Choosing a Frying Pan
Posted by May 28, 2012 in Brand Feature, Cookware, Featured Articleson
With a large variety of brands, designs and features, choosing a frying pan to spend your life with can be a daunting decision. Read on for an explanation of some terms, and how to choose the best frypan for you.
Because your frying pan is the most heavily used piece of cookware in your kitchen, small things like how heavy it feels, how it looks with your other cookware, and how easy it is to cook with make a big difference to your everyday experience in the kitchen. When you’re choosing a frying pan to buy, it’s important to know what certain features and materials mean for your final experience, and that’s what I’ll attempt to demystify here.
Firstly, frypans go by a few different names. Besides frypan, fry pan and frying pan, you might also see skillet or French skillet. Attached to these names you might see ‘open’ or ‘covered’ – which just means if it comes with a lid or not – so you end up with “open French skillet“. While you will see differences in size and shape between brands, these names all mean the same thing; a standard flat pan with medium high sides, for frying in.
Venturing out of the standard frying pan shape, you have modified frypan designs for different purposes or cooking styles. Some dishes, like crêpes and pancakes, are hard to serve over high sides, so a frypan with very low, almost non-existent, sides is called a crêpe pan. Other dishes, like curries, need even higher sides than a normal frypan, and a frypan with high, straight sides is called a sauté pan. To replicate BBQ-style grilling for steaks, fish and vegetables, some frypans have raised ribs on the base, and they’re called grill pans, skillet grills or griddles. None of these would really replace a frypan in your kitchen, but they make great supplements to your general purpose frying pan, either in addition or instead of a second or third fry pan.
Non Stick Frying Pans
Few developments have changed cooking in the way that non-stick coatings have. While non-stick saucepans, stockpots and other cookware pieces are great, non-stick frypans are where you see the most benefits. You can use much less oil, food stirs and flips easily, and you don’t end up with burnt and destroyed food from simple miscalculations.
One of the most common questions about non-stick is, how do they get something that doesn’t stick, to stick to a pan? It was a difficult question for the original developers, too. The first to work out the process was the founder of Tefal in France, although PTFE was developed by DuPont many years earlier in the US. Simply, by ‘pitting’ the interior metal with lots of holes, there is more traction and surface area for the non-stick to grip onto. The other way is to layer non-stick surfaces of different ‘stickiness’, so the most sticky goes on the underlying metal, and progressively less sticky layers build up until the top, non-stick layer.
Of course, these days there are alternatives to the standard PTFE-based non-stick material. Often marketed as ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly’, PTFE-free non-stick is usually a ceramic or mineral based formulation, and can offer many benefits over traditional non-stick. Each one is different, but overall they tend to be better at conducting heat to food, more resistant to abrasion and peeling, and perform better at high temperatures.
Stainless Steel Pans
While non-stick fry pans are great, there are situations when cooking on stainless steel will yield better results. Think steaks, chicken, mushrooms – anything where you want really good browning. This browning is called the Maillard Reaction, and is a very complicated chemical reaction which breaks down the outside layers of proteins into other compounds, and is responsible for crispy brown colouring. All cooking, as long as it is hot enough, will produce Maillard browning, but stainless steel frypans produce a different type to non-stick – just as grilling does with its distinctive stripes of severe browning. This is probably because at the surface, stainless steel can get a lot hotter than non-stick, and it sears the surface of food directly.
There are ways to use stainless steel frying pans without destroying your food. Some tips include adding oil to a hot pan, and letting it get properly hot (just below smoking point) before adding food, and ensuring that food is spaced correctly in the pan helps. Food will stick and unstick through the cooking process, so if your food isn’t budging, turn down the heat and serve (or turn) once the food lets go. Of course, oil (and quite a bit of it) is necessary, but if you serve food individually rather than pouring food with the oil, you can leave much of it in the pan, and drain your food with kitchen paper to reduce the overall oil content before serving.
If you enjoy cooking with stainless steel, you can get away with having only stainless steel pans, but for most people a combination of stainless steel and non-stick pans is ideal, so you can choose the right pan for the job.
Other Fry Pans
Of course, it’s not all about non-stick vs stainless steel frypans, there are other types too! I recently wrote about cast iron cookware, which has an enamel cooking surface, sometimes considered a halfway point between the two. You can also find aluminium cookware, where you cook on aluminium instead of stainless steel, however this reacts with acidic foods like asparagus, tomatoes and wine, giving food a weird metallic flavour. For most cooking, however, either stainless steel or some kind of non-stick are the easiest way.
We use “stainless steel” as a shortcut for not-non-stick (you can see why!), but of course non-stick fry pans can be made of any material, including stainless steel. The underlying material of your cookware affects how light your frypan is in your hand, and how well it conducts heat.
Stainless steel by itself is heavy and conducts heat poorly. For this reason, you rarely see stainless steel used as a cookware material by itself, except in cheap and poor quality cookware – not something we’d sell at Le Domaine! Stainless steel frypans are usually made with bonded combinations of aluminium and/or copper, either just in the base or all the way through the sides (called clad or 3-ply cookware). 3-ply cookware is typically quite a bit more expensive than cookware with bonded bases, but they provide better heat performance.
Hard anodised is a type of aluminium, with a thick protective ‘crust’, and almost always non-stick surfaces. The biggest advantage of hard anodised frypans is that they are very strong, while still being lightweight and conducting heat well. Unlike stainless steel which can bump and dent, ‘hard’ anodised aluminium takes a lot more to bend out of shape. On its own, hard anodised aluminium will not work with induction cooktops, however many new brands are now made with a stainless steel base plate so they will work on induction. This base plate can add to the weight of a hard anodised frypan, so if you know you’re going to be sticking with gas, you might as well try and find a pan without it.
Aluminium is very much like hard anodised, except that it isn’t as strong. Aluminium by itself is more of a hobby cooking material, because of how it reacts with food and the care and maintenance it requires. Consumer friendly aluminium frypans are protected with a hard enamel exterior, so they won’t dent and bend, and a non-stick interior which is easy to cook on. The same note about induction compatibility applies here; look for a steel baseplate if you need induction, otherwise look for a frypan without one.
Enamelled Cast Iron frypans provide a very different cooking experience to stainless steel and aluminium. Cast iron takes a long time to heat up, but once it gets hot it can get very, very hot! Warming them up with boiling water before use will help, and once they’re hot use them for searing steaks, cooking fish and even roasting in the oven. You probably wouldn’t use a cast iron frypan every day, but if you’re after a different cooking experience it can be extremely rewarding.
Choosing the Best Fry Pan!
I hope this guide has given you some help in choosing your ideal frying pan. Start looking to see what’s available, which features appeal to you, and what fits with your budget, and it might just be the case that it all comes down to one!
If you’re still not sure about certain terms, or need help choosing between one design and another, please ask me in the comments below and I’ll help you out.
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