Cast-Iron Skillets

Published May 1, 2015. From Cook's Illustrated.

Overview:

Few pieces of kitchen gear improve after years of heavy use. In fact, we could think of only one: the cast-iron pan. As you cook in it, a cast-iron pan gradually takes on a natural, slick patina that releases food easily. Well-seasoned cast iron can rival, and certainly outlast, a nonstick pan. Cast-iron pans are virtually indestructible and easily restored if mistreated. Their special talent is heat retention, making them ideal for browning, searing, and shallow frying. Our longtime favorite and best cast-iron skillet in the test kitchen has been the Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet ($33.31) for its low price, generous size, sturdiness, smooth factory pre-seasoning, and ability to get ripping hot.

Fortunately, cast iron is having a renaissance. Manufacturers have launched new versions of traditional cast-iron pans with innovative design tweaks to their handles and overall shapes in an attempt to rival the bare-bones pans. Perhaps more notably, there’s been a boom in the number of enameled cast-iron skillets. These pans cloak the… read more

Few pieces of kitchen gear improve after years of heavy use. In fact, we could think of only one: the cast-iron pan. As you cook in it, a cast-iron pan gradually takes on a natural, slick patina that releases food easily. Well-seasoned cast iron can rival, and certainly outlast, a nonstick pan. Cast-iron pans are virtually indestructible and easily restored if mistreated. Their special talent is heat retention, making them ideal for browning, searing, and shallow frying. Our longtime favorite and best cast-iron skillet in the test kitchen has been the Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet ($33.31) for its low price, generous size, sturdiness, smooth factory pre-seasoning, and ability to get ripping hot.

Fortunately, cast iron is having a renaissance. Manufacturers have launched new versions of traditional cast-iron pans with innovative design tweaks to their handles and overall shapes in an attempt to rival the bare-bones pans. Perhaps more notably, there’s been a boom in the number of enameled cast-iron skillets. These pans cloak the rough surface inside and out with the same kind of porcelain coating found on Dutch ovens. Enameling promises a cast-iron pan with advantages: The glossy coating prevents the metal from rusting or reacting with acidic foods, both of which are concerns with traditional cast iron. It also lets you thoroughly scrub dirty pans with soap—generally taboo with traditional pans since soap will remove the patina. (The patina can be restored; see “What’s the Deal with Seasoning?”) While a handful of expensive enameled skillets have been around for years, new models are now appearing at lower prices. We had to wonder: Should we be trading out our traditional pan for an enameled one?

We bought 10 cast-iron skillets, six enameled and four traditional, each about 12 inches in diameter. Prices ranged from $21.99 to a whopping $179.95. We included our old favorite, from Lodge, in the lineup, along with our former Best Buy, from Camp Chef ($21.99). Comparing the new pans with our old winners, we set about scrambling eggs, searing steaks, making a tomato-caper pan sauce (to check if its acidity reacted with the pan surface), skillet-roasting thick fish fillets that went from stove to oven, baking cornbread, and shallow-frying breaded chicken cutlets. At the end of testing, we scrambled more eggs to see whether the pans’ surfaces had evolved. To simulate years of kitchen use, we plunged hot pans into ice water, banged a metal spoon on their rims, cut in them with a chef’s knife, and scraped them with a metal spatula.

Sticking Points

All the traditional pans arrived preseasoned from the factory. Two traditional pans offered potential design improvements over our old favorite: a longer, more ergonomic handle on one model, and a rounded shape with an unusual cupped helper handle on another. Both were generally pleasing to use, but with their pebbly finishes, they took longer than our previous winner to establish seasoning, and by the end of testing, neither matched its shiny surface. One pan also required an hour of preseasoning in the oven with oil before the first use, even though it was sold as “preseasoned.” Despite this dual preseasoning, the acidic pan sauce picked up a slightly funky, metallic taste. Another pan looked less refined in general compared with our old favorite and was not as thoroughly preseasoned. Thus, it took longer to develop a good, slick surface, but it’s still a sturdy performer at a great price. Still, in test after test, we preferred the solid, effortless performance of our previous winner. It held its spot as the gold standard in the traditional category.

