A favorite of restaurant chefs and home cooks alike, stainless steel pans and pots can cook just about anything, go from stovetop to oven, last for a lifetime, and, thanks to the fact that they can safely go in the dishwasher, are nothing short of a breeze to care for.
If you’re fine by the downside that foods, especially those that are high in protein and low in fat (like eggs and fish filets), are prone to sticking to stainless steel, the pros of this type of cookware far outweigh the cons.
Even the downside of these cooking vessels has a flipside. The fond—those bits and pieces of food stuck to the bottom of the pan—packs a ton of flavor that you can easily release into your dish by pouring a little cooking liquid (beer, wine, broth, or even water) into the hot pan.
Since you’re here, you probably also know that, by itself, stainless steel is a terrible conductor of heat. And it needs the help of a second, more conductive metal to yield performant and responsive cookware.
Stainless steel is so poor at conducting heat that, as a matter of fact, its thermal conductivity is 3.61 times worse than that of cast iron, 16.45 times worse than that of aluminum, and the whole 28.68 times worse than that of copper (source).
So, even though it makes for an excellent (albeit sticky) cooking surface, stainless steel cooking vessels need to be bonded to an aluminum or copper core to make them capable of heating quickly and evenly.
Today, there are generally two types of stainless steel pans and pots on the market: disc-bottomed and clad.
Disc-bottomed pans and pots consist of a thin stainless steel cooking vessel with a thick disc of aluminum or copper attached to the bottom.
Clad pans and pots, on the other hand, are made of sheets of aluminum or copper “sandwiched” between stainless steel sheets, which run all the way to the sides of the cookware.
As a rule of thumb, disc-bottomed pans and pots heat less evenly and, for the same reason, are prone to scorching foods. Since their weight is not as equally distributed as that of their clad counterparts, they’re also harder to lift and hold because they put more strain on your wrist.
To put it simply, there’s more than one reason to go for a clad—and not disc-bottomed—stainless steel pan when you’re shopping for one. They come in three types: tri-ply, five-ply, and seven-ply, each thicker and sold at a higher price tag than the other.
Suppose you can cough up the money for either, yet you want to get the best bang for your buck.
Which one should you go for?
Tri-ply frying pans, made of two layers of stainless steel and an aluminum or copper core, give the best value for your money. They heat evenly, hold on to heat well, and are quicker to respond to changes in the heat dial than their thicker five-ply or seven-ply counterparts.
As home cooks, we’re looking for two traits to deem a stainless steel frying pan “good:”
First, it shouldn’t have hot or cold spots, as it will be prone to overcooking your foods in some spots and undercooking them in others.
Second, it shouldn’t behave and handle like a bulky piece of metal that takes forever to heat up and just as long to cool down.
In my experience, and I’ve cooked with tri-ply and five-ply pans by All-Clad, Misen, and Tramontina, tri-ply pans are (1) sturdy but lightweight and (2) thick enough not to warp yet compact enough to stay responsive.
Aluminum or copper core, some of you may be asking?
Readers on a budget should go for clad pans with an aluminum core. Aluminum is inexpensive and good enough at conducting heat for what you need it to do. Those willing to pay the higher price can go for copper. The pan will be quicker to get up to heat—and respond to adjustments in the heat dial just as aptly.
The crew at Cook’s Illustrated, which so far have conducted the most rigorous tests on the most popular brands and models of clad frying pans that every food blogger, I included, tends to quote, think the same way as I do:
In numerous tests, they crowned the All-Clad Tri-Ply Frying Pan—my personal favorite and a pick I often recommend to my readers—as the absolute best choice for daily cooking at home.
The reviewers at New York Times’ Wirecutter also seem to agree. “Cookware manufacturers also make five- and seven-ply stainless steel pans,” Elissa Sanci writes in an article titled, Choosing the Right Pan Can Make You a Better Cook. “We don’t think these expensive pans are worth their price tag.”
Sanci goes on to explain that five-ply and seven-ply pans took nearly twice as long to get up to heat than tri-ply ones, and they held on to heat longer, even after being taken off the heat, which could end up burning an otherwise perfectly-prepared dish.
Compared to five-ply and seven-ply, tri-ply pans are also not as expensive. Cheaper Tramontina 10-inch pans retail for $70/piece, and higher-end All-Clad or Misen pans sell for roughly $125/piece. When you consider that, as long as you don’t do anything stupid with them, they can last you a lifetime, that’s a pretty sweet deal.
A five-ply or seven-ply pan will set you back anywhere from two to three hundred bucks depending on the make, model, and retailer—a price point which I consider excessively high for any home cook, whether you’re just getting started or preparing to compete on the next season of Fox’s MasterChef.
So get yourself a tri-ply pan and invest the leftover money in something else, like the perfect spatula or a good meat thermometer.