In the world of cooks and cuisine, it seems like everything is cyclical. A popular menu item today will be considered quaint and uninspired by tomorrow. Or an ingredient forgotten in time is suddenly rediscovered, simultaneously, by cooks worldwide. But there is one tradition that has held on through the years, and it doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon.
Cooking with cast iron is an elevating experience. The best cast iron skillets offer better heat retention, more flavor, and more even cooking than pans made of steel or other metals. Their smooth, well-seasoned surface offers what is hands-down the best non-stick coating that money can buy. And when you take care of your cast iron with simple regular maintenance, it can also last a lifetime.
While cooking with cast-iron skillets is really a science of it's own, it is a science that is remarkably easy, and dare we say fun, to master.
The first step is to choose yourself a new cast iron skillet. For this part, we're here to help. We have poured over the details of dozens of the most popular skillets on the market to bring you this list of the top 10 cast iron skillets. Further down, we will be diving a little deeper into the world of cast iron cooking, so be sure to stick around.
Lodge Cast Iron 12-Inch Skillet
First up on our list we have one of the most affordable and widely available cast-iron skillets on the market. LODGE has been in the skillet game for some time now (since 1896) so you can count on the fact that they must have something good going for them. How else would a company manage to remain successful for over 120 years?
This classic model skillet serves as the flagship product for Lodge, and actually comes in a dizzying number of different sizes. It is actually available in every size from a miniature 3.5" (perfect for the personal-sized fresh baked brownie) or the 15" big boy (a good size if you're cooking eggs for the whole family). However for the purpose of this review we've been looking at the 12" model, which is, in our opinion, the most versatile size for a pan like this.
All Lodge cast iron skillets come pre-seasoned, which means that you can get started cooking right away. Serious chefs are probably going to want to re-season it to their liking, as there are a decent number of people commenting about these pans arriving slightly under seasoned.
Size: 12" (More sizes are available)
Weight: 2.2 LBS
Top Feature: A highly affordable and easily accessible skillet
Backcountry Cast Iron Skillet
Relative new-kid-on-the-block Backcountry Iron is looking to make a serious splash with their most recent line of iron cookware. While they offer multiple high-quality iron kitchenware products such as woks, grill pans, and even iron mortar & pestles, it is safe to say that the classic skillet is their most popular item. This is a highly durable cooking skillet with a bit more thickness than some of the competitors.
It's heavy ... in fact a lot heavier than you might imagine for a company called 'Backcountry', but as long as you don't plan to haul this thing around in your ultralight backpack you might just be okay.
The bottom surface of the Backcountry Iron Skillet is a bit rougher than the old-school Griswold or Wagner skillets that Grandpa used to have. Alas, it is no longer common to find a new cast iron pan with a properly machined cooking surface. Still, this pan might to better with light frying than with finer products like scrambled eggs.
Size: 6", 8", 10", or 12"
Weight: 8.4 LBS
Top Feature: Manufactured by a U.S.-based small business
GreaterGoods Cast Iron Skillet 10 Inch
One of the things that made the cast iron skillets of yore so legendary was the fact that their entire interiors were machine brushed, a process that smooths the normally coarse surface of iron, reducing inconsistencies and creating a more 'pure' cooking surface. This way things like scrambled eggs and pancakes can be cooked on a truly non-stick surface, as opposed to some of the cheaper cast-iron pans on the market that have a hard time 'letting go' of food that has been cooked on it.
While Greater Goods, the folks behind this pan, make and distribute all sorts of products, they actually did a pretty good job with this skillet. It seems like all too often we see one of these all-purpose gear and home supply companies trying to sell everything under the sun. Some do it better than others.
Considering the price we are okay with calling this one of the best values on our list. We're just sitting around waiting for them to release a 15" version so we can get a bit more cooking done. The 10" is just slightly too small for our tastes.