That left enameled pans. One pricey model was glassy smooth inside, while the rest were matte. Despite their enamel coatings, some cooking surfaces were nearly as rough as sandpaper, tearing lint from towels as we wiped them. But surprisingly, the finish didn’t always relate directly to how much the food stuck—the top pan was quite smooth, but its closest competitor was rough. In recipes that required plenty of fat, such as steaks or fried chicken cutlets, the enameled pans all released foods well and delivered good browning. But with foods that often stick—fish, eggs, and cornbread—the differences between the enameled and traditional pans finally emerged. While in the main the enameled pans performed reasonably well, they tended to grab on to the food a little more. All the traditional skillets instantly turned out crisp-crusted cornbread loaves when we flipped them, but four of six enameled models held on to the cornbread and tore out a chunk of bottom crust. Our lowest-ranked enameled pan pulled off a 4 by 6-inch chunk; it also broke up fish fillets when we tried to flip them. Most telling, traditional pans became slicker each time we used them, but enamel coatings remained the same, and a few even released slightly less well by the end of testing.

Heating Things Up

Next we looked more generally at how the pans handled and functioned. One of cast iron’s selling points is that it holds heat well, producing excellent browning. But, for the same reason, it’s slow to heat up and can have hot spots. You must preheat thoroughly to give the heat time to spread. We found that the enamel coatings didn’t dramatically affect how quickly the pans heated or cooled down. Rather, the pan’s ability to retain heat, whether traditional or enameled, is related mainly to the thickness and overall mass of the cast iron. The pans in our lineup ranged in thickness from 4.1 to 5.6 millimeters. Pans on the thicker end of the range proved problematic. Two of the thickest pans, both enameled (plus another pan that was thinner but had an unusually large cooking surface), were more sluggish to heat, hung on to hot spots for longer, and finally became too hot, making it a challenge to brown food evenly.

Another note about heating: While traditional cast iron has no upper temperature limits, this is not true of enamel because high temperatures can cause the coating to develop numerous small cracks (called “crazing”). This restriction makes them less versatile; one pan’s maximum was just 400 degrees. However, there was one exception. Our favorite enameled pan fell in line with the traditional pans; with no recommended upper limit by the manufacturer, it’s even broiler-safe. It also proved itself above the rest on the abuse front. After all the scraping and banging and cutting, it was the only enameled pan to emerge perfectly unmarked.

Enameled or not, weight, handle length, and breadth made a big difference in how easy the pans were to use. Our pans ranged from 6 1/2 pounds to nearly 9 pounds. Longer handles gave better leverage, though shorter ones worked if the pan had a good helper handle. The worst helper was a mere 3/4-inch tab on the Staub pan; the best were big enough to feel secure, even through potholders. As for shape, low, flaring, curved sides are usually ideal in a skillet to encourage evaporation and help food brown. But a thoroughly preheated cast-iron skillet radiates heat so intensely that browning was easy even in pans with higher, straighter sides, as long as they had a broad enough cooking surface. Our top pans were at least 10 inches across the cooking surface, which provided enough room for even the biggest steaks to brown without crowding and steaming.

Weighing the Options

In the final analysis, neither enameled nor traditional cast iron was “best.” Both offer great heat retention and superior browning, but beyond that it’s a matter of comparing pros and cons and determining what’s best for your own needs. If you find seasoning traditional cast iron intimidating, paying more up front for an enameled pan is probably worth it. But keep in mind, while a good enameled pan may be more “nonstick” than a traditional stainless-steel pan, it isn’t ever going to match a well-seasoned traditional cast-iron pan (in fairness, enameled pans aren’t marketed as nonstick). On the flip side, if you don’t want to pamper your pan to prevent chipping and scratching and are OK with maintaining the seasoning, traditional cast iron is for you. What’s more, if you want to use metal utensils and high heat, if you want a pan that over time will release food more easily, and if you want to save some money, choose traditional cast iron.

Our favorite among the traditional pans is a real bargain. Our enameled winner (a new version of a pan we tested in 2007, now with a bigger helper handle and broader cooking surface) browned foods beautifully, performed admirably on the sticking tests, and cleaned up easily. While it’s expensive, the value is evident in its toughness; it took abuse with nary a scratch. For a more economical option, we were impressed by the consistently solid performance of our Best Buy enameled pan.

