A quick guide to picking the right pan for the job.

By Heath Goldman
Updated November 18, 2020
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Credit: Getty Images

Skillets: the kind of heavy metal that everyone appreciates—especially when they turn out your favorite pork chops or soft scrambled eggs. A well-equipped kitchen contains several different varieties of skillets, including cast iron, stainless steel, and nonstick. (We’re not counting the other essential pots and pans you should have, too, like a saucepan or heavy bottomed pot). Once you have that well-stocked kitchen, it’s up to you to learn how to use, clean, and care for your different types of skillets and pans (but we’ll get to that later).

If you were to buy only one of these skillets, it should be stainless steel. Stainless steel is your everyday beater. It can cook everything, and doesn’t need any special treatment. No time to wash? It’s OK to leave stainless steel soaking in water.

Cast iron might be heavy, and it must be cleaned correctly, but it turns food brown and crispy like magic. It’s easiest to buy a pre-seasoned skillet, but if you accidentally leave yours soaking in water, you can season it yourself. We like to leave our cast iron skillet out on the stovetop so it’s ready to use at a moment’s notice—it’s a pain to have to lug out the heavy pan from a cabinet.

While a well-seasoned cast iron skillet is practically nonstick, nothing can beat a true nonstick skillet when it comes to cooking delicate foods that stick easily. Look for models that have stainless steel or silicone-coated handles, which are oven-safe, rather than plastic ones.

Our favorite way to store skillets is to hang them. But if you’d rather stack them, make sure to place a couple of paper towels or reusable pan separators between each so they don’t scratch one another. Want to learn more about the different types of skillets you should (and probably already do) have? See our guide to types of skillets below, or read on to see how to use, care for, and clean three kinds of essential kitchen skillets.

Credit: RealSimple.com; illustrations by Melinda Josie

3 Common types of skillets

Credit: Melinda Josie

1

Made from: Iron, which heats slowly but evenly and stays scorching hot.

Best for: Searing a nice crust on meats, such as chops and steak. (Not good for acidic foods, like tomato sauce, as the iron reacts, imparting a metallic flavor.)

How to clean: Detergents strip the seasoning. Instead, wipe clean or scrub with hot water. For stuck-on bits, rub with 1/2 cup kosher salt, then rinse.

RELATED: How to Clean a Cast Iron Skillet

Credit: Melinda Josie

2

Made from: Stainless steel, an alloy that doesn’t chip, rust, or react with food. It heats up moderately, quickly, and evenly.

Best for: Everyday cooking: stir-fries, all sorts of vegetables and sauces, and meat (if you don’t own cast iron). Stainless steel will create a decent crust, too.

How to clean: For burned stains, boil two cups water and one tablespoon distilled white vinegar in the pan for 20 minutes, then scrub.

Credit: Melinda Josie

3

Made from: Aluminum, which heats up and cools down quickly, coated in several layers of a nonstick polymer known as PTFE (which is less toxic than Teflon).

Best for: Cooking fragile foods such as eggs, fish fillets, breaded cutlets, pancakes, and crepes.

How to clean: Scrub with a plastic brush, which won’t scratch. Before cooking, rub 1/2 teaspoon oil inside to safeguard the nonstick surface.