Frying pans are an essential kitchen utensil in many households, restaurants, and cafes. Perhaps you need to replace your old frying pan or are setting up your first kitchen in your new apartment or home. Deciding which fry pan to buy can be time-consuming due to the abundance of options. Should it be cast iron, carbon steel, stainless steel or nonstick?
This guide will help you learn about materials used to manufacture many of the frying pans on the market today. A printable checklist is available to assist in simplifying the process of choosing the right frying pan for your kitchen.
You can download the checklist for choosing the right frying pan.
Factors to Consider When Buying a Frying Pan
The type of cooking you will be using the pan for is an important consideration when selecting a fry pan. If you want to sear and/or fry foods, then cast iron, carbon steel or stainless steel are the best materials. However, if you only need a pan to prepare eggs, pancakes and delicate fish, then nonstick is a viable option.
Type of Cooktop
Another factor to consider when selecting a frying pan is the type of cooktop you will be using to prepare your meals. Induction cooktops heat food differently than electric or gas.
Induction cooktops have an electromagnetic coil under the cooktops. When the pan is placed on the burner (and the unit is on), current flows through the coil producing a magnetic field around and above the coil. This magnetic field goes through the metal of the pan and moves around inside the bottom and sides of the pan. The pan gets hot and heats up the food inside it.
In contrast, gas or electric stovetops use direct contact in the form of either flames or a heating element to heat the cooking vessel.
The best magnetic materials for induction cookware are steel, magnetic stainless steel, and cast iron. The stainless steel must contain iron to make it magnetic. Enameled and ceramic-clad pans and pots also work with induction cooktops.
Size and Weight
A 10” or 12” frying pan can be used to prepare most meals. Depending upon who is using the pan, weight may be a consideration. Some folks opt for carbon steel since cast iron pans are pretty heavy.
Budget is a consideration for many folks when it comes to making any type of purchase. Cheap pots and pans tend to dent and warp a lot quicker than the higher priced ones. If price is a constraint then this narrows your options.
Main Parts of a Pan
Types of Frying Pan Materials
Stainless Steel (bare)
Stainless steel is an iron-base alloy with a minimum of 10.5% chromium. It also contains nickel, manganese, carbon and small amounts of other elements. Chromium provides corrosion resistance while nickel makes the metal tougher, non-magnetic, corrosion resistant and adds luster.
PROS & CONS
Grades of Stainless Steel
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) is one of many organizations that assigns grades (they use a three digit identifier) to stainless steel. To receive a certain grade designation, the material must meet a certain set of requirements. This gives consumers an idea of what to expect in terms of characteristics such as durability and corrosion resistance.
Two common grades for stainless steel pots and pans are 304 and 316. The composition of a pan grade 304 must be 18-20% chromium and 8-10.5% nickel. The percentage of each element is translated into a number sequence, the first being chromium and the second nickel (e.g. 18/10, 18/8).
316 stainless steel has 2-3% molybdenum (304 only has trace amounts) in addition to the chromium and nickel. The higher molybdenum content provides increased corrosion resistance. It is used for medical and marine applications.
Some manufacturers stamp the grade on the bottom of the pot or pan while others only advertise that it is either 304 or 316 stainless steel.
The process of bonding different metals together under extreme pressure is called cladding.
Stainless steel has a lot of great properties, however, it is a poor heat conductor. To rectify this, manufactures add either an aluminum alloy or copper to the base. The result is a pan with great heating properties and one that is durable and corrosion resistant.
Two common terms used to describe stainless steel cookware construction are disc bottom (disc clad) and fully clad.
Disc Bottom Cookware
Cookware that is disc clad has an aluminum alloy or copper disc sandwiched between two layers of stainless steel. The disc spreads heat around the base of the pan but not up the sides.
The exterior stainless steel layer is wrapped over the bottom and is either magnetized stainless steel – 18/0, (making the pan induction compatible) or non-magnetized stainless steel. Most manufacturers do not extend the layers to the bottom edge of the sidewalls.
Fully Clad Cookware
Fully clad cookware (bottom and sides) is made from one sheet of multi-layered metal, (e.g. stainless steel, aluminum, and stainless steel) that is pressed into shape. Generally, the base of the pan will have the same thickness as the sidewalls.
In the case of a frying pan, fully clad cookware is preferable since the food is being cooked on the surface and up the sidewalls rather than only on the base as with disc bottom cookware.
Fully clad cookware has layers of metal bonded together in a single sheet. Sometimes, the word "ply" is used to describe the layer. The most common metals used are aluminum alloy, copper and stainless steel.
