As a cooking instructor, students are constantly asking my advice on kitchen purchasing decisions. There are the gadget freaks (I prefer less clutter), those who refuse to spend a buck (a cheap dull knife really isn't better), those who don't like touching food (garlic press), and my favorite, the fat-phobes who believe it's possible to cook tasty food without fat and swear by their fat-free oils and nonstick pans.

One of the most important kitchen investments a home cook can make is the skillet. Let's review the most popular options: nonstick, stainless, and cast-iron.

Starting in the center of a controversial debate, let's take a look at the nonstick skillet. Teflon is the brand name of a thermoplastic fluoropolymer introduced by DuPont as a commercial product in 1946. It has the least friction of any known solid material, and is used primarily as a nonstick coating in applications as varied as kitchenware, armor-piercing "cop killer" bullets, the valves and seals in the pipes holding uranium in the Manhattan Project, and, less aggressively, to keep furniture, carpet, and clothing stain-free. Teflon has also become part of the common vernacular: "The Teflon President" (Ronald Regan) and "Teflon Don" (John Gotti).

Teflon has recently come under scrutiny by the FDA and other watchdog groups for its ability to kill birds and create flu-like reactions in humans for up to one week when heated to high temperatures (500 degrees Fahrenheit and beyond).

But this danger can be avoided by keeping your nonstick skillet below 500 degrees, the temperature necessary for a real good sear. Look, cooking is dangerous, and Teflon is sort of weird, but if used properly, it can be a good, reliable tool. If you're really worried, think about the old joke, where a patient tells his doctor: "It hurts when I do this." And the doctor replies, Then don't do that."

Nonstick skillets are best to use when you are gently cooking an item over low or medium heat. Omelets, bacon, crepes and potato hash are perfect nonstick skillet candidates. If treated properly (no scratches, no burning, no scouring pad), the nonstick surface will work, and yes, your pancakes and frittatas will slide right out. But don't make yourself or your family crazy; assume that the skillet will scratch after a year or so; toss it and get another. After using, wipe your skillet clean with a kitchen towel, avoid soap, sponges and dishwashers. If you're stacking your skillets, place paper towels in between to avoid scratching.

Make your big investment on a nice stainless skillet lined with aluminum or copper that has a good heavy bottom. Josh Grinker, chef/owner of Brooklyn restaurant Stone Park Cafe, says: "Our high-quality stainless pots, the good stuff with heavy bottoms, are lifetime purchases. If they can handle our commercial kitchen, they'll be fine in the home." Though Grinker loves his nonstick skillets for the omelet rush at brunch, he acknowledges they've got a shelf life of four to six months, maximum.

The most important thing to know about stainless if you want to it to work properly (i.e. not have food stick) is how to cook properly. Don't fear, predicting the market is much more challenging than searing a steak, I promise.

First, preheat your stainless skillet (remember, heating an empty pan for an excessive amount of time is exactly what you don't want to do with a nonstick surface). When it's nice and warm (a minute or so, depending on how high the heat is), add the oil. Warm the oil until it's nice and warm (a minute or so, depending on how much oil you're using). Then put in the item you're cooking. It's that easy; heat the pan, heat the oil, cook your food.

Perhaps you're getting the pan scorching hot for a real nice ribeye. Or maybe you're heating the pan to medium in order to gently saute some garlic slices without burning, then tossing in a little spinach to wilt it. Either way, just remember to preheat the pan and oil before cooking. It won't take but a few minutes (in fact, multitask: heat the pan while you're seasoning the steak or slicing the garlic).

Best for last: cast iron. Cast-iron skillets just scream romance; they bring to mind images of cowboys on the prairie, Southern-style cornbread cooked in rendered bacon fat, and threats of violence from hotheaded women. But cast-iron cookware is more than romance; it's health. Mark Kelly, marketing manager for the original American manufacturer of cast-iron cookware, Lodge , asserts that by using cast-iron skillets for cooking "you'll get your daily dose of the mineral iron."

Kelly cited research by UNICEF and the World Health Organization showing that Third World villages that use cast-iron cookware are healthier than those that don't.

And not without bias, he claims, "Properly seasoned cast-iron is the original nonstick cookware."

Good news for you (and for Lodge): It has begun selling its delightful old-school cast-iron skillets preseasoned. Previously, you were required to season your cookware yourself (gently heat the skillet on the stovetop, smear it with Crisco or another vegetable oil, place it in a 350-degree oven for an hour or so, then let it cool in that turned-off oven for another few hours). Not exactly challenging, but enough of a barrier that Lodge's sales have more than doubled since it introduced preseasoned pans three years ago. (That's a heads-up, cowpokes, as they're still a family-run Appalachian-based business.)

Lodge is the only American producer of pre-seasoned cast-iron skillets. There are some Chinese manufacturers, but not nearly as well thought of as Lodge.

Skillet by Le Creuset

However, there is a large market for enamel coated cast-iron cookware, and if you'd like to drop some coin, Le Creuset is the way to go. Lodge has introduced a line, but it's fighting the iconic Le Creuset battle (and a 20% to 25 % price premium consumers seem to be willing to pay for the cachet.) To compare enamel-coated apples to your basic cast-iron oranges: a 11 3/4-inch Le Creuset skillet will run you $140 at Williams Sonoma, while a 12-inch Lodge non-enamel is $24.

On the downside, these skillets are heavy, take a while to heat up, and a while to cool down. On the plus side, you don't have to go to the gym, you can drink that glass of wine, and it keeps your food nice and warm if you're a fan of oven-to-table cookware. That heat latency means your pan stays hot when your food is added, making it the ideal vessel for searing and deep frying.

Plus, cast-iron skillets are downright cheap and virtually indestructible (rustable, maybe, but we can fix that). You can typically pick one up preseasoned at a kitchenware shop for something in the neighborhood of $10 to $15. Myself, I keep my eyes open for a nice old one at yard sales and vintage shops and other places where items dear to grandma's heart have been discarded. If that skillet gets rusty, just rub out the rust spots with steel wool (of course, you'd never take steel wool to a properly seasoned pan), and re-season.

When deciding amongst your skillet options, there is only one answer, and that is "yes".

  • Yes to nonstick surfaces for the gentle cooking of omelets and frittatas and other soft-sticky foodstuffs where you don't need a hot surface. Get an 8-inch nonstick skillet ($85) for omelets, and a larger one (12-inch, $135) for frittatas. If you really want to splurge, get a nonstick griddle ($210 for large, double burner; $100 for smaller, single burner) for pancakes. But the larger skillet should do the trick.
  • Yes to a high-quality stainless lined with aluminum or copper, just remember to preheat the pan and cooking oil properly. For the regular stainless skillet, get an 8-inch ($80) for when you're just making a quick little sauce for two, and a 12-inch ($125) for when you're doing a quick spinach saute or something. I can't think of any homes that really need a 14-inch skillet, unless you've got upwards of 4 kids or entertain a whole lot. (And if you're entertaining that much, be sane and hire a caterer.)
  • And an emphatic yes to cast-iron; the least expensive, most durable, time-tested classic. For those interested in living the good life, all three are strong buys. Get one big all-purpose at 12-inches ($24). I'm thinking fried chicken, and I'm thinking braises and chili -- the kind of thing you always want more of. I'm also thinking about a nice big steak. Maybe you get a 10-inch also for cornbread, but I can't think of any reason why you wouldn't just make a bigger one.
  • A New York-based cooking teacher and wellness coach, Allison Fishman is the founder of The Wooden Spoon.