The best skillet for better food? The answer might give you a surprise

Pan-seared cauliflower with capers is steamed first in a skillet and then pan-seared for flavor. You can also roast the cauliflower instead and include olives or feta for variation.
Pan-seared cauliflower with capers is steamed first in a skillet and then pan-seared for flavor. You can also roast the cauliflower instead and include olives or feta for variation.

If you want to be an accomplished home cook, you need to have a solid skillet game. But what are the pans you really need to take your cooking to new heights?

We asked. And not only were the answers a bit surprising, we may have stumbled upon something of an underground trend – serious cooks are hitting flea markets, antique shops, garage sales and thrift stores looking for old cast iron pans they can restore.

They scrub and scour and then carefully season and reseason the pan with oil until it becomes a bombproof, heat-retaining, nonstick wonder. For many, that’s their go-to skillet. Sure, you’ll want to have a few other pieces – a heavy steel sauté pan, a nonstick and maybe a couple of others – but cast iron, the experts say, will serve you well in all kinds of ways for the rest of your life.

Scott Ostrander, an accomplished Sacramento chef and culinary consultant, uses an old Griswold cast iron pan nearly every day at home. Griswold is a coveted name in cast iron, with production dating from the 1800s to the 1950s.

“It’s always on the stove. I don’t think it ever gets put away. I fry eggs every morning. I’ll do toast. I can roast a whole chicken in it,” said Ostrander, whose most recent restaurant position was as executive chef at the acclaimed Park Winters in Yolo County.

For Ostrander and others, cast iron has become an obsession and a source of pride. Even a new cast iron pan can be bought for $30 or less.

“I’ll scour the antique fairs around town. I think people can be intimidated when they see the rusted ones, but you can bring them back to life with a little TLC,” he said. “I’m also really into copper pans. They’re great for French cuisine – for soufflés and sauces. I just really like antique pieces, and I use them for food photography. But they’re also hard to keep polished.”

Ostrander may be best known for his artful fine dining creations, but at home, he’s into fried eggs. To get the eggs just right, he first cooks the bacon in the pan, then leaves behind some of the grease to cook the eggs. It adds flavor and helps the eggs slide right out of the pan after just a couple of minutes of cooking.

Ostrander realizes that inexperienced cooks prefer nonstick pans. They’re easier to cook with, easier to clean. But he advises home cooks to be careful.

“Do your best to never burn anything in Telfon. It can ruin the pan,” he said. “Never use metal utensils. Always use wood, rubber or plastic. If you gouge it with a fork, the pan is going to be ruined. Everything you put in there will stick. There’s nothing worse than being in a professional kitchen and seeing a young cook grab a fork or metal tongs while using a nonstick pan.”

Seann Rooney, a devoted home cook for most of his life, has run the gamut of skillets since his early 20s, when he plunked down big money for a full set of high-end pots and pans. He loved to cook and wanted the best equipment.

“It was hundreds and hundreds of dollars. I was totally obsessed. I was more concerned about looks than function. I have totally reversed that now,” said Rooney.

When the pricey All-Clad line became popular and got high marks from cooking publications, Rooney bought a nonstick skillet for about $175. It’s a purchase he would not recommend.

“I’m on my fourth nonstick, and I will never do that again,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a huge difference between a cheap nonstick and an expensive nonstick,” he said.

Indeed, many experts say a $30 nonstick skillet is perfectly fine – especially since the Teflon coating tends to last for only a couple of years of steady use. Nonstick coatings don’t do well over high heat, the kind of flame needed for hearty sears and sautés.

Nonstick is great for foods that tend to be delicate and, well, sticky. Yes, you can use a well-seasoned carbon steel pan to make a French omelet using the two forks method and ample amounts of clarified butter. But there’s a steep learning curve – and you’ll botch plenty of omelets before you get it right. Nonstick is also great for pancakes, though a well-maintained cast iron is just about as nonstick.

One of Rooney’s favorite skillets is his large All-Clad stainless steel sauté pan, which he’ll use to cook vegetables or a favorite dish like orzo. He’ll sweat an onion and garlic over medium heat, toss in the orzo and chicken broth and let it come together.

