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Cast-iron skillets are hot. No, really. They get insanely hot. They’re also virtually indestructible, almost naturally nonstick, and relatively easy to take care of. Chefs and home cooks alike appreciate cast iron’s exceptional ability to get hot—and stay hot—better than almost any other cookware material. It’s why you’ll see cooks use cast-iron pans to take roasts from the stovetop to the oven or to achieve a highly desirable sear on steaks.
Cast iron reined supreme long before stainless steel and non-stick pans came around, and Mark Longenecker, co-founder of Lancaster Cast Iron, explains its appeal thusly: “We love cast iron for many reasons including its versatility, sustainability, and durability,” he says, pointing to its varied uses on the stovetop, in the oven, on the grill, on the campfire, or anywhere else you can think to cook up your meal. “A well cared-for, cast-iron skillet will last a family for generations,” he adds.
One drawback is that cast iron has a bad reputation for being high maintenance in terms of cleaning (but we think it's a minor hiccup in the pursuit of a lifetime investment in quality cookware). And if you take proper care of it, you can hang onto for it a long, long time. Here's what to know about the hottest cookware in the kitchen and how to properly clean and season it.
Finish: The surface of a cast-iron skillet will either be rough and bumpy or sleek and smooth. Roughness translates to a less ideal pan that will retain food bits more readily (i.e. nix the whole nonstick quality you should be looking for in one of these pans), but these pans tend to be much more affordable. A smoother cooking surface—whether by machine or by hand—adds to cast iron's natural nonstick ability while making it easier to season and clean. It'll certainly cost you, but in the long run, that uptick in price usually equals a better cooking experience overall.
Weight: Cast-iron skillets are notoriously heavy. It's why you won't see anyone tossing a cast-iron skillet the same way you would a wok for a stir-fry. A heavier skillet takes longer to heat up, but it'll also retain that heat longer. Meanwhile, a lighter skillet is easier to maneuver and heats up faster, but that heat will dissipate much quicker. It's up to your personal preference whether you want a heavier or lighter cast-iron skillet, but either way, things will still heat up the same way.
Size: Like all other pans, cast-iron skillets come in various sizes, usually increasing in diameter by increments of two inches, starting around eight inches and maxing out at around 12 or 14 inches. An eight-inch skillet is ideal for a personal-sized meal (think those hashes you'd find at a popular brunch spot) while a 12- or 14-inch skillet is just the thing for cooking up a pair of massive steaks or baking a skillet cake. Those bigger skillets run the risk of uneven heat distribution with more hot spots and cold spots, so we prefer the classic 10-inch skillet, which can comfortably cook a meal for four or just a scrumptious solitary dinner for one.
Some people eschew soap and water when it comes to cast iron. To that we say, “Gross!” A small amount of dish soap and water won't hurt your cast iron skillet, but the key is to make sure you completely dry your skillet after it's been washed. Have a bunch of kitchen towels at the ready or toss that bad boy on the stove to speed up the air drying. If you let a cast-iron skillet sit around with too much moisture on its surface, that thing will rust in no time (like, in virtually an hour or less).
Longenecker notes that he and his crew will often do little more than wipe out the interior of the skillet after it's been used. “If there's some food stuck on the surface, we love to put a little water in the skillet and bring it to a simmer on the stovetop,” he says. This process should make stuck-on food bits easy to wipe off, and if not, a cheap chainmail scrubber will do the trick.
One term that gets thrown around a lot when discussing cast-iron skillets is “seasoning.” And no, we don't mean sprinkling salt and pepper on it. Seasoning, in this case, refers to a coating of carbonized oil that sits on top of your cast iron skillet, making it naturally nonstick sans Teflon or other non-stick chemical coatings. Most cast-iron skillets will come pre-seasoned, and it should be seasoned a couple of times a year to ensure it stays blessedly slicked-up. All it takes to season a cast-iron skillet yourself is coating it with a high smoke point oil—Longenecker recommends grapeseed oil—then blasting it with heat, either on the stove or in the oven.
“This is an important method to know when beginning to cook with a new cast-iron skillet as this will build up those initial layers on the interior and exterior of the skillet,” Longenecker says. “As long as your cast iron has a base layer of seasoning, polymerizing oils will add to the patina and darken your skillet over time through cooking.”
Without further ado, more on where to source the best cast-iron skillets out there for the perfect steaks, pancakes, and everything in-between.
Lodge has been in the business of cast-iron cookware for over 125 years. The brand makes an exceptional skillet, and it's also one of the most affordable: For around 20 bones, you're cashing in on a pan that'll last a lifetime. It's also the kind of heritage kitchenware that can be passed down a generation or two, provided that you're actually maintaining it in between cooking sessions.