The number of layers of metals varies according to the pan. Some have three, five or seven layers and are sometimes referred to as “Multiclad”.
Common configurations are:
- Aluminum core sandwiched between stainless steel
- Copper core between layers of aluminum with interior and exterior stainless steel
- Alternating layers of aluminum and stainless steel
Thickness and Weight
While the number of layers is one consideration in choosing a fry pan, the thickness of the conductive layers is also important, especially in terms of heat distribution.
Thin layers tend to produce uneven heating because the distance from the heat source to the food is short. However, a thicker pan gives the heat more time to spread sideways before reaching the food. This results in less temperature variation across the pan.
Note: a 5-ply pan is not necessarily “better” than a 3-ply pan. The overall thickness is a more accurate determination of quality.
If you want a lightweight pan, then one option is to purchase a pan made of only stainless steel. However, if you prefer a pan with some weight to it, then a 3-layer pan is a reasonable choice.
What We Like About Stainless Steel Frying Pans
Concerns about chemical coatings have led some consumers to use stainless steel cookware. They like the fact there is no coating to flake, chip or peel and the pan is corrosion resistant.
Although there is a short learning curve, you don’t have to be a professional chef to learn how to cook with stainless steel. The main tips are: keep the heating level in the low to medium range, properly preheat the pan, and add the oil/fat after preheating.
A bonus to cooking with stainless steel is the accumulation of the brown crusty bits, commonly called “fond”, that stick to your pan. These can be used to make a flavorful sauce.
Another reason people enjoy cooking with stainless steel is its versatility. A meal can be started on the cooktop and then transferred to the oven. Be sure to check the manufacturer’s use and care guide for maximum oven temperatures. If necessary, the fry pan with leftovers can be placed in the refrigerator once cooled. Unlike carbon steel and cast iron, stainless steel does not react with acidic foods. It is also lighter than those two materials.
A high quality stainless steel fry pan will last a long time if it is properly used and maintained. If you decide to part with your untreated stainless steel pans, keep in mind that they are recyclable.
Cast iron is an iron-carbon alloy formed from cast molds. It is composed of at least 2% carbon, 1-3% silicon, and with the remainder being iron. This durable material retains heat well and if seasoned properly, is virtually non-stick.
Cast iron cookware can be used on a variety of heat sources such as gas, electric, ceramic-glass top or induction cooktop, in an oven, on a grill or over a fire pit.
Cooking with Cast Iron
Many people enjoy cooking with cast iron because it is durable, inexpensive, oven proof, retains heat well and is versatile. It is a great choice to sear, sauté, braise, fry and bake food. The only category of foods that cannot be prepared in cast iron are those that are acidic as they strip the seasoning and gives the food a metallic flavor.
For those who like to cook outdoors, whether in their backyard or at a campground, cast iron is a great option for preparing delicious meals.
Consistent use improves the seasoning thereby increasing the non-stick performance.
Food inevitably sticks to the very small rough spots on the surface of cast iron pans. When the pan is seasoned, the oil seeps into these places and removes the roughness resulting in a smooth, nearly nonstick surface.
Lodge Cast Iron suggests preheating the skillet for a few minutes prior to adding food. Stargazer Cast Iron recommends preheat on low heat for 5-10 minutes before adding food.
Some folks shy away from cooking with cast iron because they think it is too difficult or is too time consuming to maintain. However, it is very easy to use and care for a cast iron pot or pan.
There are only four steps to routine care: 1) hand washing, 2) drying (to prevent rust), 3) seasoning with a very thin layer of shortening or canola oil (Lodge recommendation) and 4) storing in a dry place. This article details the cleaning and seasoning process for newly acquired cast iron cookware and as well as the process for routine care.
Carbon steel is an option worth considering if you are looking for a naturally nonstick frying pan that is smoother and lighter than cast iron.
The type of carbon steel used in cookware manufacturing has less than 1% carbon and roughly 99% iron and are formed from large sheets of metal.
Carbon steel is durable, retains heat well and is virtually non-stick if well-seasoned and used frequently. It can be used on gas, electric, induction and ceramic cooktops as well as on the grill or over a campfire. These skillets are versatile enough so that you can sear, bake, broil and stir-fry in them.
Thickness is an important feature to consider when choosing a carbon steel pan as very thin ones tend to warp under high heat. The thickness of the 12.5” carbon steel pans from high-quality manufacturers such as deBuyer and Mauviel are 2.5mm and 3mm respectively.
