Sep 26, 2023

The Instafamous Always Pan Is Not Worth the Hype

We’ve updated this article with more testing notes for the Always and Caraway pans. We’ve also added a section on cookware that may last longer and better suit your needs than these trendy pans.

The Always Pan feels inescapable. Many of us at Wirecutter have been bombarded by a nonstop stream of ads for the pastel-colored cookware that claims to do it all. (If you haven't had the pan take over your Instagram feed yet, you will now. Sorry!)

The staffers on our kitchen team, who have been testing cookware for seven years and have decades of collective experience in professional kitchens, have been putting the Our Place Always Pan, as well as two similarly marketed direct-order pans (the Caraway Sauté Pan and the Equal Parts Essential Pan) through their paces to see if they live up to the hype. Below, we list the most common reasons we hear for buying such a pan—and why they might not hold true.

All three pans—Our Place's Always Pan, Caraway's Sauté Pan, and Equal Parts's Essential Pan—are available in muted, soothing colors with names like "spice," "perracotta," and "char," the kind most often seen on an influencer's vision board. But they don't stay that way for long. Cooking is messy, and many Always Pan owners have reported online that oil splatters and pan drippings stain the pan's colorful exterior. Wirecutter senior staff writer Lesley Stockton, who cooked in the Always Pan almost exclusively for months, agrees that it takes more scrubbing to release greasy stains from the colorful enamel than it does from her stainless steel cookware. But Lesley's main cleaning gripe concerns the triangular gap where the handle attaches to the pan: This nook collects a lot of food splatters, yet it's too small to easily scrub clean with a sponge or dish brush.

Wirecutter supervising editor Marilyn Ong, who has been testing the cream-colored Caraway Sauté Pan over the past few months and hand-washing it after each use, says her cookware is already spotted with stains. The Equal Parts Essential Pan that senior editor Marguerite Preston is using has fared similarly. That's not unusual: All cookware stains when you use it. Stains don't show on darker-colored nonstick pans or cast iron, but you can see them on a stainless steel skillet or a nice Le Creuset Dutch oven, as well. And usually you can scrub stains off with a slurry of baking soda and water or Bar Keepers Friend. Caraway and Equal Parts recommend a similar technique (with either baking soda and water or baking soda and vinegar, and never with an abrasive sponge). You could probably try it on the Always Pan, too, although Our Place offers no advice for dealing with stains. But all of that takes work, which may be more than you bargained for. Marguerite tried cleaning the stains from her Equal Parts pan with a paste of baking soda and water, letting it sit for a few minutes and then scrubbing with a soft sponge. She found that the technique was effective on darker stains but took a lot of elbow grease, and it still left behind some lightly discolored spots on the pan's pale blue exterior.

Perhaps more of an issue is the chance that the colorful coating may chip off your pan over time. That started to happen with Marilyn's Caraway pan after only a month of use, and we’ve also seen Always Pan owners complain about chipping in the company's Instagram comments. (That said, after two months of continuous use, the Always Pan we’re testing has remained chip-free.) If these pans are designed to complement your kitchen decor, of course you’d want them to retain the picture-perfect qualities that convinced you to buy one in the first place.

Our Place's Always Pan, which comes with a lid, a steaming basket, and a wooden spatula, retails for $145; Caraway's Sauté Pan and Equal Parts's Essential Pan, which come with lids but no accessories, cost $135 and $95, respectively, as of this writing. Expensive cookware can be a worthwhile investment if it lasts long enough to justify the cost. Spend some time scrolling through the comments on Our Place's Instagram account, though, and you’ll quickly notice a pattern of unhappy customers complaining that the slippery, nonstick coating has worn off after just a few months. Both the Caraway pan and the Equal Parts pan have some buyers commenting about similar experiences.

If you strip away the soothing colors and influencer taglines—like being called the "kitchen magician" by Oprah—the Always Pan and its counterparts are fairly standard nonstick cookware.

According to Wirecutter's kitchen team, wear is a common issue with ceramic nonstick coatings (which, by the way, aren't actually made of ceramic but of a ceramic-like coating called sol-gel). "The biggest complaint about ‘ceramic’ pans is that their nonstick properties don't last as long," Lesley writes in our guide to the best nonstick pans. "We asked friends and family how long their sol-gel cookware lasted, and they all said about one year—and that they’d never buy it again."

