The frying pan is the most indispensable cooking vessel for any home cook. Without it, we can’t make delicious meals for ourselves or feed our loved ones (unless, of course, they’re okay eating salad and cold soup all year round).
A common question that home cooks ask—especially those who are just getting into cookware or cooking in general—is how many frying pans to own.
While you could do 99.9% of your cooking in one skillet, it’s a good idea to build a collection of two three different-sized pans with various cooking surfaces. That way, you’ll always have the right tool at hand, no matter what cooking method the recipe calls for.
In fact, that’s probably what you came here to find out, too. As someone who’s cooked both professionally and as a hobby, I’m about to give you my take on the topic.
What Do You Need a Pan For?
Always start with this question, as it will more or less determine the type of cookware you need.
Heavy, uncoated, thick-bottomed pans, such as those made of cast iron, carbon steel, or stainless steel, excel at browning meats.
Light, performant, and easy-to-use pans, like ceramic or non-stick, are the better option for sautéing veggies and preparing more delicate foods, like eggs, whitefish, or pancakes.
If you’re a carnivore, you might want to get two styles of pans—a non-stick pan that you can use for your daily cooking and a skillet or grill pan for searing meats to perfection.
Since good cookware doesn’t come cheap, one thing’s for sure: you’ll get less utility from two pans made of the same material (and with the same coating) than from two different ones.
So pick accordingly.
Consider Different Pan Designs
The terms frying pan and skillet are used interchangeably to refer to the same type of cooking vessel: a shallow pan with a flat bottom and sides sloped at an outward angle. This design makes it perfect for high-heat searing and shallow-frying in general.
A sauté pan has taller, straight vertical sides. Compared to frying pans, sauté pans are noticeably deeper and always come with a lid. This gives them extra capacity and helps to keep splatter to a minimum, which turns them into the better choice for slow cooking and simmering sauces.
There is also my favorite, the deep skillet, which stands right in between. I keep a few of these handy for whenever I need to cook for a crowd at large gatherings.
Select the Right Cooking Surface
Not all cooking surfaces are created equal. Some simply work better than others for specific tasks. So here’s what you need to know on the topic.
Copper pans are extremely expensive, but they give you the evenest heat distribution of all other pans on the market. The temperature on the sides of the pan is almost exactly the same as that of the center, making them perfect for shallow-frying any type of food.
Second to copper in terms of conductivity, aluminum heats quickly and distributes heat evenly enough. It makes for reasonably priced cooking vessels that are generally “good enough” for home cooking.
Since copper and aluminum are reactive to foods and toxic to humans, manufacturers line the inside of copper cookware with tin, stainless steel, or silver and coat aluminum cooking vessels with a ceramic or non-stick film.
Ceramic pans are made of silica (sand) that’s sprayed and baked onto the metallic body of a cooking vessel. On the surface is a certain amount of silicone oil that releases itself into your foods every time you cook, giving you a non-stick cooking experience.
Non-stick is made of a metallic cooking body coated with the inert and inactive material called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). This material, also used on fishing gear and on the insides of engine parts, is one of the slickest on earth, so cooking in it is a breeze.
A stainless steel cooking surface is very versatile, able to cook anything, and can go in the dishwasher. But food can stick easily to stainless steel, so you need to preheat the skillet and cook in a generous amount of butter or olive oil.
A carbon steel cooking surface has good heat distribution but will rust if you don’t keep it seasoned. They are reactive to acidic sauces, like wine, vinegar, and tomato-based sauces, and will leach into your food if you use them to make one.
A cast iron cooking surface is one of the best cooking surfaces that exist. Cast iron heats evenly and retains heat longer than most of its counterparts. This makes it great for searing meats.
There’s one thing I should mention about cast iron and carbon steel, though. They need to be maintained in a unique way that not every cook is familiar with. You must season it before using it and, depending on how you use and clean it, re-season it once or twice a year.
Carbon steel and cast iron make great woks and skillets, respectively, as they can get heated to very high temperatures (and are capable of holding on to that heat really well).
An enameled cooking surface is, least to say, awesome. It is a great non-stick surface, and it gives you even heat distribution. Enameled pans are either steel or cast iron coated in your favorite-colored porcelain enamel.
Of all cooking surfaces out there, my favorite by far is enameled cast iron. It can chip and crack easily, though, so it’s best to use quality wooden or silicone cooking utensils that withstand high heat while protecting the surface.
For details, check out our guide on how to care for enameled cast iron cookware.
Get a Couple of Differently-Sized Pans
There are essentially three sizes of frying pans that most home cooks tend to use: 8-inch, 10-inch, and 12-inch.
Everyone needs a 12-inch frying pan, because there is enough room in this big pan to do whatever you need to do. You can sear a monstrous roast before putting it in the oven or make a meat sauce for several people.
A 10-inch pan is a happy medium. If you need something a little bigger than a tiny pan but don’t want to wash that heavier 12-inch pan, a 10-inch pan is the way to go. Also, if you are cooking for only two people and you both eat light, this medium-sized pan may be all you need.
When I think of an 8-inch pan, I think of the perfect fluffy half-moon omelet. They are also ideal for almost anything made for one person. An 8-inch cast iron pan is also an excellent tool for baking a dessert for one or two.
For more guidance, check out Jim’s guide on the topic titled, “What Skillet Size Is Right for You?”
My Two Cents
Suppose I could only buy and store a couple of pans. I’d buy an 8-inch cast iron skillet for cooking eggs on the stove and baking dessert, and a 12-inch cast iron, stainless steel, ceramic, or non-stick frying pan (the choice of cooking surface depends on what exactly I’m looking for) when it comes to the majority of my daily cooking.
If you’re building up a collection, invest in 8-inch, 10-inch, and 12-inch frying pans, a 12-inch sauté pan, as well as a 10-inch or 12-inch deep skillet.