Best Frying Pans for the Way You Cook

Nonstick, cast iron, stainless steel, or copper? Here’s how to decide what you need, plus the best models from CR’s tests

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Frying pans are the workhorses of the kitchen, and if you’re like most home cooks, you probably own more than one—and more than one type. Makes sense, because not every skillet is appropriate for every cooking task. That’s why Consumer Reports currently tests four types of frying pans: nonstick, cast iron, stainless steel, and copper.

“There are a few things to consider when you’re buying cookware, including how you cook, durability, and price,” says Lance Nitahara, an assistant professor at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y. “On the low-end of the price scale are nonstick and cast iron; copper is on the high-end. But each does a different thing.”

Below, you’ll find advice on how to choose the right frying pan for how you cook, plus highlights of top-performing pans from CR’s tests, listed alphabetically and not by rank. You can see how all the pans we test perform in our frying pan ratings and learn more about the different types of pans in our cookware buying guide.

Nonstick Frying Pans

Best for: Scrambled or fried eggs, pancakes, fish, grilled cheese, and any food that has a high probability of sticking to a typical pan. With nonstick skillets, these foods all slide easily from frying pan to plate.

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The details: They solve the frustration of food sticking, and they require little oil for cooking. Plus they’re lightweight, easy to clean, and affordable. But they can’t take the high heat of a cast iron or stainless steel frying pan. “You’re not going to get much of a sear in a nonstick pan,” says Cindy Fisher, who oversees Consumer Reports’ cookware tests.

And they don’t last as long as cast iron, stainless, or copper frying pans. “Nonstick is going to wear out the fastest,” says Nitahara. “The nonstick coating is fragile, and once you scratch it, it’s hard to flip an egg.”

In our tests of nonstick pans, we cook four eggs in quick succession. An Excellent rating means all four eggs easily slide out of the pan. A Poor rating indicates that some egg residue was left behind. To test nonstick durability, we rub the pan with steel wool for 2,000 strokes or until the coating has worn through.

Here are two recommended nonstick skillets from CR's tests.

Stainless Steel Frying Pans

Best for: Virtually any food that needs frying or browning, including searing meat. Because it’s oven-proof, stainless is also a good choice for foods that you start on the stovetop and then move to the oven to finish, like thick pork chops.

The details: Nitahara says that 95 percent of the pans used in the CIA teaching kitchens are stainless steel, because they can take a lot of punishment. “The only time we don’t use them is on egg day, when we use nonstick,” he says. He adds that the shiny surface of a stainless pan makes it easy to see whether your food is browning.

In CR’s tests of stainless steel pans, we measure a pan’s heating evenness by cooking pancakes and gauge how evenly a pan sautés by cooking potatoes until they’re tender. We also conduct a cleaning test to see how easy it is to remove the cooked-on food. You’d think all stainless pans would be about the same to clean, but our tests show that some require a lot more scrubbing than others.

Here are two recommended stainless steel pans from CR's tests.

Cast-Iron Frying Pans

Best for: Virtually any food that needs searing, including steak and burgers. Cast-iron pans are oven-proof, so you can use them to roast meats like beef or pork and also to bake cornbread, deep dish pizza, Shepherd's pie, and more. And they retain heat so well that they’re also a good choice for deep frying chicken, donuts, or other foods, because they keep the oil at a constant temperature.

The details: Cast-iron frying pans are practically indestructible, and in many families they’re handed down for generations. That makes their typically low price even more attractive. And if well cared for, cast iron develops a patina that releases food almost as well as nonstick. But they’re heavy, and you have to be patient when heating them up because they don’t come up to temperature fast. Once they do, however, they retain their heat.

Our tests of cast-iron pans show how versatile this cookware can be. We sear steaks, brown scallops, and bake cornbread to see how well a cast-iron pan works for home cooks. The best pans ace all these tests. We also judge how easy they are to clean. All but two do very well on that test. For more on cast-iron pans, read the Best Cast-Iron Frying Pans From CR’s Tests.

Here are two recommended cast iron pans from our tests.

Copper Frying Pans

Best for: Delicate proteins like fish and seafood, melting sugar, making candy and sauces.

The details: Copper frying pans are expensive, but they offer superb heat conductivity. That means they heat up quickly and cool down just as fast, giving you more control when you’re making something you have to monitor closely, like a caramel sauce. “They’re at the opposite end of the spectrum from cast iron,” says Nitahara. “Because it heats up and cools down quickly, you can bring a sauce right to the brink, then remove it from the heat before it breaks from the high heat.”

You can put a copper pan in the oven if you’re making a dessert like a tarte tatin, but remember that copper can’t take the high heat of cast iron or stainless, so most manufacturers don’t recommend temperatures above 450 degrees.

In our tests, we group copper frying pans with stainless steel pans, which are also uncoated metal. And we put them through the same heating evenness and sauté performance tests. We also cook foods that require controlled heat, including risotto, a gooey banana tarte tatin, and melted white chocolate. All the copper pans perform well, Fisher says. For more on these pans, read the Best Copper Frying Pans From CR’s Tests.

Here are two recommended copper pans from CR's tests.

Mary H.J. Farrell

Knowing that I wanted to be a journalist from a young age, I decided to spiff up my byline by adding the middle initials "H.J." A veteran of online and print journalism, I've worked at People, MSNBC, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and an online Consumer Reports wannabe. But the real thing is so much better. Follow me on Twitter.