You wouldn’t know it from looking at me, but I’m not one to supersize things. Bigger isn’t always better: small cars are fun to drive and easy to park, small houses mean less to clean, and even a small kitchen can be great, since everything is within easy reach.
On the topic of skillets, however, I embrace enormity. Of all my skillets at home, the biggest — 14 inches in diameter — gets the most stove time by a long shot. Many cooks’ largest skillet is 12 inches across. But when it’s time to sauté dinner for any more than two people, I welcome any extra cooking surface I can get.
A little space between pieces of food in the pan is one key to good browning, along with sufficient heat and drying the food well before adding it to the pan. Space allows moisture to escape; if the pieces of food touch each other, moisture gets trapped and browning suffers. And if you’re cooking for a crowd, the big-boy skillet helps reduce the number of batches necessary.
So, getting a beautiful sear on four large chicken breasts or pork chops at once? No problem. Hamburgers or salmon-fillet portions? A breeze; six will fit comfortably.
What’s true for browning meat applies to vegetables as well. If veggies fit into the pan in a single layer, they brown because moisture escapes. In a double layer, they steam.
That means the jumbo skillet is good news for veggie-heavy stir-fries. In one of my favorites, stir-fried pork and green beans with garlic and black pepper, a full pound of trimmed green beans or two large sliced onions can spread across the bottom of the big-boy skillet and brown beautifully, mimicking the proper sear of a true wok over a trillion-BTU flame.
The large volume of a super-sized skillet is especially handy in two of the more oft-made preparations in my repertoire: dark leafy greens and pasta.
Vegetable-loving cooks know that it takes an astonishing volume of raw greens — spinach, chard, collards, kale, mustard, or otherwise — to produce a reasonable quantity of cooked greens for four. While many recipes advise using a Dutch oven or stockpot, I prefer the skillet for one major reason: access.
To cook the greens evenly, you have to keep them moving, and the flared sides of a wide-open skillet make reaching in there with tongs or a stirring spoon easy, especially compared to the confined space of a Dutch oven with its relatively high, straight sides.
In my 14-inch skillet, an Anolon Advanced model with steeply raked 3-inch sidewalls, I can cook down the three pounds of raw spinach called for in creamed spinach — a whopping three gallons by volume — in just three or four batches.
Speaking of that magical combination of surface area and flared sides, together they do a darn good job of promoting liquid reduction, a boon for sauce-making.
The voluminous skillet is also beautifully suited to making pasta. My pasta routine is to undercook it slightly in boiling water, drain it, and add it to the sauce to absorb flavors and finish cooking. My wide-body skillet swallows a pound of pasta with ease — even two pounds in a pinch — and just as with cooking raw greens, the flared sides and wide-open stance makes it easy to reach in to stir, stir, stir.
I’ll admit that there are downsides to all that size. Storage might be one, but isn’t that what utility closets are made for? Heating on a small burner can also be a challenge, so always choose the largest burner available and reposition the skillet during cooking, if necessary. Cleaning can be another issue, especially when maneuvering a large pan in a small sink. I’m afraid I can’t really help there, as my solution — building a new kitchen with a deep, 30-inch sink — isn’t always practical.
Not too long ago, you had to shop in a restaurant-supply store to find a 14-inch skillets. They’re still there, but more of them have made their way onto the retail market as well. Isn’t gift-giving season upon us now? Put a big skillet on your list. You can thank the generous gifter with a meal for him or her — and the entire crew.
Related recipe: Creamed Spinach with Crabmeat and Lemon; recipe: Stir-Fried Pork and Green Beans with Garlic and Black Pepper
Adam Ried's regular gigs include a weekly Boston Globe Magazine cooking column, spots on the PBS cooking shows “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country from America’s Test Kitchen,” and frequent articles in Cook’s Country magazine. His most recent book is Thoroughly Modern Milkshakes.
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