Artisan brands of American-made cast-iron cookware challenge the old guard.
Last Updated Sept. 1, 2022. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 15: Cast Iron Everything
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.
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 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.
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Lisa is an executive editor for ATK Reviews, cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube, and gadget expert on TV's America's Test Kitchen.