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Lightweight Cast-Iron Skillets

From At the Seafood Counter

How we tested

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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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*
Done in 281 ms! 61.385 KiB - 7.5% = 56.776 KiB