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I already have cast iron skillet but I can't find a decent "normal" pan, for eggs and stuff, sometimes steaks, more or less general purpose.

Here are some more features: high quality, durable, non stick, oven safe, dish washer safe, extremely flat surface - not to be higher in the middle, this is very important.

Of course pricier usually means better quality, but is it worth it based on the criteria I'm after? Is it likely to be worth going from pans below $60, to pans from $60 to $130, or to pans over $130?

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Removed comments - you want to debate policy, do it on Seasoned Advice Meta. –  Aaronut Feb 10 '14 at 3:54

3 Answers 3

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Instead of endless comment discussions, I decided to post an answer.

First of all, I totally agree with Jefromi. Nobody in the world knows how to produce durable non-stick pans (if we form our expectations of durability similar to expectations of regular pans, so several years or a few decades). If you invest into the most expensive non-stick pan in the world, it will still lose its non-stickiness after some time. The non-stick surface is like a bar of soap, it gets destroyed with use.

But this doesn't mean that buying the cheapest pans is the best decision, because the cheapest pans 1) have other flaws besides lack of durability, and 2) can wear out quicker.

What is the relation between pan quality and price? I took a look at test results from Stiftung Warentest, a very thorough consumer research organisation in Germany. It is independent of all manufacturers and has strict quality control of its measuring methods. I looked at results from three tests: a non-stick pan test from 2007, a "budget" non-stick pan test from 2004, and a PTFE- and ceramic pan test from 2011. (The tests are in German. To see a table with numeric results, click at the "Testergebnisse: Pfannen" tab in the left-side menu of each article. The first numeric column, Qualitaetsurteil, is a weighted score calculated from the numbers in the columns to the right. The numbers are in the German school grade system, 1.0 for best and 5.0 for worst. All brands are widely available in Germany and may not be available internationally. I didn't bother to account for inflation in the following conclusions.)

What the first test shows: There is not a strong correlation between price and quality within the mid-price segment. Most pans are in the 30-80 Euro range, and most of them get a grade between 2.0 and 3.0.

Strangely, the second test also has pans up to 119 Euro, despite its title promising budget pans. But it includes more cheap pans than the first test. Again, we see that there is not much correlation between price and grade. Also, not all pans have the same strengths: for example the Ikea pan has a great score at non-stickiness, but it is mediocre in frying result quality, and its handle gets too hot. The 119 Euro pan gets a rather bad grade, but the best four pans are expensive, in the 68-99 Euro range.

The third test is hard to interpret. They compared ceramic and PTFE in the same test and pronounced ceramic the clear winner. 2011, ceramic pans were way too new on the market, so they probably didn't know about their weakness: the ceramic fails after a few months of use, much more spectacular than PTFE, without a correlation to mechanical damage (unlike PTFE). So they used a testing procedure geared at mechanical damage to calculate the test score (they filled the pan with ball bearings and moved it, and also used sandpaper on it). On the main page of the article, as well as on the Amazon reivews of these pans, there are multiple people saying that the non-stick fails quite early.

Beside this methodological fault, we can see that there isn't all that much difference between the pans measured. The best gets a 2.0 and there is only one below 2.5.

An America's test kitchen test which Jefromi linked in the comments also evaluated pans. The results are behind a paywall, but the methodology is free to read. They say that they tested durability by repeatedly frying an egg, until the egg started sticking. Most of them failed after 30 to 40 eggs, a single one kept going after 76, but there were ones which failed almost immediately. Luckily, you don't have to throw out the pan the first time an egg sticks, but this confirms that, beside a few outliers, nonstick pans have a very similar lifetime.

My advice is to go to a physical store and buy a nice heavy-bottomed pan, without splurging on the most expensive ones. Choose one which feels heavy enough to give you a good heat distribution and has visibly good production quality. It will probably last a couple of years. The actual life can vary a lot depending on how frequently you fry and how good you are at controlling temperature and treating it gently (no dishwasher!). It is personal preference how much you are willing to spend for this kind of lifetime.

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To be honest, decent non-stick pans are a dime a dozen. I'd never put a non-stick pan in the dishwasher no matter what the label says, so I wouldn't even consider that a factor.

Oven-safe is a major consideration. The higher the temperature you want to bake at the less non-stick you coating will be. I have a high-temperature "non-stick" pan that I can't fry eggs on because they adhere like epoxy resin. So, if you do really need to bake them at high temperature save a bit of your budget and get 2 sets, one a nice set of high-temperature non-stick pans and the other an inexpensive run of the mill set of teflon pans. If you don't need high-temperature than save some money and get an inexpensive set of teflon pans, you can throw a load of money down on them and get very little extra benefit.

As for steaks, use your cast-iron, you won't get a better result on an non-stick pan that's for sure.

