You’re in the market for a new skillet. To get the best value for your money, you want to know which size gives you the most utility.
That’s a great, reasonable question to have. As a matter of fact, it’s a question that every home cook should be asking themselves before they go out shopping for cookware.
Skillets come in all shapes and forms, and it’s not uncommon for manufacturers to add or subtract ¼ of an inch to make their makes and models stand out. The golden rule, though, is that skillets come in roughly one of four diameters: 8 inches, 10 inches, 12 inches, and 14 inches.
What skillet size is the most useful, then?
You can get the most utility out of a 10-inch or 12-inch skillet, depending to a large extent on the sizes of your meals and the number of people you cook for on a daily basis.
A skillet with a diameter of 10 to 12 inches gives you enough space to maneuver food in comfortably—without taking up your entire cooktop as a large, 14-inch skillet would or creating a risk of spillage as a small, 8-inch skillet would.
You’d think that all 10-inch skillets would have the same capacity, give or take.
Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.
Slope-sided skillets are better at browning and caramelizing than their straight-sided counterparts because the moisture inside them evaporates quicker. That efficiency, however, comes at the cost of the cooking vessel’s capacity.
The slope on the sides of your skillet can make a big difference when it comes to its capacity, Pat Dailey explains for South Florida’s Sun Sentinel. For example, the capacity of a 10-inch skillet can vary anywhere from 6 to 10 cups.
I’ve experienced this first-hand. Some 10-inch frying pans in my cookware collection allow me to cook a couple of burgers comfortably in them, whereas others require me to do so in batches (doubling the time it takes me to make dinner!).
How to Choose a Skillet Size
The utility of a skillet depends on your cooking needs. What works for someone who cooks for a couple in New York City, NY, won’t necessarily work for a home cook feeding a family of four in South Pittsburg, TN.
My best advice is to tailor your match the size of your skillet to the number of people living in your household.
Readers who cook for themselves or for two should consider getting a 10-inch skillet. Those who cook for three or more, on the other hand, should think about getting a 12-inch skillet, as they’ll need that extra space.
An 8-inch skillet is good for preparing omelets, scrambled eggs, or sunny-side-up eggs, as well as for making crêpes, pancakes, and tortillas.
A 10-inch to 12-inch skillet is ideal for cooking long streaks of bacon, thick-cut steak, pork, veal, or lamb chops, chicken fillets, fish fillets, and for sautéing mushrooms.
When in doubt, go for a sloped 12-inch skillet. Once you’ve factored in the slope, its actual capacity would probably stand somewhere at 11 inches, plus/minus ⅓ of an inch, which I consider the most useful and versatile.
A 14-inch skillet comes in handy when you need to fry up a couple of steaks, several chops, or a few fillets at once, without having to curl some of them up on the sides of the cooking vessel or, worse, having to cook them in batches.
I’ve written extensively on the topic in “What Size Skillet Is Right for You?”, and I encourage you to go on over and check that article out.
How to Choose a Material
The material your skillet is made out of can have a tremendous impact on its practicality.
No other metal can beat copper and its runner-up, aluminum, when it comes to thermal conductivity. A copper and an aluminum frying pan will heat up quickly, in as little as 20-30 seconds, distributing that heat evenly and without cold spots.
In practical terms, this means that copper and aluminum pans give you quick, precise control over the cooking temperature. That’s exactly what you need when preparing dishes prone to burning, such as cream sauces, delicate risottos, and homemade pancakes.
Both copper and aluminum, however, are reactive metals. Left uncoated, cooking vessels made out of them will leach dangerous amounts of toxic elements into your food.
That’s why copper pans are lined with tin, silver, or stainless steel, and aluminum pans are anodized or coated with non-stick (which many of us know as Teflon) or ceramic (technically known as sol-gel).
As a general rule of thumb, anodized or Teflon-coated aluminum skillets offer the best value for home cooks looking for a no-frills and non-stick cooking experience at a reasonable price.
Cast Iron, Carbon Steel
Contrary to popular belief, cast iron and its lightweight cousin, carbon steel, are pretty poor at conducting heat. Ironically, this is also what makes them excellent for producing stovetop cookware out of.
Cast iron and carbon steel skillets tend to take longer, typically 3-4 minutes, to heat up. But once they do, they’re capable of holding on to that heat for a long time, even after you’ve toned down or turned off the burner.
The constant heat that they emit is why cast iron and carbon steel skillets excel at browning meats, caramelizing vegetables, and puffing up baked goods in the oven. However, they require more care and maintenance than their copper, aluminum, and stainless steel counterparts.
Both carbon steel and cast iron are prone to corrosion and rust. So they can’t be soaked in water, should never go in the dishwasher, and need to be seasoned before being used for the first time (the way I see it, the seasoning needs to be re-applied once or twice per year).
Cast iron or carbon steel skillets are a great choice for bakers and carnivores who see caring for and attending to their cookware not as a burden but as a source of satisfaction.
There’s a reason why many professional chefs and home cooks alike opt for stainless steel cookware:
Stainless steel, an iron alloy with nickel and chromium, is non-reactive. Since it doesn’t corrode or rust, stainless steel skillets can be soaked in water, cleaned in the dishwasher, and require very little maintenance as a whole.
Their uncoated, bare-steel surface causes protein-rich foods, especially eggs, lean meat, and pancake batter, to stick. However, that can easily be negated by drizzling a generous amount of oil into the pan whenever you cook.
To select a stainless steel skillet, you need to arm yourself with knowledge of quite a few terms. Once you’re there, the puzzle becomes easy to solve, and you can count on buying a skillet once—then cooking with it for a lifetime.
Stainless steel is a good option for home cooks who want to avoid non-stick or ceramic coatings and who are not keen on the idea of having to season cast iron or carbon steel cookware.
Now that you know what to look for, check out some of my top picks at “How to Choose the Best Frying Pan.”