How To Buy A Good Cast Iron Skillet
Senior staff writer Lesley Stockton, who wrote the original version of this guide, had been writing about cookware for Wirecutter since 2013, covering skillets (both tri-ply and nonstick), roasting pans, saucepans, and electric pressure cookers. Before that, she cooked in fine-dining kitchens for many years and was a food editor in the Martha Stewart test kitchens for six years.
how to buy a good cast iron skillet
To test the cast-iron pans, we started by heating a quarter cup of oil in each skillet until shimmering, then poured the hot fat into a jar to see if we could do this with minimal (or no) dribbling on the countertop. We also paid attention to the comfort and maneuverability of the handle when lifting and tilting each pan.
The Lodge was a solid performer at just about every task. We poured hot oil without dribbles and cooked bacon to a crisp without having to rearrange the strips. Cornbread fell out of the pan with a crunchy golden crust and steak came out evenly and deeply browned. Fried eggs slid out as effortlessly as from a nonstick skillet.
The small stick handle is placed at a slight angle and is smoother at the spot where it meets the pan, making it more ergonomic than the short, straight handle on the original Lodge. The roomy helper handle on the other side of the skillet is big enough to wrap your fingers underneath with a bulky pot holder. When we were pouring hot oil, our grip on the handle was secure, and we always kept control of the pan.
At around 8 pounds, this classic Lodge skillet weighs about 2 pounds more than the Lodge Chef Collection pan. That extra weight could be a real asset when it comes to cooking a thick cut of meat, since it can help the pan retain more heat. But overall it performed the same as the Chef Collection skillet in our tests, searing steak well and releasing eggs easily. Flipping this pan over takes some muscle, but when we did it, our cornbread plopped right out. The high sides also make the classic Lodge ideal for deep-frying, braising, or baking a cobbler, since it can hold about 2 cups more than the Chef Collection skillet. If those are things you do often, this is the pan to get.
Since the popularity of cast iron has spiked in recent years, the demand for antique skillets made anywhere from the late 1800s to mid-20th century by now-defunct companies like Wagner and Griswold has skyrocketed. Now that more people are seeking out these pans, the prices have quadrupled in some cases. Meanwhile, a new generation of lighter, smoother, pricier cast-iron skillets from artisanal companies has emerged out of a desire to manufacture new pans that are similar to the older ones.
Antique and vintage cast-iron cookware were hand-poured into sand molds and hand-polished to a smooth finish. These labor-intensive pans were cast from thinner molds, which makes them lighter than many modern pans and easier to maneuver. The hand polishing also makes for a slicker cooking surface. The makers of the new artisanal pans replicate this process, while in contrast most inexpensive modern cast-iron pans are mass-produced on automated production lines. They retain the rough texture of the sand mold and weigh significantly more.
Our favorite cast iron skillet is the Lodge 10.25-Inch Skillet. It's basic, durable, inexpensive and performs well. We also like the Lodge Blacklock 10.25-Inch Skillet, which is pricier, but lightweight and easy to move around.
We tested some cast iron skillets in that weren't available when we originally published this story (models from Stargazer, Cuisinel, Calphalon, Lancaster, and more) at our Lab, comparing them to our current favorite skillets from Lodge. We don't recommend any of these models over our top picks but have updated our findings at the bottom of this page.
Cast iron: It seems you either love it or you hate it in the kitchen. Since forever, cooks have chosen the metal for its hardiness and ability to retain heat. Though cast iron cookware has been around for thousands of years (its first known use can be traced to the Chinese Han Dynasty, around 220 A.D., according to Webstaurant Store) it remains a fickle beast for so many of us.
You're bound to get a workout when you cook with a cast-iron skillet. These bad boys are capital-H Heavy, clocking in at up to 12 pounds for the larger 15-inch skillets (via Prudent Reviews). While this works to the pan's advantage in other ways, its weight may be a con for some.
The thermal properties of cast iron are fickle. According to Curated Cook, despite the skillet's thickness, it's heat conductivity pales in comparison to similar pans made from aluminum and copper. So if you're used to cooking with those metals, cast iron will seemingly take ages to thoroughly heat up (there's a lot of very dense material to get hot, and it's resistant to get there) which is necessary to prevent hot spots on your cooking surface.
If you come home with a 15-inch cast iron skillet and your stove's burners are barely the size of your palm, that could be a problem. Small burners will have a difficult time achieving an even heat on the cast iron. Because iron is a poor heat conductor, the heat from the burner will not spread quickly to the edges of the pan (via Century Life). The center of the skillet will get hotter and hotter as the outer edges stay just warm or even begin to lose heat.
Nobody loves simmering Nana's chili recipe on the stove all afternoon more than we do, but this is not the job for your cast-iron pan. America's Test Kitchen notes that this is because acidic ingredients cooked in cast iron for an extended amount of time can loosen metal molecules, causing them to be released into your food. Last we checked, essence of iron is not the best seasoning for your favorite spaghetti sauce. America's Test Kitchen taste-tested tomato sauce after it had simmered in a well-seasoned skillet, and a metallic taste was noticeable after just 30 minutes.
This isn't law, however. Contrary to a popular cast-iron pan myth, acidic foods can be cooked in a well-seasoned skillet for a short amount of time with no dire consequence to your food or your pan. But if you're planning on preparing a long-simmering sauce or stew, consider using other cookware.
What is cast-iron seasoning, anyway? Science of Cooking explains that through the process of polymerization, a coat of carbonized oil and fat bakes onto the pan's surface. This black patina is a telltale of a skillet that's been well used and loved for a long time. Have you ever heard someone complain that using cast iron is a nightmare when it comes to cooking delicate, clingy foods like eggs or fish? It's likely that person wasn't using a well-seasoned pan; the seasoning creates a nonstick cooking surface while preventing rust.
Ah, vintage. Who doesn't love a classic? Most everyone swears by the older version of something being better than the new, from cars to music to clothes. In the culinary world, cast iron skillets take center stage in this argument.
Obviously heirloom cast iron isn't an option for everyone; not every great-grandmother has passed down her beloved skillet. But if you're determined to add a vintage pan to your repertoire, you can do so by hunting through thrift stores, marketplaces, and yard sales. Hey, it was somebody's grandma's, right?
It's no wonder that glass stovetops are popular alternatives to open electric burners: They're much more visually pleasing and easier to clean. But if you plan on cooking with a cast-iron skillet, you may be in for a rude awakening. Iron is heavy, rough, and abrasive, and glass is susceptible to scratches, chips, or cracks from exactly those sorts of things. If you are concerned about handling something bulky and heavy due to arm injury or weakness and have a glass stove, be careful of the drop risk that comes with cast iron.
Also keep in mind that compared to your standard gas stove, glass stoves are relatively slow to spread heat due to poor heat conduction (via Hunker). Considering how long it takes to get a cast-iron skillet to the proper temperature, you may been in for a long night of cooking.
You may be surprised to learn that cast-iron skillets are often less expensive than other cookware. For example, you can currently get a 12-inch skillet from Lodge, a leading American cast iron cookware manufacturer, for around $34. Though a hardy an