Any chef will tell you that the sign of a good cook is a pot rack full of uncoated stainless steel (or, even more impressively, copper) cookware—but let's be honest, there are some cooking tasks that even the cheapest nonstick skillet can do far better than its stainless counterpart (hello, perfectly cooked omelet).
In recent years, nonstick cookware has gotten a bad rap for health and environmental concerns, but know that it's safe when used properly, and some of the chemicals used to make nonstick, such as PFOA and PTFE, are being phased out from production, thanks to the EPA. As long as you don't overheat your cookware and don't use metal utensils, you're good to go.
We held a wide range of nonstick brands up to the fire to see how evenly they heated and cooked foods, how easily they released sticky stuff, if their handles were comfortable to grip and, most importantly, how easy they were to clean up. That meant a lot of scrambling and frying eggs, sautéeing fish and vegetables, and flipping pancakes to arrive at these four favorites.
Swiss Diamond HD Pro, $160 for a 9.5-inch pan
Why We Like It: This good-looking skillet is all about the handle. It's hollow, long and set at an angle to facilitate grabbing and moving the pan (read: Tossing a stir-fry or expertly flipping an omelet is a breeze). Plus, the handle is attached with tiny rivets and welded, so there are no food-trapping rivets inside. The pan has a diamond-reinforced nonstick surface, which sounds gimmicky, but it does make for a very durable coating. It wasn't as slick as some (a fried egg required a little work to loosen), but it gave a nice browned crust to a salmon fillet. The induction-compatible and oven-safe (up to 500?) pan is stainless steel with an aluminum core, and it heated evenly with no hot spots.
The Drawbacks: The shiny stainless steel exterior of this pan will eventually get stained and discolored, particularly if you cook on a gas cooktop. Though some people don't mind this "patina," neat freaks might get frustrated with maintaining its like-new luster.
Scanpan Classic, $89 for a 10.25-inch fry pan
Why We Like It: Eco-conscious cooks, listen up. The pan is made from recycled aluminum, and its nonstick coating is ceramic-titanium based without the use of PFOA. The cast aluminum body retained heat beautifully, and although the cooking surface required a tiny amount of oil or butter to be nonstick, it released scrambled eggs well and cooked a fillet of delicate fish uniformly.
The Drawbacks: This cookware is not induction compatible.
Circulon Symmetry, $40 for an 11-inch skillet
Why We Like It: Circulon is known for the concentric grooved circles on the surface of its cookware. It's designed to protect the PFOA-free nonstick coating and help the food release easily. Scrambled eggs stuck a little to the grooves, but a fried egg cooked with zero oil and released with no problem, and a chicken breast browned evenly (although we did notice that there was a faint lined pattern seared onto its browned exterior). The aluminum cookware is hard anodized (which makes it more durable), is oven safe to 400? and is induction compatible.
The Drawbacks: There's no loop at the end of the handle to hang it from a pot rack. Plus, the handle is riveted onto the body with food-trapping rivets inside the pan.
T-fal Total Opticook, $20 for a 10-inch skillet
Why We Like It: This lightweight aluminum pan is a great option for budget-conscious, novice cooks. It has a comfortable molded plastic handle, and the nonstick interior of the pan (which is coated with titanium-reinforced nonstick) has a feature unique to the T-fal brand: A medallion in the center will visibly change when the pan is sufficiently preheated. The pan didn't heat quite as evenly as other pans we tested, but the temperature differences didn't seem to affect the cooking process much: Scrambled eggs cooked particularly well on the slick nonstick surface. And because the aluminum is so heat conductive, it heated quickly and was more responsive to temperature changes than other pans.
The Drawbacks: The pan has those food-trapping interior rivets, and the lip isn't flared, which can cause messy drips. Plus, like most inexpensive nonstick cookware, it is not really oven safe (only up to 350?), nor is it induction compatible.
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