Weight: 5.9 LBS
Top Feature: Properly machine-smoothed cooking surface, including side walls
AUS-ION Skillet, 12.5"
The AUS-ION skillet is the real top of the heap when it comes to prosumer cast iron skillets. This baby is made from a single piece of 3mm Australian iron for a rigid and remarkably lightweight pan. Pair that with the ergonomic handle and you have one of the most comfortable skillets that you can get. Some people might not think that ergonomics even come into play with pots and pans, but tell that to the line cook. Having a pan that is light and easy to maneuver makes it possible to prepare incredible amounts of food without causing hand and arm fatigue.
Now take a look at that handle. The opening that you see where the handle meet the main body of the skillet are actually heat transfer vents. These work wonderfully to cut back on the amount of heat that can travel up the handle, which can lead to accidental hand burns.
It is worth mentioning that AUS-ION is one of the more expensive producers of quality and skillets out there. They boast that their cookware is good enough to rival any French kitchen, and we don't think they are exaggerating. The high price is worth it to a lot of people for the added durability and special features, but if you're looking for a budget pick skillet, keep on scrolling.
Weight: 4.3 LBS
Top Feature: Innovative handle design for fatigue reduction & heat dispersion
Utopia Kitchen Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet
One of the primary reasons that most people don't own a cast iron skillet is because they have traditionally been a bit more expensive than 'regular' stainless steel cookware. While this has been true for some time, there are a whole fleet of affordable iron skillets hitting the market that are no more expensive than the pans you'd find in the kitchen aisle at your local supermarket.
There are of course a few trade offs that come with the territory. For instance, skillets and pans sold in this reduced price range are often more perceptible to warping, as is the case with the Utopia Skillet. However with some careful attention to process it is possible to avoid damage from warping. For instance, we recommend warming up the skillet slowly as opposed to blasting it with heat. This will allow it to perform under higher temperatures than it normally would, and all it takes is a bit more patience.
The Utopia skillet, like most of the products on our list, comes pre-seasoned and is ready to use straight out of the box.
Weight: 8 LBS
Top Feature: Very affordable budget-pick cast iron skillet
Victoria 12 Inch Cast Iron Skillet
There is a certain elegance to the Victoria 12" skillet that is not often seen in this price range. For an entry-level cast iron pan it has a lot of style, and when viewed alongside some of the other products in this line, result is an impressive collection that will make any kitchen that much more classy.
But of course, we don't love cast iron skillets because of how good they make out kitchen look. That just happens to be one of the fringe benefits. No, we love cast iron because of the way that it performs, so we had to put the Victoria skillet through the same analytical tunnel as the rest of the skillets on our review. So just how well did it stand up to the competition?
Victoria cookware integrates a few basic upgrades into all their pans that might not be noticeable at first, but once you have them at your disposal, you won't want to cook with anything else. The first thing we are talking about is the slightly extended handle, which is a full inch longer than most 12" skillets. The secondary handle is also wider than we have seen on other products, which offers an exceptionally sturdy grip.
The final feature, and our favorite, is a slightly redesigned pair of pour spouts, cutting back significantly on liquid spillage.
Weight: 6.7 LBS
Top Feature: Well-designed pour spouts prevent liquid spillage
Bayou Classic 7445 Cast Iron Covered Skillet, 5 Quart
Over the years it has been more and more difficult to find good American-made cast iron cookware. As many manufacturers have moved overseas, homegrown iron works have been disappearing one by one. Fortunately, the fry-gurus over at Bayou Classic have decided to enter the market with their own skillet, and from first glance we can tell that they're not playing around.
The first thing that you will notice is an extra deep 3.5" skillet base. The extra room here means that you can cook anything from deep dish pan pizzas to big fluffy cinnamon rolls. Most of the skillets on our list, for reference, are about 2" deep. It also means that you can fill it up with oil (5qt capacity) and use it as a deep fryer.
Big points to Bayou Classic for including a lid with the skillet. That's actually a pretty big bonus in this game, where lids are most often sold separately. Because of this, not nearly as many people are using cast iron lids as they should be for proper moisture retention.
