Equipment
What To Look For When Buying a Cast-Iron Skillet
Artisan brands of American-made cast-iron cookware challenge the old guard.
06-28-2021
Lisa McManus

We tested 12-inch preseasoned cast-iron skillets, including artisan pans made by small American companies. While we were able to cook successfully in every skillet, our favorite pans shared certain traits: They were among the heaviest, at around 8 pounds, with sides measuring more than 2 inches tall. The Smithey Ironware No. 12 Cast Iron Skillet is made by a small company in South Carolina. With a smooth, polished interior and a classic shape, it aced all our tests, searing, baking, and browning beautifully and releasing food like a nonstick pan would. But it’s about $200, so we also chose a Best Buy. The Lodge 12 Inch Cast Iron Skillet, at about $44, offers equivalent performance at a bargain price. Its surface felt pebbly right out of the box and was a bit sticky in the beginning, but after a few rounds of cooking it released food like a champ.

What You Need to Know

We love cooking in cast-iron skillets; they’re an essential part of our kitchen. Whether we're searing, frying, baking, braising, or roasting, these pans are incredibly sturdy; they're also naturally nonstick. As you use them, their seasonings keep improving because heated fat molecules link up to form a polymer (essentially a connected grid). This creates a hard, elastic film that bonds to the iron, protecting it from rust and forming a surface layer that easily releases food—and is endlessly renewable. You can hand down these pans for generations.

Cast-iron pans are one of the most versatile pieces of cookware you can buy, since they work on the stovetop, in the oven, and even on the grill. With plenty of use, their surface becomes naturally nonstick, so even eggs will release easily (as long as you use a little butter or oil).

Cast-iron skillets were common in the United States in the 19th century and made by many American manufacturers. Sadly, almost none of those companies survived past the middle of the 20th century, as sales of cast-iron cookware fell behind newer stainless-steel and aluminum pans. Two of the most famous companies, Wagner and Griswold, folded in the 1950s, and their vintage pans are now highly sought after by collectors. Lodge Manufacturing, based in Tennessee, has been producing cast-iron cookware since 1896, making it the longest continuously operated American cast-iron cookware company (and the largest). Today, most cast-iron skillets—aside from Lodge—are imports from China, where cast-iron cookware was invented. But within the past decade, artisan cast-iron cookware makers have sprung up in the United States, many with a declared goal of re-creating labor-intensive features that have disappeared from most modern cast-iron cookware, including smooth, hand-polished interiors (unlike modern pans, which have a rougher, more “pebbly” surface that shows the texture of the sand they were cast in) and pans that are cast to be slightly thinner and more lightweight—prized features in vintage cookware.

Lodge Manufacturing, based in Tennessee, has been producing cast-iron cookware since 1896, making it the longest continuously operated American cast-iron cookware company, and the largest. (Photo courtesy of Lodge Cast Iron)

What to Look For

• A Smooth Surface—or Gently Pebbly Texture: While the artisan pans with glassy-smooth surfaces performed beautifully, releasing food almost perfectly from the start and staying slick throughout testing, a few pans—our Best Buy, from Lodge, in particular—had a gently nubbly texture that quickly acquired seasoning and became more nonstick during testing. The near-perfect release in its final egg test and easy cleaning matched those of the slick artisan skillets.

We scrambled eggs with 1½ teaspoons of butter in each skillet, first when the skillets were brand-new and again after our other testing was completed. As you can see, the Lodge skillet let some eggs stick when it was new (above left), but it quickly built up seasoning that made it virtually nonstick (above right) by the end of testing.

• A Broad Cooking Surface: We preferred pans that offered at least 10 inches of flat cooking surface; this allowed plenty of room for cooking and prevented crowding when shallow-frying potato wedges and searing steaks.

A broad cooking surface and walls at least 2 inches tall are important for good browning and shallow-frying in cast-iron skillets.

• Sides That Are at Least 2 Inches Tall: The sides of one pan measured just 1¾ inches tall (from the pan’s interior bottom); extra height is necessary for containing hot oil and food, such as when frying doughnuts and shallow-frying chicken.

• Heavy Weight: While lighter, thinner pans were much easier to lift, they simply did not do the thing we really want cast iron to do: retain and conduct plenty of heat for deep, even browning. A thick, heavy pan has the mass and density to hold more heat than a thinner pan does and, once preheated, will cook more evenly than a thinner, lighter pan.

this video is so satisfying i had to put it in!
The smooth, polished surface of this artisan skillet from Butter Pat Industries released scrambled eggs easily.

Nice to Have

• Longer Handle: Many cast-iron pans (including our favorites) have stubby handles, but a few had larger, rounder handles that angled upward slightly and gave us great leverage for lifting.

We enjoyed the comfort and leverage we got from skillets with longer, more ergonomic handles, such as the model from Victoria (above left), as opposed to skillets with more traditional stubby handles, such as the model from Backcountry Iron (above right).

• Big Helper Handles: It wasn’t a deal breaker, but we didn’t love petite loops like the one on the Camp Chef skillet. We preferred pans with wide, broad loops we could really hang on to, especially when wearing an oven mitt.

What to Avoid

• Extra-Rough Surfaces: We were able to cook successfully in all the pans we tested, but the super-rough textures of a few were frustrating to clean. When we wiped oil on their hot surfaces, they ripped up paper towels and left lint behind; this kept us from achieving a really thin layer of seasoning, so pans stayed slightly oily and tacky. The effectiveness of their seasoning actually decreased during testing, with more eggs sticking at the end of testing than in the beginning. It will take longer for rough-surfaced pans to become as nonstick as smoother models.