In general, we don't recommend spending a lot on a nonstick pan, because even the most durable nonstick coatings eventually wear out. We expect a good nonstick pan to last about three to five years, and that's with the best care (never using it over high heat or with metal utensils). If you want something that will last that long, you’re better off with a Tramontina nonstick fry pan. A quality option with a comfortable handle and a flared lip to easily flip food, this $30 pan is a much more reasonable—and likely more reliable—investment, especially if you care for it correctly (video). And if you really want a pan that will last a lifetime, you’re better off with a good cast-iron skillet (which becomes nonstick over time) or a quality tri-ply stainless steel skillet.

This one is tricky. Ceramic pans are generally considered to be a greener option since they’re PTFE- and PFOA-free.

However, for our guide to nonstick pans, we limited our testing to pans with PTFE-based nonstick coatings, as they tend to last longer. As Lesley writes in that guide, PTFE, a synthetic polymer that repels water and reduces friction, has come under scrutiny because companies for many years produced it using PFOA, a manmade chemical that is environmentally damaging and potentially carcinogenic. Manufacturers have recently phased out PFOA and now use other, similar substances (PFAS) to produce PTFE. There's not enough research yet on the environmental and health impacts of PFAS. However, as Lesley reports, "[t]here was no proven risk in cooking with nonstick surfaces made with PFOA—little or no PFOA was present in the pans themselves." The same should be true for other types of PFAS.

Though the ceramic-pan manufacturing process has less of an environmental impact than that of other types of nonstick pans, such pans don't retain their nonstick coating as long, so you have to replace them more often than you do other nonstick pans. Unless your city includes cookware in its recycling program, your Always Pan will likely end up in the landfill once it loses its slick coating—making it less green than you might have thought originally.

If you’re looking for something that works almost like a nonstick pan, doesn't have a PTFE coating, and will last for generations, a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is a far better choice.

Our Place describes the Always Pan as a "do-it-all wonder" designed to replace your fry pan, sauté pan, steamer, skillet, saucier, saucepan, nonstick pan, spatula, and spoon rest. Though this apparently versatile pan seems advantageous for anyone with a tiny kitchen, in actuality it can't adequately replace your other tools. For starters, many of the listed items are synonyms of one another (generally a skillet has flared sides and a sauté pan has straight sides, but the terms sometimes get used interchangeably, and a fry pan can be either). "They’re really stretching how many things this pan can replace," Marguerite says.

Also consider the way you cook. Unless you’re making a one-pan dinner, you likely need multiple pots and pans. If you pare down your cookware because the Always Pan claims to have eight-in-one functionality, you will be unequipped when you’re making pasta and have to, say, boil spaghetti and simmer a marinara at the same time. And you can't finish a frittata in the oven because the Always Pan isn't oven safe (though the Caraway and Equal Parts pans are). Instead, you should have a range of cookware that works in different situations. Our recommendations for cast-iron pans, skillets, saucepans, Dutch ovens, and braisers are a good place to start.

We hate to break it to you, but this notion isn't exactly true. There are many things you can do with the Always Pan—fry an egg, sauté vegetables, boil pasta—but like any nonstick pan, it has its limitations. Because high heat destroys the nonstick coating, you can't sear a steak or crisp fish skin. And again, the Always Pan can't go in the oven.

Some folks are specifically drawn to the Always Pan because it comes with a stainless steel steamer basket. This is a nice perk, but both metal and bamboo steaming inserts are fairly inexpensive—and you can buy a steamer that fits multiple pieces of cookware rather than one designed for a specific pan. (Wirecutter's kitchen team also worries that the metal steamer basket may scratch the nonstick coating on the Always Pan—if metal utensils can damage the coating, why not the metal legs of a steamer?)

Lesley often used the Always Pan to steam frozen dumplings for dinner. She noticed that the short feet on the basket forced her to make a compromise: Refill the water halfway through cooking or let her dumplings boil instead of steam. Neither scenario is ideal; the former temporarily halts the cooking process, and the latter makes the dumpling skins split open.

These pans aren't necessarily the easiest to use, either. All three pans have domed bottoms, so oil and sauces have a frustrating habit of pooling to the edges. The 10-inch Always Pan, though lightweight, has a boxy handle that's uncomfortable to grip. The 12-inch Caraway Sauté Pan is pretty heavy—it weighs almost 7 pounds with the lid on—though it has a helper handle to make lifting it easier. The 10-inch Equal Parts Essential Pan might be the best of the three in this regard, as Marguerite finds it comfortable to hold and not too heavy at 4.2 pounds with the lid on. (The 12-inch All-Clad skillet we recommend weighs about 4.5 pounds with the lid.)

