The Frying Pan, Skillet
A frying pan seems fairly simple until you go into its uses and the way it actually operates. In the old days when these pans only came in iron, there was little to choose beyond its size. Today when these pans come in a number of different metals some of which have coating to prevent sticking, it's much harder to determine which pans are of good quality. The recent focus on these pans has been in the non-stick coatings, and most people don't know much beyond this point to allow them to intelligently choose a good pan.
There are several points that one should look at to determine which pans are going to give them good service. First you need to take a look at the uses that these pans are intended for. Take for instance frying an egg, seems simple, but it's not. Frying eggs tends to work best if the egg lands in an area of the pan that is covered with cooking oil, and once the oil in the pan is hot it tends to flow to the lowest area in the pan. In most cases you want your pan to contain only a small amount of cooking oil so this is where the pan makes a big difference. The construction and materials the pan is made of become important.
Take a look at one of your pans. It is flat in the bottom and if its aluminum, it slowly curves upward to the top. As the pan is heated, the bottom expands, and when cooled it contracts. If the pan is aluminum the heating and cooling causes the pan to also flex since the center of the pan is hotter than the curved up edges. Since a thin aluminum bottom bends easily as it is forced out against the cooler curved edge which acts as a strong immovable object, it puckers up or down. After a few heating and cooling cycles, the bottom of the pan is no longer flat and permanently assumes its new shape. Since the bottom of these pans usually pucker upward, now the cooking oil will form a thin ring around the edge of the bottom of the pan. This isn't quite what you need for cooking things like eggs, pancakes, French toast, etc. What you need is for the cooking oil to lie in a flat even coat.
So, if you are going to use your pan in this fashion, you need the bottom of the pan to be thick enough to prevent it from bending as it expands. If it is aluminum and since aluminum is not very stiff, it will need to be quite thick, at least double the thickness of a similar sized iron pan. You will likely need to get this pan at a store that handles professional grade cookware. Normal retailers are in the business of selling in volume which means the best they handle is likely not of a grade that will last long or stay flat.
There is also an additional item that can make the pan ideal for cooking flat objects such as pan cakes or French toast. There is a pan shaped just for this type cooking. It has very low sides, often not more than a half of an inch high. These pans are generally fairly substantial in thickness so they don't tend to warp, or bulge upward or downward in the middle. These pans use to be fairly common in the early half of the 20th century but have all but disappeared in recent years. These pans make it easier to turn or move flat items that are being cooked since you have access to them more easily from almost any direction where the edges of a standard height pan get in the way of the outer 210 degrees of radius of items near the edge. The standard pan just makes it awkward to get a spatula under any food near the edge, where a low edge allows near full access from all directions.
There is an additional consideration that needs to be considered when choosing a frying pan. How do you want the food cooked? Should it be cooked by radiant convection heat or by thermal heat transfer? There is a difference. In general, most pans use thermal heat transfer to heat up objects that are in contact with. Thermal heat transfer is where the heat transfers through the metal of the pan and directly to the food by contact often added by fluids such as water or oil. Radiant convection on the other hand cooks foods more like an oven. The heat is transferred by radiant energy. No contact is actually needed because the heat is transferring through infrared wave length light similar to that found in toasters and broilers. This heat can also be much hotter and still not burn the food since the heat is transferring deep into the surface of the food and not just to the outermost contact area. This causes the food to heat from within without drying out or over heating the surface of the food. Pans that exhibit this quality are most often made of iron. There are aluminum pans that have this quality but they are very thick and have a much lower radiant quality to that of iron.
This may seem a step backward in the choice of cookware, but it is a consideration for those who want to cook as well as possible. Often iron pans cook food much better than the best aluminum cookware could hope to produce. Fish and meats often require this type of heat to bring out their best flavors since these foods tend to become toughened when cooked by thermal heat transfer.
Bare iron requires much less cooking oil than does any other cookware. Pans of bare iron tend to absorb the oil into their surface which tends to more evenly distribute the oil, so the surface needs only to be ever so lightly oiled when cooking most foods. Since one of the main jobs of the cooking oil is to act as an agent to transfer heat to the food and since iron radiates most of its heat to the food, little more oil is needed for cooking in iron than is required for flavoring the food. Also, since iron is very hard and stiff, it is unlikely to ever warp or pucker even when extremely over heated.
Please see our article on cooking with iron for detailed information on the care, preparation and handling of iron cookware.
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