Heavy frying pans are heavy for a reason. Here’s why you need one in your kitchen cabinets.
Flick through the pages of a beloved cookbook or hit the “Play” button on a playlist at your favorite cooking channel on YouTube, and it probably won’t take you long to get the following piece of advice: “Pull out for a frying pan with a heavy bottom and thick walls.”
Why is that? Is a heavy frying pan truly better than a light one? And, if you don’t cook professionally or write about food for a living, should you really care? We address these questions, and more, in today’s article. Do read on if we’ve piqued your curiosity.
A heavy frying pan is better than a light one on almost any day. The denser and thicker the metal, the better it is at retaining heat and distributing it evenly to your food, improving your cooking.
To understand why heavy pans are usually superior to their lightweight counterparts, we need to talk about something called heat transfer.
The purpose of a frying pan is to transfer heat from your stovetop to your food. It should do so evenly, and without hot or cold spots. By and large, this depends on the type of stove in your kitchen, and the temperature of the food you put in the pan. Below, we discuss why.
What Your Stove Has to Do With Your Cooking
From a culinary point of view, your stove is nothing more than an appliance that converts gas or electricity (one form of energy) into heat (another form of energy), which it then transfers to your pans and pots.
Some types of stoves are more efficient at transferring heat than others, and each does so in a unique way.
A gas stove gives you relatively good control over the heat, ain’t no doubt about it. You can see the flame with your own two eyes, and you can increase or decrease it by adjusting the knobs, which alters the amount of air and gas that flow to the burner.
And yet, gas stoves perform poorly at transferring heat. Much of the heat that comes from the flame, which should burn a bright, icy blue at a temperature of 3,000°F (1,648°C), goes to heating the grate and the air in your kitchen—and not to heating the frying pan. To put it simply, it goes to waste.
The roughly 40% of the heat that remains, the part that actually ends up getting transferred to your frying pan, is concentrated at the tip of the flame. So, if your frying pan cannot hold and distribute heat well, it will heat more more in the center than it does the edges and sides.
Electric stoves are more efficient at transferring heat, at least when we compare them to their gas-burning counterparts. Approximately 75% of the energy they consume goes straight to your frying pan. Although the heat is distributed somewhat evenly—more so with halogen bulbs than with coils—the heating elements turn on and off repeatedly to maintain temperature.
Here again, if your frying pan cannot retain heat well, the constant switching on and off of the coils or bulbs will cause the cooking temperature to fluctuate too much, making it difficult for you to cook your food with precision and to perfection.
Induction cooktops are the best at heat transfer. It’s said that 90% of the energy you put into them goes to heating the frying pan. As an owner of one, I can confirm that—these cooktops heat your pans almost instantaneously.
However, induction cooktops only work with so-called ferromagnetic frying pans, meaning pans that contain enough iron to attract magnets (nine times out of ten, this equates to cast iron, carbon steel, or stainless steel cookware).
Why a Heavy Pan Is an Unresponsive Pan (And Why It Matters)
Okay, you know all of this now. So what is it that makes a heavy skillet better than a lightweight one?
A thin frying pan heats quickly, but it does so unevenly. On a gas range, it will have hot spots that scorch your food and cold spots that leave it undercooked. On an electric range, it will keep fluctuating the cooking temperature as the coils or panels cycle on and off.
A heavy frying pan heats slowly, but does so evenly. The body will take 2-3 minutes to get up to heat, no matter if you’re cooking on a gas range, electric stove, or induction cooktop. But once it does, it will stay hot, and it stays hot uniformly.
That difference is only accentuated when you slap a fridge-temperature or room-temperature steak on the cooking surface of the pan. A thin pan will drop the temperature almost instantly and take too long of a time to recover, causing the steak to steam and boil in its own juices instead of sizzle and brown in them. In contrast, a thick pan will hardly lose temperature at all.
Just like a heavy truck has a lot of inertia—it’s slow to pick up speed and as slow to grind to a halt—a heavy skillet has a lot of thermal capacity. It takes a while for it to heat up and just as long for it to cool down, even when you add a cold piece of food in it, adjust the knobs, or remove it from the heat.
All in all, heavy skillet is predictable. And, generally speaking, you don’t want your cookware to surprise you.
When a Heavy Pan Makes Sense, and Why It Matters
Heavy-bottomed, thick-walled skillets excel at cooking tasks that require a steady source of intense heat. This includes searing steak; browning cubes of beef for a braise or a stew; shallow-frying schnitzel or chicken cutlets; sautéing mushrooms, asparagus, scallops.
Provided you preheated the skillet long enough (in case you’re wondering, I’m using the terms “skillet” and “frying pan” interchangeably), and it will retain a considerable amount of heat that will keep the temperature high and the food sizzling, even if you add a new batch of food items to it.
This is important because high, intense heat triggers browning and caramelization—two chemical reactions that take place on the surface of your food, and that make it considerably more aromatic and flavorful than it was when you started cooking it.
What’s the Best Metal for Home Cooking?
Nothing can beat the performance of copper when it comes to cookware. A copper frying pan preheats remarkably quick, in 15-20 seconds, and does so extremely evenly. Take the temperature of the pan with an infrared thermometer at any moment of time, and the sides will be as hot as the center. However, copper is expensive to buy and burdensome to care for.
A 10-inch skillet can set you back $250 to $500 depending on the make and the model. Because copper is reactive and toxic, the cooking surface on all copper pans is lined with tin, silver, or stainless steel. Over time, it can scratch and require relining, which can cost you an arm and a leg.
Aluminum pans heat quickly and evenly, but they don’t retain heat well and aren’t compatible with induction cooktops (as a metal, aluminum doesn’t contain enough iron to exhibit ferromagnetic properties). Most ceramic and non-stick pans consist of an aluminum body with a sprayed-on coating.
Which leaves us with cast iron, its close cousin carbon steel, and its distant cousin stainless steel. These frying pans are made from heavy metal—literally and figuratively. All of these metals heat slowly, but retain heat well, and each yields cookware with its unique up- and downsides.
Cast iron and carbon steel frypans are fantastic for searing steaks and sautéing vegetables. However, they involve complicated use and care rituals: They must be seasoned, cannot be cleaned in the dishwasher, and are not suitable for preparing acidic foods (they leach dietary iron and impart a metallic taste).
A good stainless steel skillet doesn’t need to be seasoned, can safely be loaded in the dishwasher, and won’t react with acidic foods. However, its cooking surface is incredibly sticky—and requires that you cook with a generous amount of butter, fat, or oil to keep food from sticking.
Which one should you reach for?
If you want to take care of your cookware and you like the idea of having to season your pan, you should choose cast iron or carbon steel (the former is also suitable for baking; the latter less so).
If you want to save yourself the trouble of seasoning and washing up, you should choose rust-resistant, dishwasher-safe stainless steel.
Always with a heavy bottom. 🙂