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Thanks for good advice. –  Ska Feb 9 '14 at 14:45
@GdD Not sure if I'm allowed to ask, but I see some non-sticks in the range of $30, some in the range of $60, and then $130, even over $200. What would you consider mid-range, which I'm after, 60 or 130? Again it's really hard to ask without showing concrete examples. Couldn't a cast iron also serve as high temp oven pan? –  Ska Feb 10 '14 at 1:27
@Ska The reason that the moderators are so strict about asking about brands is to prevent the forum from being used by advertisers to plug their wares, as other forums have become. Also, this is a worldwide forum, and brands are often to be too localized to be of use. Although originally from NYC I live in the UK, I couldn't tell you what brands to buy in Kalamazoo, or Timbuktu. It's not personal, so just chill! –  GdD Feb 10 '14 at 9:25
@Ska, your question about price is very relevant, happy to answer. Cast iron makes a great high-temperature pan, I don't bother to use my high-temp non-stick, instead I use that. For stovetop operations I have a fairly basic and inexpensive (say $40) 2 pan set of store-brand (Linea, like I said it's the UK) non-stick pans. I don't see the point in spending more. –  GdD Feb 10 '14 at 9:29
@GdD Interesting, I'm looking at $50 vs $115, the one at $115 does seem to have much better ratings and reviews on Am***.com, goes up to 500F, versus 400F, more established brand, both are hard anodized. Usually for the cheaper, I always see reviews like "didn't last long", "got chipped", etc. For $115 one, almost none. It's a French brand that usually makes nice cast irons, but they have some non-sticks which is this one for $115. –  Ska Feb 10 '14 at 14:07

Nonstick coatings can only be so good; you can keep spending more and more money and it's still just going to wear out over time. For that reason, the expensive nonstick pans are often worse in the end, unless you have infinite money or want to accumulate a collection of non-nonstick pans over your lifetime. You're paying a premium for the features of the pan besides the nonstick, and you're going to end up wanting to replace it to get a fresh new nonstick coating, wasting your investment.

So really, you only want to worry about durability up to a point. The durability of the coating is going to pretty much max out, and it doesn't matter as much if the rest of the pan is durable beyond that. If the pan warps slowly over time, but it's still flat after the nonstick coating has worn off, it's done its job.

In any case, the qualities you mention of a good skillet are only somewhat correlated with price. Generally the really expensive ones will be high quality all around, but some of the cheaper ones will be too, and the coatings on some of the expensive pans may not be as durable as some of the cheaper ones. (Many manufacturers buy the coatings, so a cheaper brand might've bought a good coating, and an expensive one might've skimped.) You'll probably be best served by finding a the best cheaper pan you can, so you won't mind replacing it once the coating's worn off. Generally there should be some good options in the $40-60 range.

You may also want to just forget about oven safety, at least at high temperatures. Things will probably be safe up to 350-400F, but going higher, I'd suggest just using a cast iron skillet (which can be fairly nonstick) so you know you can heat it as much as you want. And you can get a cheaper nonstick skillet and a cast iron skillet for less than the price of a fancy nonstick skillet, anyway.

You should probably also ignore whether they're marked dishwasher safe. Even if the manufacturer says they are, putting it in the dishwasher is likely to reduce the lifetime of the coating.

As for specific brands, the answer's going to change over time, especially since you'll be looking at more numerous cheaper brands, not big established brands. If you're buying in the US, America's Test Kitchen will usually have reviews of recent pans (behind a paywall, unfortunately) - here are their current ratings.

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This seems to be a consensus here, but the rating page you posted is under login banner, not sure if the site is free to use. I checked other similar rating sites and found quite a few brands I wasn't aware of, and seem to be well rated on Internet shopping sites too. Checking now. –  Ska Feb 10 '14 at 20:03
@Ska I did say it was behind a paywall. I don't know of anyone else who does comprehensive tests like that, though - they're way more reliable than even aggregated reviews, in my experience. –  Jefromi Feb 10 '14 at 20:04
You did yes, but I see they have 14 day trial. So I'll make sure I get all the info I'll ever need for my kitchen purchases in that period. –  Ska Feb 10 '14 at 20:07
@Ska the durability factor is available to very few test organizations, who can afford speeded-up aging cycles. For example, Stiftung Warentest (a German organisation) has washing machines running day and night for years, in order to assess the behavior expected after the amount of washes done in a household for decades. Almost nobody has the money for personnel and room needed to conduct such tests. (If you read German, you can see if SW's site has pans, you can pay a small amount for a single test result, but not all brands will be available internetionally) –  rumtscho Feb 10 '14 at 22:03
I checked SW. This time they did it wrong. They did a mechanical durability test (scratched the pan) and measured the results. The winners were ceramic coated pans. Now the article has comments how these pans failed after a few months. This is a known problem with ceramic pans and happens due to heat and chemistry, not mechanical damage, and they did not test that. Which shows that it is very hard to get reliable results of how a pan will perform 10 years from now if you don't have 10 years to publish a result. Free results: test.de/Pfannen-Frohe-Kunde-fuer-Koeche-4186853-4186861 –  rumtscho Feb 10 '14 at 22:09

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