Weight: 14.58 LBS
Top Feature: Extra deep skillet means you can cook a lot of different things
Ayesha Collection Cast Iron Enamel Skillet with Pour Spouts
The pans in the Ayesha Collection represent both the carefree style and creative ethos of the Food Network host and celebrity chef. Unlike any of the other skillets on our list, this one features a decorative metal-enamel french vanilla coating. This small color accent is enough to ensure that this pan can be stored directly on the stove top, as opposed to shoved in a drawer with the other less-attractive cookware. This visual style is part of what has made ceramic cookware so popular, but now you can get the same thing with the performance of iron.
The basic design of the skillet is pretty straightforward. It's a bit small at 10" diameter and 2" depth, though larger versions can be found at different retailers online. The double pour spouts work pretty well, though are a bit narrow in comparison so be sure to pour slowly and carefully. Side walls are quite steep.
As a set, the Ayesha collection kind of reminds us of the Creuset Signature series, which is not a bad thing at all.
Weight: 3.6 LBS
Top Feature: A very lightweight pan with decorative french-vanilla enamel coating
Legend Cast Iron Skillet 12 Inch
Whether you are interested in the high-quality pans and skillets of yesteryear ("they don't make them like they used to") or the simple pleasure of cooking in anything made of cast iron, the 12-Inch skillet by Legend is probably going to go the trick. Featuring an improved smooth cooking surface and an extra long handle with removable silicon heat grip, this skillet is built for both speed and comfort. Something like an old classic car with modern engine rebuild. The best of both worlds, so to speak.
Interestingly enough, there is not a whole lot of information about Legend, the folks who are purportedly behind this particular skillet. They also appear to be the manufacturer of a whole series of cast iron cookware, from reversible griddle pans to cast iron dutch ovens. All their products come with a little orange silicone heat pad, which seems to be something of a signature for this strangely secretive brand.
There doesn't seem to be any kind of warranty on this skillet, but we are actually wondering if something like that is even necessary. The construction is solid and there are no obvious break points to worry about, seeing as how this is molded from a single piece of metal.
Weight: 6.77 LBS
Top Feature: Removable silicone heat grip comes included and works well
Cuisinel Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet (12-Inch)
The last skillet on our list brings amazing value to both the figurative and literal tables. Not only is it one of the most affordable cast iron skillets currently for sale, but it also happens to be one of the most reliable in terms of both durability and heat distribution.
While you are not going to see quite as smooth a cooking surface as with some of the more premium brands, the actual grind is pretty acceptable. Frying and grilling is particularly well suited to this skillet. Like the Legend skillet we reviewed above, the Cuisinel comes with a removable silicone heat handle. It's a little add-on that a lot of manufacturers are starting to offer, and we are totally okay with that. As opposed to oven mitts and hot pads, this silicone handle can go through the dishwasher for a safe and easy clean.
Unlike a lot of brands, Cuisinel offers a 1-year no-hassle guarantee on all their products. This isn't something that you usually see on cookware in the sub-forty bucks range, so it speaks volumes about the company's confidence in their own product.
Weight: 8.09 LBS
Top Feature: 1 year no-hassle guarantee offered by Cuisinel
Choosing a Cast-Iron Skillet: Buyer's Guide
Well there you have it. Ten brands, ten pans, and what we are left with is no actual idea of how to choose between them. The simple solution would be to simply pick up one of each, but chances are you don't have the kitchen space for that. Not to mention that the mismatching would be a serious culinary faux pax.
Deciding which cast iron skillet to buy isn't as hard as it may seem. There are but a few factors to examine that will lead you to the perfect pan for your purposes.
Anatomy of a Cast Iron Skillet
While the best skillets are molded from a single piece of iron, thus reducing stress points and increasing the longevity of the pan, it is still helpful to familiarize yourself with the different anatomical elements of a great skillet.
