It's a thankless job. Your go-to frying pan is called upon day in, day out, to cook your eggs, sauté your vegetables, sear your steaks. If yours works as hard as mine, it doesn't even get put away – just washed and returned to the stovetop until pressed into service again. In many Canadian homes, the workhorse is a nine- or 10-incher, made of stainless steel. "Most people look to stainless because they understand it," says Caren McSherry, who sells more than 3,000 pans a year at her Vancouver emporium, Gourmet Warehouse.
But aluminum, which fell out of favour in the seventies amid (unproven) fears of a link to Alzheimer's disease, is becoming higher-tech and more popular. "Calphalon is the leading manufacturer of anodized aluminum," the product of an electro-chemical process that hardens the aluminum and leaves it virtually non-porous. "But our top seller is Scanpan," a Danish product with a cast-aluminum core and a non-stick cooking surface.
And, says McSherry, don't forget the granddaddy of skillets, cast iron.
In the search for the ultimate skillet – a versatile vessel that can strut its stuff from dawn till dinner – I put stainless, aluminum and iron through their
Stainless steel: My everyday pan is from Lagostina, circa 1992. Because I didn't respect that it is oven-safe to only 350 F, the plastic coating on the handle fell off long ago. Although my exact pan is no longer made, Lagostina's Windsor line is comparable. Sold in sets, the line's frying pan works out to just under $100.
Aluminum: Scanpan's CTX frying pan combines an aluminum core with a ceramic titanium non-stick surface that is free of PFOA, the harmful chemical found in Teflon. It's safe for use with metal utensils, and to 500 F in the oven. Stainless handle, $130.
Cast iron: Lodge iron pans have been around for more than 100 years, but mine happens to be a preseasoned KitchenAid from Canadian Tire. Very heavy all-iron construction, it's safe in temperatures much higher than your oven's max. $60 (but currently on sale for $20).
TRIAL NO.1: OMELETTE
Stainless: Butter goes from cold to nutty brown in 1½ minutes. The pan is a bit bottom-heavy, so utensil-less flipping takes courage, but can be done. If not, a spatula works well. If cheese seeps out, you may get some sticking; otherwise, the evenly browned omelette slides right out.
Non-stick aluminum: Even folks who aren't fans of non-stick (guilty) can't help but enjoy making an omelette in a pan like this. Heats up fast with just a dab of fat, and is weighted nicely for chefly flipping. Release is never a problem.
Cast iron: Not the disaster I feared, this skillet took only a bit longer to heat up, and instead of sticking, the cooked egg started to pull away from the edges in the usual way. Flipping is out of the question – the pan is too heavy and the handle too hot. Centre of omelette came out golden brown but edges were very dark. Pan left a slight metallic taste on the eggs.
TRIAL NO. 2: SAUTEED VEGETABLES
Stainless: This pan is well acquainted with my weeknight side of sautéed sliced peppers with sesame oil and garlic. I can get the pan hot enough to colour the peppers lightly – but too hot and the garlic will burn, so it's a delicate balance.
Non-stick aluminum: Peppers turn out lightly browned; garlic stays golden. Tossing is easy.
Cast iron: If you like to truly sauté, forget it: You can't toss anything in this bad boy. Meanwhile, my peppers turned beautifully brown, even blistered in places, which my home crew loved. The burnt garlic was less appealing.
TRIAL NO. 3: STEAK
Stainless: You can get this pan pretty hot on the stovetop for the initial sear, but forget about finishing your steak in the oven. On the upside, searing always leads to tasty bits stuck to the bottom of the pan, giving the opportunity to deglaze and make a great pan sauce. (Cleanup: Where there is sticking, there is scrubbing.)
Non-stick aluminum: Using a non-stick pan for a seared steak goes against my grain, but the results are good. Scanpan gives a nice sear, and with an upper threshold of 500 F in the oven, I can finish the steak the way I was taught at chef school. However, the non-stick surface means there's nothing to deglaze into a pan sauce. (Cleanup: about 45 seconds with hot, soapy water.)
Cast iron: This is a pan you can get screaming hot for a great sear, and finish in the oven at as many degrees as you want. Flavour of the pan doesn't detract as it did with omelette. Pan sauce is a go! (Cleanup: A bit finicky; after scrubbing with soapy water, the pan has to be dried properly and lightly oiled.)
THE LAST WORD
Although I'm used to straightforward stainless, Scanpan is undeniably more versatile and easier to use. But since I'm a sucker for a perfect steak, I'm keeping my cast iron at the back of the cupboard.