An old-fashioned cast-iron skillet is close to a perfect pan. It's versatile and very affordable.
Why It's So Great
Iron is heavy. That means an iron pan holds the heat and distributes it evenly, so it browns well rather than scorching the food in some spots and leaving it pale in others. It's nonstick, and there's no surface layer to scratch off. It lasts a lifetime (or longer, as anyone lucky enough to have inherited Grandma's pan knows), and it just gets better with age. You can use it on the stove top or in the oven. It works especially well for searing, sauteing, and baking.
How to Choose
You can buy a cast-iron skillet at your local hardware store. The best ones are made in the United States. Look for a heavy pan that's at least 1/8 inch thick. New pans look gray and raw, but they turn black once seasoned. A good all-purpose size is 10 or 12 inches.
How to Care for Cast Iron
Before using the pan, season it: Rub the pan inside and out with oil, and put the skillet in an oven at 300 degrees for an hour. Never put cast iron in the dishwasher. To clean it, sprinkle with coarse salt, rub with paper towels, then wipe. Always wipe well before storing. Don't use the pan to cook alcohol or anything acidic, such as tomato sauce. Alcohol and acid eat away the seasoned patina. If you forget, however, or if the pan rusts a little, you can reseason it.