Kitchen Focus

If it's morning and I'm craving an over-medium egg, I reach for my non-stick skillet. If I want to quickly sauté some boneless chicken breasts for dinner, I grab my non-stick skillet. If I want to toast some cumin seeds before crushing them for an Indian dish, I grab my non-stick skillet. I'm sure that I'm not alone.

A good non-stick skillet is a workhorse in the kitchen and can be used for everything from omelets to fried catfish. Since I tend to get a bit picky about mine, I thought I'd take a little time this month to let you know what I look for in a good non-stick skillet.

I actually have two nice non-stick skillets. One is an eight inch model that's perfect for a single egg or toasting nuts or seeds or any job that doesn't involve large quantities of food. The other is a twelve inch version that's perfect for everything from frittatas to several chicken breasts. When it comes to choosing a skillet to suit your needs, think about how you cook. Start with an all-purpose size -- 10 or 12 inches, depending on the quantities of food you normally cook. Always favor a pan that will accommodate more food than you usually cook, since having space in the pan is especially important when sautéing. If space and budget allow, you might also consider an 8 inch model for small jobs. They also work wonders with crepes!

After choosing the appropriate size(s), one of the most important features I look for in a skillet is heft. I want my pan to seem heavy for its size -- it will help insure even heating and good heat retention. These are both very important when it comes to sautéing and pan frying -- two preparation methods made for skillets. You'll want to make sure that your pan is made from good quality materials -- I recommend anodized aluminum or stainless steel -- that are relatively thick, especially on the bottom where the pan will be in contact with your stove.

Something that I can simply not do without in a skillet is an oven-proof handle. When you need to finish a dish in the oven or under the broiler, nothing is more annoying than having to remove the food to another pan. Who needs the hassle and the extra dishes? If it doesn't have an oven-proof handle, I move on to something that does. If you haven't used your oven or broiler for finishing dishes, you can probably skip this requirement, but I'd also recommend you give it a try -- the flavor and texture benefits are many.

Also, I prefer handles that are riveted onto the skillet. While there are models that are successfully welded on, the welding process can easily warp the pan and, once warped, the pan will never be the same. You might not notice a small amount of warping on a gas range, but if you have a smooth top electric range, you'll want to take extra precautions to make sure you have pans that will have good contact with the stove.

You will definitely want to carefully inspect the inside surfaces of the skillet for any imperfections in the non-stick coating or areas that look suspect. If there are any holes, divets, bumps, scratches or thin spots, save yourself a lot of trouble and keep looking. Properly cared for, a good non-stick coating can last a lifetime -- but you need to make sure it's a good non-stick coating!

Finally, it's very important to point out that your non-stick skillet is only as good as the utensils you use on it. Never use metal tools on it! Stick with high-temperature plastics, silicon and wood utensils and your non-stick skillet will give you everything you ask for: convenient, low fat cooking ability without a burnt mess or messy cleanup.

If there's a topic that you'd like to see covered in this column, let me know. You can always post comments in the discussion board using the forms provided in the articles or email me directly at .

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