Which Cast Iron is Right for You?

Buy a TRADITIONAL cast-iron pan if:

  • You’re never going to baby your cookware. You want to use it at any temperature, under the broiler or on the grill, with metal utensils, and bang it around with no fear of damage.
  • You don’t want to spend a lot. Our favorite 12-inch traditional skillet will cost around $30 and last a lifetime.
  • You don’t mind simple maintenance. Wash, dry thoroughly, and lightly oil to prevent rust.
  • You are OK with using little to no soap (hot water and a scrub brush suffice).
  • You don’t plan to make long-simmered acidic sauces like marinara in it.
  • You won’t leave it soaking.

Buy an ENAMELED cast-iron pan if:

  • You never want to think about seasoning the pan. Enamel doesn’t need it.
  • You don’t mind spending more. Our recommended 12-inch skillets range from $50 to $180.
  • You’re prepared to protect the glass-like enamel. You won’t use it under the broiler (unless you’re prepared to buy our durable, and expensive, winner); you’ll avoid metal utensils and banging or scraping the pan; and you’ll stack with care.
  • You dislike the idea of not using soap.
  • You plan to use it for long-simmered acidic sauces.
  • You don’t mind that the enamel will not become more nonstick. An enameled pan will never become as nonstick as a well-seasoned traditional pan.

What's the Deal with Seasoning?

Cast-iron skillets used to be sold uncoated, and you had to season them from scratch. But all that is in the past: Cast-iron skillets are now sold factory preseasoned. The manufacturer sprays on a proprietary, food-safe oil and bakes it onto the pan. (However, if the seasoning becomes damaged or if you own an old-fashioned uncoated pan, the surface can oxidize, causing rust to form.) As soon as you start cooking in the pan, heat makes fats in the pan polymerize, meaning that the fat’s molecules link together and bond to the rough iron surface, forming a natural hard, protective coating. This coating not only keeps the pan from rusting or reacting with acidic food but also helps food release more easily. Every time you cook in your cast-iron pan, you’re improving this natural polymerized coating, which is called the pan’s “seasoning.”

EVERYDAY UPKEEP: To maintain and improve your pan’s seasoning, don’t scrub with abrasives, use harsh soap, or leave it soaking. Instead, clean the pan by rinsing it with hot water and a scrub brush. (It’s OK to use a few drops of dish soap if you need to.) You can also mix kosher salt with oil to make a DIY scrubber that can remove stuck-on food without scraping off your pan’s seasoning.

Once the pan is clean, wipe it all over with paper towels and then put it on the stove on medium-low heat until all moisture disappears. Add a few drops of vegetable oil and, using paper towels, rub the oil into the interior of the skillet, creating an even, thin coat that, by the time you’re done wiping, should feel almost dry to the touch.

OVERHAUL: If you think your skillet needs just a touch-up, heat the pan and repeatedly wipe it with a thin coat of oil until the surface looks dark black and slightly glossy but isn’t sticky or greasy to the touch. However, if you do damage the seasoning, and your pan looks dry and patchy, it’s not the end of the world. To reestablish the seasoning, use our ultimate seasoning method to restore it. It'll be as good as new.

Methodology:

We tested ten 12-inch cast-iron skillets. Pans were purchased online and appear in order of preference. Oven-safe temperature ratings are from manufacturers.

  • BROWNING: We seared steaks and made an acidic sauce, looking for good crust and flavor without off-notes. We rated browning with skillet-roasted fish fillets, shallow-fried breaded chicken cutlets, and cornbread.
  • STICKING: We cooked thick fish fillets and baked cornbread; we scrambled eggs as first and last tests to evaluate changes in the pans’ surfaces.
  • EASE OF USE: We considered features that helped make the pans easy to use and clean.
  • DURABILITY: We heated pans to 400 degrees and then plunged them into ice water, made five cuts inside with a chef ’s knife, scraped with a metal spatula 10 times, and whacked a metal spoon five times on the rims and sides of pans.
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