Cheap and tough, a cast-iron skillet is a kitchen workhorse, but the upkeep makes some cooks balk. Could enameled cast-iron pans, which need no special care, top the classic?
Last Updated Sept. 1, 2022. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 21: Cook It in Cast Iron
Read our review of traditional 12-Inch cast-iron skillets here
Few pieces of kitchen gear improve after years of heavy use. In fact, we can think of only one: the cast-iron pan. Cast-iron pans are virtually indestructible and easily restored if mistreated. 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. Its special talent is heat retention, making this pan ideal for browning, searing, and shallow frying. Its only disadvantage? Plain cast iron takes a little routine maintenance to develop and retain that slick seasoned surface.
But there’s an alternative type of cast-iron skillet to consider: the enameled cast-iron skillet, where the cast iron surface is cloaked with the same kind of porcelain coating found on Dutch ovens.
Enameling promises a cast-iron pan with advantages: You still get the heat retention of traditional cast-iron pans, but the glossy enamel coating prevents the iron 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 may damage the patina of seasoning.
We had to wonder: Should we be trading out our traditional cast-iron pan for an enameled one?
We bought and tested several enameled cast-iron skillets, each about 12 inches in diameter. We set about scrambling eggs, searing steaks, making a tomato-caper pan sauce (to check if its acidity reacted with the pans’ surfaces), 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 the 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.
Throughout testing, we compared our enameled pans with a traditional 12-inch cast-iron skillet, our Best Buy by Lodge. In recipes that required plenty of fat, such as steaks or fried chicken cutlets, all the enameled pans released foods well and delivered good browning. But with foods that often stick—fish, eggs, and cornbread—differences between the enameled and traditional cast-iron pans emerged. While the enameled pans performed reasonably well in general, they tended to grab onto the food a little more than plain cast iron did. The traditional uncoated cast-iron skillet instantly turned out a crisp-crusted cornbread loaf when we flipped it, but some enameled models held on to the cornbread and tore out a chunk of...
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing. We stand behind our winners so much that we even put our seal of approval on them.
Lisa is an executive editor for ATK Reviews, cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube, and gadget expert on TV's America's Test Kitchen.