In the abstract—which is to say, if you were an extremely rich person with an army of servants to attend to all but those parts of human life you chose to handle yourself, and therefore did not have to worry about things like cleaning and upkeep—the best kind of pan would be a well-seasoned cast iron pan. It can handle a vast range of temperatures, it’s basically non-stick, and it can go from the stovetop to the oven and back without melting or whatever. It’s great.
Unfortunately, you do not live in the abstract, but rather here in reality, where I am sorry to report that a well-seasoned cast iron pan is kiiiiiind of a pain in the ass. It requires a special set of behaviors to protect the polymerized oil that is the seasoning, is the main thing. You can’t, say, dunk it in a sink filled with sudsy water when you’re done using it, in the manner of a harried regular person who does not have the energy for scrubbing right now but would like to do at least something cleaning-like with the soiled pan in which she or he just cooked some greasy meats; the soap will lift that polymerized coating off it, and then you will have to season it all over again to restore it to usefulness. But you also can’t just set it aside, either, figuring you will get to it in the morning, or the grease in it will congeal and then the only way to get it out of there will also get the seasoning out of there.
No, you have to wash it when you’re done using it; not right away—it’s too hot! You’ll burn your hands off!—but soon, probably within the hour. The instructions always say to just rinse it with very hot water and a stiff brush, but this will never seem quite sufficient. You’ll still see whorls of semi-congealed steak fat in there, or you’ll think you do, and won’t be able to convince yourself otherwise, so that the thought of sticking this thing back on the hook or in the cupboard or wherever you keep your pans fills your imagination with images of rancid steak fat, in the dark, festering, a congregation place for vermin. No. So you will do the next thing the instructions say to do: You’ll make a paste of coarse kosher salt (a thing you likely would not have in your kitchen at all were it not for your cast iron pan!) and water, and scrub your pan with this paste. Then, as sure as you’re born, you will go “Oh, fuck this” and just wash the fucker with fucking dish soap, lifting the seasoning—but also the filth!—off of it, consigning yourself to re-seasoning this thing basically every time you use it for the rest of your goddamn life.
Also, you can’t cook acidic things like tomatoes or wine in a seasoned cast iron pan unless you want to eat the seasoning. That’s bullshit!
Don’t get me wrong here: A seasoned cast iron pan is great, and I advise having one and using one if you can. The point is, maybe you don’t always want to deal with all of this. Maybe you want a pan that you can just goddamn cook with, without making an entire lifestyle out of it. Maybe you want a versatile cooking pan for grownups, and not a cheap-shit teflon-coated My First Skillet pan that requires you to buy a bunch of dull rubber-coated cooking implements like the resident cook at a prison for the criminally insane. My friend, you can have this. Get a nice, thick, heavy stainless steel pan. It will be fine.
The knock on stainless steel pans, in a nutshell, is that stuff sticks to them. This can make cleaning them a chore, but, more importantly, it can also make cooking with them a nightmare, if you have multiple batches of things to cook in there and the first batch sticks and must be scraped loose and the residue blackens and smokes and turns the cooking surface into a jagged hellscape unsuitable for further cooking and now, shit, shit shit shit, your home gradually is filling with acrid black smoke and they’re all out there, all your guests, your boss, your in-laws, Desmond Tutu, all of them coming gradually to understand that their dinner is being made for them by an incompetent doofus with ping-pong rackets for hands. Basically this is true, in the same way that you could criticize basketball shoes by saying that they get dog shit stuck to their soles.
This is to say, a stainless steel pan does not have to get stuff stuck to it, but will if you use it in certain ways. Like, for example, if you try to sear animal proteins in there, but at too low a temperature and with too stingy an application of a sturdy high-temperature cooking fat, then yes, things will stick to it, and this will be a big gross smoky disaster. The solution to this problem is not to get a nonstick pan and a bunch of rubber spatulas; the solution to this problem is to do a good job of using your stainless steel pan.
Essentially, this means being generous with cooking fat—the stuff that slides between the food and the pan and cooks the former before it can stick to the latter—and heat, so that when you are searing something in there you are actually searing it, so that teeny tiny droplets of water continually exit the food, convert nigh-instantly to steam in between the food and the pan, and thus prevent the food from sticking to the pan. Being generous with both heat and cooking fat also has the neat-o side effect of making your seared food taste good, which ought to have been your goal in the first place. It’s something you must do with a stainless steel pan, and also something you very fortunately can do with a stainless steel pan, because it can handle the heat, unlike the teflon toy that will turn your asparagus spears into toxic carcinogen rods if you cook them at the kind of temperatures that would put a real-deal sear on them.
Oh, hey, also: Grab a packet of steel scrubbing wads the next time you swing through the cleaning-products aisle at the grocery store. That’s fine. You can do that.
The stainless steel pan accommodates both your ambition to do good cooking, and your deep ambivalence about doing good cleaning. Is your stainless steel pan coated with the charred remnants of a botched fish experiment? You can scrub it now, of course, but you are already discouraged enough at the loss of 30 bucks worth of cod. Go ahead and drop that sumbitch into that warm, sudsy water, and forget about it for the night. The bath will loosen that gunk, and then 20 seconds of scrubbing with that steel wad will get rid of it. Yeah yeah yeah, maybe the pan will appear slightly discolored thereafter. Do you care about this? No, you do not.
You can cook acidic things like tomatoes in your stainless steel pan! You can sear proteins in there. You can simmer a sauce in there, if it has deep enough sides. You can use slim, precise metal implements to move things around in there. You can, if your stainless steel pan does not for some dumb reason have a rubber handle, snatch it off the stovetop (with an oven mitt) and slide it into a hot oven, if the recipe calls for that. If the weather is nice and you want reeeeally hot temperatures, you can take it outside and use it over the extremely orange charcoal in your shitty kettle grill.
And then you can just clean it—or delay cleaning it—like you do with any old dirty dish. You do not have to make a paste. You can just dunk it in some soapy water for a while and then scrub it for a minute, and then dry it. You will never have to season it, or re-season it. It will just be an extremely good and reliable cooking vessel, and not a job.
Get a stainless steel pan. But not a stainless steel wok! Those are complete bullshit!