“That’s always a fun dish because you can cook it hot and quick with the onions and garlic, then turn it way down and let it simmer,” he said.

He’ll also use cast iron, but he cautions that they may not be for everyone.

“I like it to crisp things up. I like it to put a crust on something. But in terms of function, they can be really, really heavy,” he said.

Kathi Riley Smith has worked in some of the finest restaurant kitchens around, including Zuni Cafe in San Francisco and Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. So what’s she doing cooking with a second-hand cast iron pan given to her by her 30-year-old daughter?

Riley Smith, who now oversees the student-run Oak Cafe at American River College, believes the salvaged cast iron trend is something fueled by conscientious millennials.

“None of them wants anything to do with Teflon. They think it’s evil. They think it’s unhealthy,” she said. “So why not use something that’s already in existence?”

Among her favorite pieces for home use are the pots and pans she’s had since 1988 from the All-Clad Master Chef series. She uses the saucepans, sauté pans, steamer basket and others on a daily basis. For home cooks she recommends three essentials: a 4-quart saucepan, a 12-inch sauté pan and a large soup pot. Those will handle the bulk of what you need to do in the kitchen.

Since she sees students in action at the cafe, Riley Smith knows all the common rookie mistakes with skillets, including not preheating them adequately when they try to sear meat.

“Students are afraid of fire. They’re afraid of getting the pan too hot because they’re afraid of burning something,” she said.

One of Riley Smith’s favorite skillet cooking endeavors is searing a pork tenderloin with a little olive oil and butter.

“One of the most important things is to make sure whatever you’re searing is absolutely dry,” she said, adding that it’s best to allow the meat to come up to room temperature to ensure even cooking.

“Recently, I’ve fallen in love with broccolini, she said. “I get out the cast iron pan, and I get that sucker really hot then throw the stems in the pan. I just char it for three or four minutes, put salt and pepper in there with a little bit of lemon juice. Once the tips get charred, it’s ready. It’s delicious.”

Pan-seared cauliflower with capers

The cauliflower is steamed first in a skillet and then pan-seared for flavor. You can also roast the cauliflower instead and include olives, crumbled feta cheese or toasted pine nuts for variation. Recipe by Amanda Cushman, Raleigh News & Observer.

1 cup water

1 medium cauliflower, core removed and cut into medium florets

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 tablespoons capers, rinsed

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons dill, roughly chopped

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add 1 cup of water. Add the cauliflower and cover. Steam for 3 minutes and then uncover the pan. Turn the heat to medium high and let the pan dry out.

Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and the garlic and shake the pan once or twice. Pan-sear until cauliflower is tender, or about 3 to 4 minutes.

Remove cauliflower from pan and add to a medium serving bowl. Add the capers, vinegar, remaining olive oil, salt, pepper, dill, cherry tomatoes and parsley. Toss and taste for seasoning. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Chicken Marbella and sautéed kale

Serves 4

This recipe is a takeoff of the Chicken Marbella from “The Silver Palate Cookbook.” The difference is the chicken is not marinated overnight and cooked in the marinade, and it’s served on sautéed kale. It’s adapted from “Whole30 Cookbook: 150 Delicious and Totally Compliant Recipes to Help You Succeed with the Whole30 and Beyond” by Melissa Hartwig (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30).

4 large bone-in, skin on chicken thighs (about 1 1/2 pounds), trimmed of excess fat

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup pitted dates, halved

1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives, drained

2 medium shallots, peeled, thinly sliced

1/2 cup chicken bone broth or good quality chicken broth

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained

2 sprigs fresh rosemary


1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled, thinly sliced

2 bunches kale, tough stems removed, leaves chopped

1/2 cup chicken bone broth or good quality chicken broth

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Pat the chicken dry with paper towel. Season all over with salt and pepper.

In a large, ovenproof skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken, skin down, and cook until skin is browned, turning once, about 5-8 minutes.

Remove the skillet from heat. Add dates, olives, shallots, broth, vinegar, capers and rosemary and transfer skillet to oven.

