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Please help me choose a great skillet (or 2!)

My new year's resolution is to really learn to cook this year -- I mean actual techniques, not just following recipes. We just renovated our kitchen and it's really got me motivated. I've also been thinking about taking "lessons" from rouxbe.com (although that's another post). Along those lines, i want to get some good quality cookware. Quality is more important than price.

My neighbor is a Pampered Chef consultant, so just about everything I currently own is Pampered Chef. It's time to branch out. I use their 12" Executive skillet (which is nonstick but does an okay job on browning) for just about everything. It's very forgiving -- almost impossible to burn anything in it -- but I think I may need to replace that with two different pans, one for browning/sauteeing and one for other things. Is this correct?

I've been doing a lot of reading here and the main result is that I'm now very confused. I recently purchased a 5 qt. French oven from Le Creuset and I absolutely love it. The thing just makes me want to cook! I was thinking about buying one of their skillets, but am having second thoughts. I'm now leaning towards a deBuyer carbon steel pan ... but if it's fairly nonstick, won't I need a something else to get a good sear/brown/fond? I do need a 12" or so skillet since I'm cooking for 4.

Thanks so much for any help you can give me.

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    1. One of the interesting things about this site is trying to figure out which of the people posting thinks and cooks most like you. While I absolutely respect the line of thinking that went into the top 7 list in the preceding post, my top 3 are not even on the list! For cooking for four unless you are more interested in(actually Asian cookery (in which case a good carbon steel wok is on the list) I'd go with a 12" or even 14" (actually, it is between 13 and 14) DeBuyer or other comparable carbon steel fry pan. They sear wonderfully, are, IMHO, much easier (or quicker) to season than cast iron, and are indestructible. The extra room really will improve browning for larger items like a couple of ribeyes or flattened chicken breasts.

      I'd get the best medium sized saucepan I could afford, a 2-3 mm thick copper with a cast iron handle and a tin lining if I could afford it. (You will be amazed at how much more affordable tin lined copper is than stainless steel lined and you will read posts on this site touting it as a better cooking surface than SS). #3 would be a generic SS stockpot with a good heavy disc (likely aluminum) on the bottom. 10 qt. seems to be a good size, but if, as the prior post recommends, you go for 16 it will not ruin your life. Anything smaller than 10 qt might be a little limiting.

      If you are used to cooking in nonstick, steel or cast iron will be a big change. My guess is that you will quickly develop a new sense of what good browning means. Nonstick being what it is makes it almost impossible to develop fond, the little pieces of yucky looking brown stuff that get left in the pan and make life worth living when you deglaze the pan with a little wine and/or brandy, add a few twists of the pepper grinder, one or two more for good measure, a pinch of Halen Mon salt, a little fresh sage from the garden, and OMG...No, it will not leave a pristine pan. You won't care. Without even getting into the "Will it kill my canary or won't it?" debate, I really think pans that DO stick cook many things better. If a nonstick surface is that important, as in the case of an omelet, it can be achieved with carbon steel fairly quickly.

      Congrats on the Le Creuset. Go make some braised short ribs while you ponder your next move.

      1. IMO, you really couldn't go wrong by picking up a nice Lyonnaise-style carbon steel pan for general cooking like browning onions and cooking vegetables, and also a 12" cast iron skillet for searing meat. These kinds of pans are quite reasonably priced and should last for a lifetime (or several). I'd also suggest holding onto the nonstick pan for cooking things like fish and eggs.

        1. Ultimately, it depends what you want to do with you skillet. If al you want to do is to make sunny-side up egg and omelette, then you may want a nonstick Teflon pan. Otherwise, nonstick skillets can be limiting because they cannot handle high heat and they have problem forming crust on foods... etc.

          In my opinion, a carbon steel frying pan like DeBuyer is a great choice. It is relatively nonstick (assuming you season the pan). It can handle high heat and provide adequet thermal mass. A bare cast iron skillet liked Lodge is also good. Heavier, but provide even more thermal mass. However, Le Creuset enameled cast iron skillet makes little sense to me.

          Ultimately it is figuring what task you want to achieve with the skillet, then pick a cooking material (staineless steel vs cast iron vs aluminum ....etc), then pick a brand. Don't start off the brand.

          1. I don't know how much weight lifting you've been doing :-) I would NEVER get a 10"+ pan that doesn't have a second handle, especially those made with heavy material like cast iron and carbon steel. Some clad stainless steel pieces are quite heavy too.

            I have a 12" carbon steel pan at home. The thought of having to take it out saddens me. It cooks perfectly, but I just have a hard time carrying it when it's hot.

            1. Good point on the helper handles. I don't have any pans with them and sometimes I fear a mid-operation collapse. The handles on pans don't get as much discussion as the pans themselves but I have to say I HATE All Clad handles. I also HATE brass handles not just because they get so hot and not just because they come on light weight copper pans but because they are almost always so skinny as to be useless...you know, like All Clad handles!

              3 Replies
              1. re: tim irvine

                tim: Next time you need to retin a pan you would like a helper on, consider Hammersmith/organic-cookware.com. I have had them add CI helpers to very large saucepans, and they do it right (i.e., 4 rivets, design to maximize shear strength, etc.) for not that much money.

                1. re: kaleokahu

                  That is great info. My 62 year old wrists can toss around heavy pans like they used to and I am not sure my nervous system could handle Jamie at Atlantic again!

                  1. re: tim irvine

                    tim: Hammersmith billed me shop time at $20/hr. And with a one-off sand casting for the helper, I think it added $50 to the total cost. They have all of Waldow's presses and tooling from the Early 20th C., so they can basically fab anything. They pressed an old 4G pan that had a sagged bottom back to flat, too.

              2. Consider the Tramontina jumbo cooker tri ply from Walmart. It's a 12" saute pan and quite deep ( I think 5 qt) so really could handle almost everything you want to cook.
                I credit ChemicalKinetics for the recent carbon steel fervour that is gripping us ( or at least for having gotten my attention!) to the point that I found myself with a renewed enthusiasm for my deBuyer. My crepe/omelette pan was always in use but lately I am using the skillet more and even starting the inevitable 'do I need another carbon steel' debate with myself.
                So it's a very good suggestion by fellow CHer's and I throw the Tramontina jumbo cooker suggestion into the mix for consideration. It's NOT non stick of course but no reason not to keep a nonstick around or better, pick up the carbon steel as wel!

                1. Thanks for the helpful replies from everyone. I've started out by ordering a DeBuyer carbon steel pan that should arrive shortly. Will see how that works for me, then I'll probably buy another pan or two suggested here.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Emerald_City

                    Let us know how it works out. Most people who got it like the DeBuyer pans, me included. Few people struggle with the seasoning process, but that is an easy fix.

                  2. I have several different kinds of skillets. The ones I use the most are the LC white enamel interior skillets. If you like the way your LC dutch oven sautes onions, carrots, celery, meat, etc before you put it in the oven, then I would suggest you try an LC skillet with a lid. Aside from the general browning and saute, I like the way they handle the stove to -oven to -table for things like polenta, cornbread, etc.