The handles on these pans are angled, slat-shaped and secured by two or three rivets or are welded. Some handles are at more of an angle than others.
Even though carbon steel weighs less than cast iron, these pans have some heft to them.
The table below provides thickness and weight data for Lodge 12” Cast Iron and Carbon Steel skillets. The information was provided by Lodge customer service as it was not available on their website.
Lodge 12” Cast Iron w/ helper handle
The table below shows where some of the most popular brands manufacture their carbon steel pans.
Carbon Steel vs Black Steel vs Blue Steel
Carbon steel pans have finishes of silver, black and blue. The silver finish is a result of a polishing process during manufacturing and is commonly referred to as “carbon steel”. The black and blue finishes are obtained by heating the carbon steel at high temperatures resulting in a very thin layer of iron oxide.
Nonstick cookware is usually made of materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, cast iron, glass and ceramic and has a nonstick coating. The first decision to make when selecting a nonstick fry pan is to choose the type of coating.
Even though nonstick coatings have various chemistries, they generally fall into two categories: polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)-based and ceramic.
Teflon™ is one type of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) coating. Teflon™ was discovered by a DuPont chemist in 1938 and is registered trademark and a brand owned Chemours (formerly DuPont).
There has been a lot of controversy about the safety of PTFE. One concern was the potential health risk of one of its ingredients, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Chemours, the manufacturer of Teflon®, no longer uses PFOA in its coatings, (since 2013) nor does any reputable chemical company (since 2015).
Another issue is the potential human health risk when a cooking vessel with a PTFE based coating is overheated. According to Chemours, cookware with Teflon™ nonstick coating should not be heated above 260ºC (500ºF).
The rationale is that PTFE begins to degrade at temperatures above 350ºC at which point fine particles and gaseous compounds are released (Waritz, 1975). It is possible that if enough of these fumes are inhaled, one can experience flu symptoms for about 24 hours. (Harris, 1951 & Shumizu, 2012). It is important to note that the case studies of people who reported these symptoms, revealed the parties either left the pan unattended on a heated cooktop or an empty pan was heated. 
The American Cancer Society states there are no known risks to humans who use Teflon-coated cookware unless the pan overheats. They too report that if a person breathes in fumes produced by overheating, they might experience flu-like symptoms.
Another PTFE safety issue often discussed is the potential health risk associated with cooking on a scratched pan or consuming flakes of PTFE-based coatings. The long term effects, if any, of consuming PTFE are unknown.
Key factors when choosing a PTFE-based coated fry pan
- Does the pan have a “PFOA-Free” designation on the pan or the box?
- Is the manufacturer a reputable company?
- It is important that the coating is properly bonded to the pan so that it will not flake off or scratch easily.
- Does the pan have a coating system of at least three layers?(Those with one layer are easily scratched while those with three or more layers are more durable.)
Ceramic might be a better option if you:
- Plan to heat your skillet above 260ºC.
- Plan to use this fry pan to sear protein.
- Are concerned about the potential and unknown health effects of PTFE.
Tips for using cookware coated with PTFE based coatings
- Do not heat the pan over 260ºC.
- Use low to medium settings.
- Do not leave cookware unattended on a heated cooktop.
- Always heat the pan with something in it as an empty pan can quickly reach high temperatures.
- Consider the weight of your pan when heating. The ones that weigh less, heat faster than the heavier pans.
Protect the coating
- Don’t use aerosol cooking sprays.
- Using wooden, silicone or plastic utensils reduces the chance of scratching.
- Allow the pan to cool after cooking.
- Hand wash with a soft sponge and warm, soapy water.
- Turn an exhaust fan on or open a window to clear any fumes. Most people do this whether or not they are using PTFE coated pans.
- Throw out pans that are flaking, peeling, or in an abundance of caution, those that are scratched.
Ceramic nonstick coatings
Throughout the last 60 years there has been an evolution in the materials used in the construction of nonstick cookware. One example is the development and manufacture of products with ceramic nonstick coatings. These coatings are bonded to a cookware substrate such as hard anodized aluminum.
Most ceramic nonstick coatings are made from inorganic (no carbon) minerals, mainly silicon and oxygen (many ceramic coatings are derived from sand and quartz is the most common mineral in sand; quartz is composed of silicon and oxygen atoms).
Ceramic Nonstick Coatings
PROS & CONS
There are various brands of ceramic nonstick coatings. We take a look at these three popular coatings: GreenPan’s Thermolon™, Cuisinart’s Ceramica™ and Weilburger’s Greblon®.
