of course they are almost always round.
Steeper sides, such as is often the case with cast iron pans, make flipping food almost impossible, so stir-fries are definitely out, although steeper sides give you more cooking area and volume capacity.
A straight-sided "frying pan" is not actually a frying pan at all, it’s a sauté pan. Frying pans in general, and cast-iron frying pans in particular, are often called skillets. What’s the difference? In fact, the terms skillet and frying pan mean exactly the same thing.
A French fry pan is similar to a traditional fry pan with a flat bottom and sloping sides, however the sides tend to be taller and straighter. Almost pushing to be more like a saute pan than a fry pan.
Choosing the right commercial frying pan for your operation depends on three major factors: the types of food you cook, your preferred method of cooking (gas, electric, induction) and your budget.
Written by Charles Bruce-Thompson