In our cooking tests, pans with smooth surfaces (above left) released food well and were easier to oil and maintain than very rough pans (above right). While all cast-iron skillets will eventually become more nonstick as they acquire layers of seasoning, the smooth artisan pans started out slicker and stayed that way.

• Lightweight Pans: As much as we loved maneuvering the lighter pans, they browned food evenly only if we preheated them in the oven. We don’t want to have to preheat a pan in the oven every time we want to use it. Heated only on the stovetop, lighter pans developed hot spots, so potato wedges came out half dark and half light, depending on how close the pieces were to the pan’s hotter zones. We had to spend time moving foods around (and risk overcooking them) to even out the browning. Scrambled eggs quickly overcooked in some pans.

Other Considerations

• Pour Spouts: Some pans had big, deep pour spouts, while others had tiny ones; one pan had none at all. We poured ¼ cup of oil into a jar from the hot pans after frying the potatoes, and all worked fine, even the one without a spout.

FAQs

What’s the difference between artisan and mass-produced cast iron? 

First, here’s where they’re similar: All cast-iron skillets are literally cast; that is, hot, molten iron is poured into molds made of sand—which melts at a higher temperature than iron—to form the cookware. Once the iron has cooled, the pans are broken out of the sand mold, and then a series of machines (including rotating drums of metal chunks and sand blasters) remove sand, knock off any unwanted spikes of extra iron around the edges of the cookware and, to some extent, smooth the pans’ surfaces. Workers may hand-grind details such as the rim of a pan if it’s especially rough. Afterward, the pans are washed and dried; covered with a thin layer of oil; and baked at a high temperature, which seals and rust-proofs the surface with a layer of seasoning and makes the pans ready to use.

Now here’s where they differ: All cast iron is an alloy of iron that contains carbon and silicon, but each maker has its own precise formula, which may affect the cast iron’s characteristics. How it’s heated and poured and the type of sand used for the molding are proprietary factors, too. Large manufacturers tend to make thicker, less-polished cookware because it is easier and more efficient in terms of cost and time to skip hand-finishing steps such as polishing. Thin pans are harder to cast, with more chance of defects, so thick pans are cheaper to make. By contrast, artisan makers often cast their pans to be thinner and lighter overall or to have thinner sides and a thicker bottom (which shaves down the weight but keeps some of the heat retention of thicker cookware). And most artisan makers spend time hand-finishing and polishing their pans’ surfaces to be smoother, which can help the pans become nonstick faster. Artisan cast-iron cookware makers also usually create more unusual, distinctive designs to make their workmanship stand out from traditional pans.

Pans from small manufacturers Smithey Ironware (above left) and Butter Pat Industries (above right) have distinctive designs.

Why are the artisan pans golden brown?

Completely unseasoned cast-iron pans are light gray in color, and preseasoned pans are typically black. Until the 21st century, people bought unseasoned pans, scrubbed off the protective wax they were coated in, and seasoned them at home (just as we do now with most carbon-steel cookware). However, now nearly all cast-iron cookware, including the skillets in our lineup, is sold preseasoned.

To preseason their pans, manufacturers spray them with a proprietary vegetable oil (some use flaxseed or grapeseed oil, while others do not specify beyond “vegetable oil”) and then bake them to polymerize the oil, meaning that the fat molecules link together and bond to the iron, which seals it and protects it from rusting—and usually turns the surface of the pans black. Because these pans are preseasoned, you can begin cooking with them immediately. 

The artisan-made pans in our lineup arrived lightly preseasoned, which gave them a golden-brown color. But as you start to use them, they may become mottled and blotchy (above right). Have patience; with more use, the pans will darken and the color will even out.

The artisan pans in our lineup were a stunning light gold or coppery color when they arrived because they are more lightly preseasoned. Once you start to cook in them, the pans become blotchy and mottled for a while (wok expert Grace Young calls this period of building pan seasoning “adolescence,” which strikes us as the perfect description). Eventually, with lots of use, these pans will lose their blotchy look and turn solid black.

Should I strip and reseason my new cast-iron skillet?

Do yourself a favor and just start cooking. The manufacturers’ baseline coating lets you skip lots of mess, smoke, and trouble and get to the good part of cast-iron skillets: cooking and eating great food. The only time you may need to completely strip a pan and reseason it is if it’s extremely rusty or gunky—way past the point you could fix it with steel wool and elbow grease.

Can I use my cast-iron skillet on every type of stove? 

Yes. Cast-iron skillets work on gas, induction, and electric stoves. They’ll also perform well on your grill or campfire. If you have a glass-topped stove, be gentle. Lift and place the pan gently and don’t drag it, to avoid scratching or cracking the glass.

Cast-iron skillets work on gas, induction, and electric stoves. They’ll also perform well on your grill or campfire.

Traditional Cast Iron versus Enameled Cast Iron: Which Is Right for You?

keep it seasoned

How Much Oil for Cast Iron Upkeep?

To maintain a cast-iron skillet’s seasoning—the key to its nonstick quality—we recommend coating the cleaned skillet with oil and then heating it briefly after every use. But how much oil is needed?

How We Tested

• Scramble four eggs with 1½ teaspoons of butter in new pans 
Pan-sear flank steak, preheating each pan to 500 degrees in the oven according to the recipe
Shallow-fry potato wedges on the stovetop
• Skillet-roast thick cod fillets, starting on the stove and finishing in the oven
• Bake cornbread and flip the pan to remove the cornbread and evaluate browning and sticking
• Repeat the scrambled egg test to compare the seasoning at the conclusion of testing

our full lineup

The Best Cast-Iron Skillets

Artisan brands of American-made cast-iron cookware challenge the old guard.