This is the longer, protruding handle at the "back" of the pan. Generally speaking, the longer this handle is, the more heat is going to be dispersed on its way to the grip area. However, because of iron's impressive ability to distribute heat evenly and efficiently, the handle usually gets pretty hot no matter what. This is perhaps my several manufacturers including Cuisinel and Legend have started including small silicone handle grips. They not only prevent burning but are dishwasher friendly, unlike your average hot pad or oven mitt.
Heat Transfer Vents
If you notice any holes in your skillet handle, do not panic. Those are likely heat transfer vents, which are simply like little "heat windows" that allow more heat to disperse into the surrounding air before getting to the tip of the handle, where most of the grip and control occurs.
The viability of heat transfer vents is somewhat debated due to the vents' tendency to lessen the overall durability of the handle.
Front Grip "Helper Handle"
Opposite the main handle is a small protrusion that allows the user to grip the opposite side of the pan. And when you are trying to move a chicken dinner for four from the stove top and into the oven, this feature is an absolute necessity. The size of the helper handle will vary from model to model based on the overall weight of the pan.
This is another standard feature that happens to vary wildly from pan to pan. Each manufacturer uses their own proprietary mold, so pour spouts come in all sorts of angles, widths, and lengths. The result is that one pan is going to pour very differently than a pan from a competing manufacturer. There is not much that can be done about the discrepancy, except perhaps practicing with pouring some cold water before you move on to hot gravy.
This refers to the angle of the side, or "wall" of the skillet. Steeper walls provides a more contained cooking experience, but less steep walls are far friendlier for tossing stir frys and the like.
If you are into nonstick cookware, then you will probably be interested in learning a bit more about seasoning. This is arguably the most important part of a cast iron pan of any kind, because it is what gives cast iron the unique flavor and non-stick cooking experience that they have become so popular for. To put it simply, the seasoning is a layer of oils and fats that have 'dried' into the cast iron, providing a barrier between the food and the raw iron.
It might be important to note that 'dried' is not really the most accurate term. What is really happening, in ideal cases anyway, is called polymerization, and it's worth reading up on.
Skillet Size (& Weight)
Skillets and other cookware is measured simply as the diameter of the pan, so the length of the straight line that runs from one side to the other, directly through the center of the pan.
You might notice that a majority of the skillets we looked at today were of the 12" variety, and it is true that this is the most popular size skillet when measured by overall sales volume. However a number of other sizes are not uncommon, each of which works a little bit better for some purposes, and less well for others.
You might also notice during your shopping experience that most, if not all cast iron manufacturers offer multiple sizes of their skillets, so be sure to check the order page for all the available options.
3 Inch Skillets
This is probably the newest size of skillet, and is largely a novelty in most kitchens. It is too small to cook any significant amount of food. However, in recent years we have seen these tiny skillets being used for individually served desserts like skillet brownies and chocolate chip cookies with ice cream
8 Inch Skillets
The 8 inch skillet is an ideal choice for the small meal or sauce preparation. It is large enough to get a full four eggs frying in there, or about two chicken thighs placed side to side. One of the benefits of a skillet this size is how much lighter they are on average. For dishes that require searing or tossing, having a lighter skillet can be a real life saver. But because it simply cannot fit a meal for two, which is kind of the gold standard recipe for a cast iron skillet, we do not recommend making an 8-inch skillet your primary pan.
10 Inch Skillets
It is important to note right off the bat that 10 inches is the size of your average pie tin, so if you are looking to make some delicious cast iron desserts, you would not have to do much conversion to carry the recipe over. The extra two inches of space makes it possible to fit an extra large steak, or 3 large chicken breasts. It can also handle a basic meal for two, like your favorite meat served with fingerling potatoes.
12 & 12.5" Skillets
Aside from some specialty products, the 12" skillet (and the slightly less common 12.5" variant) is probably the largest that you will find at your average cooking supply store or online vendor. This is a luxurious size that allows, in some cases, for the preparation of meals for as many as 4 people. Alternatively, you can use the extra space to whip up a truckload of scrambled eggs. Of course, the bigger the pan, the heavier it is going to be, and 12" models are significantly heavier than their smaller counterparts.