In 2007, The Cookware Company, a Belgian company, introduced the first PTFE-free ceramic nonstick coating, Thermolon™. GreenPan, a higher end brand, makes nonstick cookware coated with Thermolon™ as does GreenLife™. This coating is derived from sand, transformed into a sprayable solution, sprayed onto the body of the fry pan and cured in the oven. Thermolon™ free of PTFE, PFAS and PFOA, lead and cadmium.
Recently, GreenPan completed their 5th evolution of coatings. The Thermolon™ coating is now reinforced with diamonds making it more durable and resilient.
Another ceramic nonstick coating is Cuisinart’s Ceramica™. It was first used in their GreenGourmet line, which debuted in 2008. The body of the pans are hard anodized aluminum and the coating is PTFE and PFOA free.
A titanium reinforced ceramic nonstick coating is also offered by Cuisinart is CeramicaXT. It too is PTFE and PFOA free. Cuisinart claims there is no need to add oil or butter to prevent foods from sticking when using pans with this coating.
Weilburger uses their brand, Greblon®, to market various coating system solutions such as fluoropolymer, polymer and sol-gel technology. The cookware industry is one of the many that uses Greblon® products.
Greblon® offers ceramic coatings that are PTFE free as well as coatings derived from stone that are PTFE based.
The Greblon® coating system used on the 12 inch Green Earth Fry Pan by Ozeri is free of PTFE, PFOA, lead and cadmium. The coating for this particular pan is made in Germany and then shipped to China for final assembly.
The Stone Earth frying pan by Ozeri has a PTFE based Greblon coating. This APEO and PFOA free coating is also manufactured in Germany.
PROS & CONS
Anodizing is a method of changing the chemistry of the surface of a metal such as aluminum. This hardening process improves the corrosion resistance of the aluminum alloy, the adhesion of subsequent coatings, and the pan’s durability.
Anodization is accomplished by submerging a metal such as aluminum, in a strong acid and charging it with an electrical current. The ensuing electrochemical reactions causes pores to form on the surface of the aluminum and then erode down into the substrate. The aluminum then combines with O2 ions to form aluminum oxide.
As current continues to be applied, the weak areas of the pores go deeper into the substrate. A series of straw-like hollow structures is formed. Once the required depth is reached, the process is stopped, and the substrate is rinsed in water to seal the part. The result is a hard, natural aluminum oxide coating that is corrosion resistant and durable.
Hard anodizing means the electrical current was applied until the pores were greater than 10 microns deep. Sometimes the depth can be 25 microns or more. This increased pore depth offers more corrosion protection and durability.
Some hard-anodized pots and pans have PTFE based coatings. For example, the Anolon Nouvelle Hard Anodized line is coated with Chemours Autograph® 2, which contains PTFE. In contrast, Cuisinart’s GreenGourmet Hard Anodized Nonstick cookware is coated with Ceramica®, which is PTFE and PFOA free.
Printable Checklist for Choosing the Right Frying Pan
What happens if the PTFE coated pan is overheated or cooked dry?
The pan may reach a temperature high enough that PTFE will break down and emit fumes.
Does PTFE react with other chemicals?
What is PFOA?
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a man-made chemical, was used in the process of making PTFE. It is no longer used by Chemours, the maker of Teflon® or other reputable manufacturers.
Why did DuPont add PFOA to PTFE?
PFOA was added to PTFE to smooth out the lumps in the freshly manufactured Teflon.
Why did DuPont and other chemical industries stop using PFOA?
The chemical industry and the U.S. EPA and other regulators agreed there were negative environmental and potential health impacts of PFOA. This summary details the history and health concerns of PFOA.
PFOA had been linked with various cancers (liver, testicular and pancreatic tumors) in rats. 
However, according to the EPA Scientific Advisory Board, there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that PFOA has the potential to cause cancer in humans.
When did DuPont, now Chemours, stop using PFOA?
The use of PFOA was completely discontinued in 2013 by Chemours and by other chemical industries in 2015.
What chemical is Chemours using as a replacement for PFOA?
According to an EPA report released in November, 2018, they are using GenX technology. Gen X is a brand name for technology that is used to make fluoropolymers without using PFOA.
Is GenX technology less toxic than PFOA?
The EPA completed a “draft assessment” for GenX chemicals focused only on the potential human health effects associated with oral exposure.
“The draft RfD [reference dose] for GenX chemicals suggests that they are less toxic than PFOA and PFOS. Overall, the available oral toxicity studies show that the liver is sensitive to GenX chemicals.
When overheated, PTFE coatings can degrade and release fine particles and gases.