Maybe images of these pans artfully arranged on stove tops dominate your social media; maybe you’ve watched a fair share of influencers rave about their cookware on Instagram. Whatever the reason, you’re intrigued—which is exactly the marketers’ intention. But that stylized fantasy doesn't play out in real life.

After six months of having the Caraway Pan in her home, Marilyn admits that she doesn't use it much unless she's trying to fulfill her long-term testing duties. "Since the Caraway isn't really reliably nonstick anymore, it's tricky to cook eggs or other delicate items on it," Marilyn says. "And even then, I still feel like I should baby it a little, to prevent further wear." Lesley hung up her Always Pan after two months of near-daily use. "It's not for me," Lesley notes. "I need a pan that can go from stove top to oven and tolerate high-heat cooking. This ain't it."

Even though we aren't recommending these pans, we understand that the heart wants what it wants. And if yours is begging for lightweight nonstick cookware that compliments your decor, we won't stop you. "You can love this pan," Marilyn says. "Like a piece of beautiful jewelry, it can make you happy. But if you’re looking for cookware that will last—that's high quality—this isn't going to be it." And, as Lesley adds with a sigh, "It's not going to stay this pretty forever."

Not quite: According to our kitchen team, cookware brands such as Anolon, Calphalon, and T-fal have sold similar types of deeper, nonstick, lidded pans for years. If you strip away the soothing colors and influencer taglines—like being called the "kitchen magician" by Oprah—the Always Pan and its counterparts are fairly standard nonstick cookware. Many cookware options minus the social media sheen cost less, offer just as much versatility (if not more), are likely to last longer, and may even better suit your personal cooking needs than the Always Pan.

Here are some of our suggestions:

Nonstick skillet

As we mentioned above, a good nonstick skillet can cook everything these trendy pans can. If you’re looking for a good slick pan for eggs, pancakes, or low-fat sautéing, an inexpensive nonstick skillet is the best choice (once again, because even good nonstick coatings don't last forever). And unlike the Always Pan, our top-pick nonstick skillet is also oven safe. (The Caraway and Equal Parts pans can go in the oven.) Alternatively, you can find deeper nonstick sauté pans with lids that are a closer match to the Always, Caraway, and Equal Parts pans but cost way less, such as this one from T-fal (though we haven't tested it).

Nonstick wok-style pan

If you do a lot of sautéing and steaming, nothing beats a wok-shaped pan. The tapered design allows you to nest bamboo steaming baskets inside with plenty of room for water to bubble beneath. Plus, the wide flared side is ideal for sautéing vegetables because it allows moisture to evaporate quickly. And if you think a wok isn't an egg pan, this Kylie Kwong recipe will probably change your mind. We haven't tested wok-shaped pans at Wirecutter yet, but if you’re interested in a nonstick one and want a place to start your search, this Anolon pan, with a grippy silicone handle and a domed lid, looks like a solid deal at less than $60 at this writing. For about $40 more, the All-Clad HA1 Hard Anodized Nonstick Weeknight Pan features two cast stainless steel handles that offer a more secure grip. Depending on these pans’ size, and the thickness of their metal, they’re probably heftier than the lightweight Always Pan. If heavy pans are an issue for you, consider testing a few different brands’ pans in a store before you buy.

Enameled braiser with lid

These pieces are by far the heaviest and potentially the most expensive alternative to the Always Pan and its counterparts. But lidded braising pans like these Le Creuset and Lodge models are durable, versatile, and beautiful. And they’re not just for low-and-slow braising. You can sear meat, shallow-fry, sauté, roast—even bake desserts and casseroles—in a shallow braiser. (However, since it doesn't have nonstick coating, we don't recommend that you attempt to cook eggs or other delicate dishes in a braiser. Save those for a true nonstick skillet.)

These braisers also come in a rainbow of color choices, if you’re especially committed to finding cookware that doubles as decor. Keep in mind that because they’re made from thick cast iron, these pans are heavy: Lesley's 5-quart Le Creuset braiser and lid weigh a total of over 12 pounds. But if you want an attractive and brightly hued pan, one that can serve you for a lifetime and be passed down through generations, an enameled braiser might be a better splurge for you than the Always Pan.

Elissa Sanci

Staff Writer

Elissa Sanci is a senior staff writer for Wirecutter's discovery team based in Denver. Her byline has appeared in The New York Times, Woman's Day, Marie Claire, and Good Housekeeping. When she's not testing TikTok-famous products or writing about car garbage cans, you can find her hiking somewhere in the Rockies or lying on the couch with a bowl of chips balanced on her chest. There is no in-between.

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