Pre-seasoned Skillets vs. As-Cast Skillets
Pre-seasoning is becoming more and more common on factory-new cast iron skillets and cookware. This is likely due to the fact that manufacturers realized that they might see a reduction in returned, "faulty" pans, when in fact they just began to rust because they were never properly seasoned in the first place.
"As-Cast" is not something that you are likely to see if you are just casually browsing for new cast iron. This option refers to a pan that is baiscally straight out of the production line, so it hasn't been run through the grinders or the seasoning ovens. This might be a popular option for chefs who want a more customized grind and/or seasoning process, but it's not recommended for the at-home cook. Unless of course you are pretty good with a belt grinder, but that is perhps beyond the point.
While the pre-seasoning process is no doubt a benefit to the community at large, it is still very important to know how to take care of your pan, and this does mean knowing how to re-season a pan when the time comes.
One of the best science-based how-tos on cast iron seasoning was done by Sheryl Canter, and we couldn't recommend it more: "Chemistry of Cast Iron Seasoning: A Science-Based How-To".
The Health Benefits of an Unseasoned Iron Pan
Not everyone cooks with iron for the same reasons. In fact, there are a large number of people out there who prefer to cook with unseasoned iron because it actually allows the iron to react with the food in a more direct way. And since iron deficiencies can be problematic for children, teenagers, and women up to the age of menopause, we can see why these people would want to go this route.
However it is worth reiterating that an unseasoned pan is 1.) Harder to clean and 2.) Susceptible to acid-based damage and/or rust buildup.
Cooking in a well-seasoned iron pan will still introduce iron into the food, especially with low & slow cooking with lots of stirring. However it won't be quite as much as with an unseasoned pan.
Q: How do I cook in a cast iron pan?
A: The great thing about cast iron cookware is its versatility. A good cast iron pan or skillet can be used in a ton of different ways, including some of the same ways that you would use a regular pan.
After seasoning, you might want to consider cooking a few fried meals to allow the seasoning layer to mature a bit more. The more polymerized fats you can get, the better.
However if there is one golden rule of cast iron cooking, its that you should always preheat your cast iron before adding oil or food. This will help prevent warping, especially with some of the more affordable models or pans that are a bit thinner. To preheat, simply place it in the oven for 20 or 30 minutes.
Q: Is it true that soap is bad for cast iron?
Here is the theory that has existed for over one hundred years: you should never wash your cast iron with soap, because soap is designed to remove oil. Therefore, soap will remove the seasoning layer.
While it's not a bad theory, it isn't quite accurate. This is because the seasoning layer is not simply dried oil. It is polymerized oil, and there is a distinct difference. If you remember from out mini-lesson above, polymerized oil is no longer the thin and viscous substance that it used to be. The heating process of seasoning a pan turns the oil into a smooth plastic-like substance. This is what gives iron cookware its signature non-stick quality.
The thing is: regular dish soap isn't strong enough to break down polymerized oil. Earlier in the century when soaps had stronger ingredients (like lye, for example) this may have been the case.
There is one rule that should be followed, however. Never soak your cast iron. Extended submersion in water can have a degrading effect on the pan or skillet, so try to make cleanup a quick affair and make sure the pan dries completely.
The Verdict: The Best Cast Iron Skillet of the Year
So, you're ready to take the leap and buy a new cast-iron skillet. Well, we certainly can't blame you. These skillets are not only more affordable than they have ever been, but new production techniques and advances in global metal infrastructures means that in most cases, you are getting a pan that can go toe-to-toe with the cast-iron pans that your grandma used to have.
Choosing only one of our list was not easy. The AUS-ION 12.5" Skillet really had us impressed with it's lightweight handle and highly-effective heat vents. It is also some degree lighter than its closest competitors.
However the AUS-ION is a bit pricier than many are willing to pay (and for good reason). The budget-conscious shopper should feel confident with something like the Cuisinel 12" Skillet. For the price there isn't any better option, and it is a good way to jump into the world of cast iron cooking. Believe us, it's a place that you want to be.