Lightweight Cast-Iron Skillets

Published July 1, 2013. From Cook's Illustrated.

Overview:

We were intrigued by the idea of taking a heavy, solid, traditional cast-iron skillet and making it lighter and easier to handle. After all, our favorite cast-iron skillet checks in at more than 7 pounds.

But could a lighter pan, made with considerably less cast iron, really have the same ability to retain heat that produces perfectly seared steak and golden-brown fried foods?

First, how is lightweight cast iron even possible? A traditional cast-iron skillet is made by pouring molten metal into a sand mold, which is broken apart when the pan cools, allowing the pan to emerge in one piece, handle included. By contrast, lightweight cast-iron pans are made in a metal mold, which allows them to be made thinner (and therefore lighter) and then machined or milled to thin them further. Their handles are attached separately with rivets.

We tried three lightweight cast-iron skillets, comparing them with our favorite traditional cast-iron skillet in the following tests: shallow-frying breaded chicken cutlets, searing steaks and making pan… read more

We were intrigued by the idea of taking a heavy, solid, traditional cast-iron skillet and making it lighter and easier to handle. After all, our favorite cast-iron skillet checks in at more than 7 pounds.

But could a lighter pan, made with considerably less cast iron, really have the same ability to retain heat that produces perfectly seared steak and golden-brown fried foods?

First, how is lightweight cast iron even possible? A traditional cast-iron skillet is made by pouring molten metal into a sand mold, which is broken apart when the pan cools, allowing the pan to emerge in one piece, handle included. By contrast, lightweight cast-iron pans are made in a metal mold, which allows them to be made thinner (and therefore lighter) and then machined or milled to thin them further. Their handles are attached separately with rivets.

We tried three lightweight cast-iron skillets, comparing them with our favorite traditional cast-iron skillet in the following tests: shallow-frying breaded chicken cutlets, searing steaks and making pan sauce with acidic tomatoes and capers to see if it would react with the iron surface, baking cornbread, cooking crêpes to check browning patterns, and scrambling batches of eggs in each pan before and after our other cooking tests to see if they became more or less nonstick as we used them.

All of the pans were indeed lighter than a traditional cast-iron skillet—even if they still felt relatively weighty. Two were 4 pounds; the third weighed 2.65 pounds, about the same as our favorite stainless skillet. One pan had a black matte ceramic nonstick coating inside, which initially proved to be a real boon, releasing food perfectly, but it had lost much of its nonstick ability by the end of testing. Another pan lost its preseasoning quickly and didn’t improve during our tests. The third pan was made entirely of preseasoned lightweight cast iron, and foods stuck fiercely to its surface, which became streaky and mottled-looking, and its hollow metal handle heated up like a chimney. By the end of all our tests, this pan had developed a thick patina inside and released much better, but it looked terrible.

All three lightweight pans heated up and cooled down faster than the thicker traditional cast iron. While they were easier to lift and handle than the traditional pan, they were also far more reactive to heat changes, which caused them to cook much less evenly, with a distinct tendency to scorch along the outer edges. Only the smallest pan was able to compensate for these hot spots by being compact enough to transfer heat more quickly across its narrower cooking surface, lessening the opportunity for uneven browning. In the end, the only pan that gave us truly even browning and long-term durability was our traditional heavyweight favorite.

Lightweight cast iron proved a disappointment.

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