Lodge's skillets are by no means the fanciest, but they'll help you whip up some exceptional meals thanks to their decently-sized edges and pour spouts on either side of the rim (small but helpful details). They even come with a helper handle—that little thing jutting out from the side opposite the actual stem—which you'll need to help you maneuver something this clunky. The surface of one of these skillets does hew more rough and bumpy (you can find tons of videos online on how to smooth it down) but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better value than a Lodge.
Field Company can't claim the same history and budget-friendly value as Lodge, but that's probably for the best. Accordingly, the brand isn't bogged down by having to churn out unbelievable numbers of cast iron to stock the shelves of all its big box stockists, and thrives for it. The brand's founders were inspired to make its cast-iron skillets like the vintage ones they owned from the ‘30s, which means Field Company features the same slick and smooth cooking surface in a relatively light package. It’s surprisingly easy to flip and toss food with it (just don't try to flip and toss the skillet itself). Still, the helper handle could be a little bigger and a single pour spout would've been greatly appreciated, even if you don't use it terribly often. Best feature? The pan comes with multiple layers of pre-seasoning, meaning it's ready to go right out of the packaging.
Smithey, a newish brand out of Charleston, is developing a sterling reputation for making some of the best cast-iron skillets that aren't vintage. They're super smooth straight out of the box—a feature that's easy to see from pictures alone—and their slick surfaces feel like they've been freshly greased up with butter. Like Lodge's offerings, these skillets come with dual pour spouts and a helper handle, though this one's perforated for hanging up. We also like the longer-than-average handle to keep your hands far away from the hot cooking surface.
As we've mentioned before, cast iron's metal makeup means it's fairly hefty to maneuver one-handed. Nonetheless, Lancaster Cast Iron was able to make a fairly lightweight skillet that still performs: Its 10-inch skillet clocks in at four-and-a-half pounds compared to others that weigh upwards of seven. The cast-iron skillet still gets piping hot, and lickety-split, but that also means it doesn't retain that heat for too long once the pan's off the flame. It's a tradeoff that could be worthwhile for folks who have been turned off by cast iron's characteristic weightiness, which can easily put a strain on the forearms.
Le Creuset's Dutch oven is its flagship product, but few may realize that the Dutch oven is actually an enameled cast-iron pot, which is why it's such an exceptional cooking staple for sears, braises, and roasts. The enamel coating on a cast-iron skillet makes upkeep much easier, but it loses that natural nonstick ability that comes with seasoning. Le Creuset's enameled cast-iron skillet performs just as well as its Dutch ovens, so expect those same delicious sears you've been drooling over.
Cooks usually pop on mitts to protect their hands from the intense heat of a cast-iron surface, but this skillet's unique forked handle helps pre-empt some of those concerns by helping it stay cool while the rest of the pan heats up. This unique feature aside, the Stargazer cast iron skillet is otherwise a well-designed pan, featuring an oversized helper handle and two coats of pre-seasoning (though you can buy the skillet bare so you can season it yourself). Better yet, the skillet's backed by a lifetime warranty, which will at least cover you for one generation's worth of dings and drops.
Butter Pat is making some exceptional skillets that are cast by hand, then polished all over until they gleam, which explains the steep price tag for the soup-to-nuts production. We think this pan is well worth it, but if you're just dipping a toe into the world of cast iron, the sticker shock may be hard to stomach. It features an ergonomic handle and a useful helper handle on the opposite end that's easy to grip when you're in the midst of cooking. It's a wildly well-made skillet if you're willing to ball out a little.
You can spot a Finex skillet from a mile away thanks to its unique octagonal (or hexagonal, depending on the size) design. Besides being a spiffy design feature, those sides essentially mean the skillet has six pour spouts, and they make it easier to wedge a spatula underneath your steak or skillet cornbread. The surface is polished and easy-to-clean, while the handle boasts a unique metal spiral design that's meant to make it cooler to the touch than other skillets.
Cooking personality Matty Matheson makes a mean pan. Part of his eponymous cookware brand Matheson, it's a beautiful matte black masterpiece that includes a lid, but its defining feature is a flared lip on the side of the handle. This tiny detail makes it easy for cooks to pool juices towards the handle to make basting a lot easier. The whole thing is pretty damn heavy at 8.5 pounds (and a whopping 17 pounds with the lid), which is the main reason why it's not our first choice. But unlike other celebrity chefs just churning out useless merch, the Matheson pan is still a worthwhile buy for the streamlined design—so long as you don't mind dropping a sizable chunk of change for it.
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