A frying pan, frypan, or skillet is a flat-bottomed pan used for frying, searing, and browning foods. It is typically 200 to 300 mm in diameter with relatively low sides that flare outwards, a long handle, and no lid. Larger pans may have a small grab handle opposite the main handle. A pan of similar dimensions, but with vertical sides and often with a lid, is called a sauté pan or sauté. While a sauté pan can be used like a frying pan, it is designed for lower heat cooking methods such as sautéing.
Copper frying pans were used in ancient Mesopotamia. Frying pans were also known in ancient Greece (where they were called téganon) and Rome (where they were called patella or sartago). Pan derives from the Old English panna. Before the introduction of the kitchen stove in the mid-19th century, a commonly used cast iron cooking pan called a spider had a handle and three legs used to stand up in the coals and ashes of the fire. Cooking pots and pans with legless, flat bottoms were designed when cooking stoves became popular; this period of the late 19th century saw the introduction of the flat cast iron skillet.
Frying pan relatives
A versatile pan that combines the best of both the sauté pan and the frying pan has higher, sloping sides that are often slightly curved. This pan is called a sauteuse (literally a sauté pan in the female gender), an evasée (denoting a pan with sloping sides), or a fait-tout (literally "does everything"). Most professional kitchens have several of these utensils in varying sizes.
A grill pan is a frying pan, usually with very low sides, with a series of parallel ridges in the cooking surface or a removable metal grid. A grill pan cooks food with radiant heat (like a grill) on a stovetop. It is referred to as a "griddle pan" in British English.
Traditionally, frying pans were made of cast iron. Although cast iron is still popular today, especially for outdoor cooking, most frying pans are now made from metals such as aluminium or stainless steel. The materials and construction method used in modern frying pans vary greatly and some typical materials include:
- Aluminium/Anodized aluminium
- Cast iron
- Stainless steel
- Clad stainless steel with an aluminium or copper core
Non-stick frying pans
Frying pans with non-stick surfaces were introduced by DuPont in 1956 under the Teflon brand name. The durability of the early coatings was poor, but improvements in manufacturing have made these products a kitchen standard. Nevertheless, the surface is not as tough as metal and the use of metal utensils (e.g. spatulas) can permanently mar the coating and degrade its non-stick property.
For some cooking preparations a non-stick frying pan is inappropriate, especially for deglazing, where the residue of browning is to be incorporated in a later step such as a pan sauce. Since little or no residue can stick to the surface, the sauce will fail for lack of its primary flavoring agent.
Non-stick frying pans featuring teflon coatings must never be heated above about 240 °C (464 °F), a temperature that easily can be reached in minutes. At higher temperatures non-stick coatings decompose and give off toxic fumes.
Electric frying pans
An electric frying pan or electric skillet incorporates an electric heating element into the frying pan itself and so can function independently off of a cooking stove. Accordingly, it has heat-insulated legs for standing on a countertop. (The legs usually attach to handles.) Electric frying pans are common in shapes that are unusual for 'unpowered' frying pans, notably square and rectangular. Most are designed with straighter sides than their stovetop cousins and include a lid. In this way they are a cross between a frying pan and a sauté pan.
A modern electric skillet has an additional advantage over the stovetop version: heat regulation. The detachable power cord/unit incorporates a thermostatic control for maintaining the desired temperature.
With the perfection of the thermostatic control, the electric skillet became a popular kitchen appliance. Although it largely has been supplanted by the microwave oven, it is still in use in many kitchens.
Using a frying pan
The cooking surface of a frying pan is typically coated with a layer of oil or fat when the pan is in use (though greasy foods like bacon do not need additional oil added). In pan-frying, a layer of oil has four functions: it lubricates the surface; increases contact between the food and the pan; acts as a thermal mass to reduce cooking time; and increases flavour and colour.
The depth of the oil will vary depending on the food being cooked. When frying battered fish or chicken, for example, the oil generously covers the inner pan surface, but when frying pancakes, the oil is but a thin film to keep the batter from sticking.
Some frying techniques do not require added oil. "Blackening" dredges the food itself in fat, and uses a layer of spices to keep the food from sticking to the pan. These recipes also call for an intensely heated pan, which quickly sears and seals the food being cooked.
Caring for a frying pan
Cast iron and carbon steel frying pans must be seasoned before use and periodically afterwards, and should be cleaned with care not to remove the seasoned coating.
Frying pans made from copper that are tinned to prevent toxic reactions between the copper and the food being cooked and may occasionally need re-tinning. Some cooks also polish the exterior to remove tarnish.
Uncoated aluminium and stainless steel frying pans require very little maintenance.
Frying pans with non-stick coatings such as Teflon cannot safely be heated past the burning point of their coatings (about 260 °C (500 °F), though high-heat coatings are available). See Non-stick frying pans above.
- Houlihan 2003 "...a generic non-stick frying pan preheated on a conventional, electric stovetop burner reached 736 °F in three minutes and 20 seconds..."
- Houlihan 2003 "DuPont studies show that the Teflon offgases toxic particulates at 464 °F. At 680 °F Teflon pans release at least six toxic gases, including two carcinogens, two global pollutants, and MFA, a chemical lethal to humans at low doses."
- Good Eats, Ep. 815 "Myth Smashers"