Roast, uncovered, until internal temperature of chicken is 165 degrees and meat is no longer pink, 25-30 minutes depending on the size of the thighs.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the kale (don’t worry if it looks like too much in the pan; it will cook down) and broth, and stir to combine. Cover and cook until kale is wilted, about 5-8 minutes.

Cook, stirring frequently, until all liquid has evaporated, 2-3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Place the kale on a serving platter and arrange chicken, olives and dates on top. Drizzle with the pan juices.

Pan-seared salmon

Serves 4

For the salmon:

Four 5-ounce salmon fillets

1 tablespoon orange zest

3 teaspoons seasoned salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

2 teaspoons sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons olive oil

For the salad:

3 cups arugula

1/2 cup halved orange cherry tomatoes

1/2 cup halved red cherry tomatoes

1/2 cup halved yellow cherry tomatoes

1 cup peeled and julienned green apple

2 ounces balsamic reduction glaze (purchased at your local specialty food store)

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Pinch of salt

Pinch of ground black pepper

Mango chutney:

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup white wine vinegar

3 mangoes, peeled and diced

1/2 medium white onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup raisins

1/2 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes

1/2 cup fresh basil, finely chopped

To make the salmon: Place salmon fillets on an 8-by-11-inch tray and season with orange zest, salt, black pepper and sugar. Let the fillets rest at room temperature for 30 minutes, then dredge in flour.

Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottom skillet over medium heat.

Place fillets in skillet and cook for 4 minutes on either side, adjusting heat to keep from over-browning and adjusting cooking time to ensure desired doneness. Remove from skillet and place on paper towels to remove any excess oil and keep warm.

To make the salad: Toss arugula, tomatoes and apple in large mixing bowl. Combine balsamic glaze, olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper in a jar with a lid. Shake dressing vigorously before serving.

To make the chutney: Combine sugar, vinegar, mango, onion, raisins and chili flakes in a medium-size saucepan and place over low heat. Simmer for 30 minutes or until reduced to thick chutney consistency; remove from heat and let cool. Stir in fresh basil.

Place warm salmon, tossed salad and chutney on a large plate and serve.

Per serving: 792 calories (18 percent from fat), 16 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 74 milligrams cholesterol, 132 grams carbohydrates, 35 grams protein, 1,170 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber.

Mushrooms on toast

Serves 2

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, more as needed

1 pound thinly sliced portobello or cremini mushrooms

1 teaspoon chopped thyme

2 small garlic cloves, minced

Salt and pepper

Splash of sherry or Marsala (optional)

1/4 cup crème fraîche

2 thick slices country bread, for toasting

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Heat a wide skillet over high heat and add butter, swirling pan. When butter begins to sizzle, add mushrooms and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, 6 to 8 minutes.

Add thyme and garlic, and stir to coat. Season well with salt and pepper and continue to sauté for a minute more, then add sherry, if using. Add crème fraîche and let mixture simmer 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, toast bread slices until golden. Lightly butter them and place on individual warm plates.

Spoon mushrooms and juices over toasted bread. Top with chopped parsley.

Coconut banana French toast

Prep time: 10 minutes

Serves 6

Recipe from Carrington Farms.

1 banana

1 cup milk

1 cup coconut milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

12-plus slices bread

2 tablespoons Carrington Farms coconut oil

Heat griddle and brush with coconut oil. Blend remaining ingredients (except bread) in a blender until smooth. Pour into a shallow dish. Submerge each slice in mixture and place on griddle. Cook till golden brown, then flip over to cook other side. Serve with maple syrup.

Maple cranberry granola pancakes

Recipe from Viki’s Granola.

1 cup flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Pinch of salt

1 cup buttermilk

1 egg

3 tablespoons melted butter

1/4 cup Viki’s Cranberry Maple Granola (or your favorite granola)

Maple syrup for topping

In a large mixing bowl, blend flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Using a whisk or hand held mixer, whisk in buttermilk and egg until well combined and smooth. Stir in the melted butter. Heat a nonstick pan or griddle over medium heat. Using a 1/4 cup measure, pour pancake mix to cook. When pancake is golden brown, flip and cook other side. Keep warm in a 275-degree oven. To serve, stack a few pancakes and top with maple syrup and Viki’s Cranberry Maple Granola.