Your comprehensive guide to the one pan that does it all.
Cooking in cast iron is an incredibly versatile, durable, and completely chemical-free way to cook. And the more you know about it—how to choose the best one, how to clean and season it, and the surprising number of recipes that lend themselves to being cooked in it—the more you’ll appreciate this multitasking powerhouse.
A Pan in a League of Its Own
Cast iron is making a comeback. Here’s why.
It’s likely that you remember your grandparents cooking in cast iron, or maybe it’s your favorite pan in your kitchen. But have you ever wondered about its origins? This all-American pan with Chinese roots has been around for centuries but is now experiencing a resurgence.
Centuries Old, and as Good as Ever
Cast iron is experiencing a renaissance centuries in the making.
What is Cast Iron?
The cast iron manufacturing process originated in China in the sixth century BCE and has barely changed since. Cast-iron skillets are 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. The only major difference in modern manufacturing is that machines are used to partially or fully automate the work of pouring the insanely hot molten metal into the molds—it gets up to over 2,500 degrees at some points in the fabrication process!
Due to its affordability and durability, cast iron was the material of choice for cookware in America until the early 20th century, when aluminum became cheaper and more widely available and subsequently took over as the cookware material of choice. By the end of the 20th century, nonstick skillets had become more common than cast iron in most homes. However, as worrying reports about the effects of chemical nonstick coatings on the environment and our health came to light, more and more cooks returned to the original “green” pan, the cast-iron skillet, as an alternative and rediscovered all the advantages it has to offer. This began a new era in the history of this unique pan.
This renaissance has also been a visible force in cast iron manufacturing. At one time, there were dozens of American companies making cast-iron cookware, but because of the embrace of new materials in the early 1900s, those numbers dwindled and now there is only one major company producing cast-iron cookware in the United States: Lodge. Many of the pans currently available on the market are made in China. However, in recent years a new wave of American companies has begun producing small, artisanal batches of this classic cookware. Manufacturers in the United States and elsewhere have also experimented with innovative design tweaks to handles, shapes, and coatings in an attempt to modernize the classic bare-bones skillets, all of which has helped to bring this timeless pan firmly into the 21st century.
What About Enameled Cast Iron?
One of the most noticeable changes on the market has been the increasing presence of enameled cast-iron skillets. On an enameled skillet, the rough surface of the pan is cloaked inside and out with the same kind of porcelain coating found on Dutch ovens, and they’re available in a rainbow of colors.
Enamel promises a cast-iron pan with advantages: The glossy coating prevents the metal from rusting or reacting with acidic foods. The coating lets you thoroughly soak and scrub dirty pans with soap—generally taboo with traditional pans since too much soap and soaking will remove the patina, or top layer of seasoning on the cooking surface. While a handful of expensive enameled skillets have been around for years, new models are now appearing at lower prices.
Why a Cast-Iron Skillet Belongs in Every Kitchen
There are a host of practical and culinary reasons why cast iron is experiencing a comeback.
It Improves with Use
One of its greatest advantages is that a cast-iron pan is possibly the only piece of kitchen gear you can buy that noticeably improves after years of heavy use. As you cook in it, a cast-iron pan gradually develops a natural, slick patina, called seasoning, which releases food easily. A well-seasoned cast-iron skillet can become just as nonstick as an aluminum or stainless-steel pan and will definitely outlast them.
It Maintains Heat
Cast iron doesn’t heat very evenly because its thermal conductivity, or ability to transfer heat from one part of the metal to another, is very low. What cast iron does do well is hold on to heat: Once a cast-iron pan is hot, it will stay that way much more effectively than stainless steel. This makes cast iron the ideal material for high-heat applications like searing steak. The initial drop in temperature caused by adding the relatively low- temperature steak to the hot skillet will be much smaller in cast iron, allowing for higher heat and better browning. And better browning means a more delicious steak.
It’s Virtually Indestructible
The durability of cast iron is legendary—many people are still cooking on cast-iron pans handed down through their family for generations. Cast iron is virtually indestructible and easily restored if mistreated.
It Can Develop a Nonstick Coating
Cast iron’s ability to develop a nonstick coating also makes it incredibly versatile. This is a boon for minimalist cooks who are looking to downsize their pot and pan collections to a few key pieces that can work in almost any application, but cast iron is also beloved by gourmet cooks who appreciate the particular benefits it offers for essential techniques like browning and searing.
Shopping for Cast Iron
These cast-iron favorites have all the makings of becoming true family heirlooms.
I’ve learned everything there is to know about cast iron over years of cooking with it in the kitchen. This supertool is definitely a star in home kitchens, and it’s an incredibly versatile, durable, and completely chemical-free way to cook. In this section, I’ve gathered my favorite cast-iron products, from skillets to more specialized equipment.
What Kind of Cast-Iron Skillet Should You Buy?
Once you’ve decided to buy a cast-iron skillet, there are some other choices you’ll face.
One of the biggest questions is whether you want a traditional skillet (the classic black kind that you probably picture when you hear the words “cast-iron skillet”) or an enameled skillet. Take the quiz below to figure out which cast-iron option best fits you and your kitchen, and then check out our cast-iron skillets review (which includes both traditional and enameled) to see which models I recommend.
When it comes to price
A I don’t mind spending more for extra features.
B I’m a thrifty shopper and I love a bargain above all.
If I’m washing something
A I feel like long soaking times and using plenty of soap are the only ways to get it totally clean.
B I think that hot water and scrubbing are enough, so I’m OK with using little-to-no soap and no soaking.
If my pans could talk
A They’d probably be pretty happy—I’m fairly careful with my things.
B They might complain a little—I’m kind of tough on them!
My kitchen style could be summed up as
A I’m always interested in trying the newest thing and I tend to collect gadgets.
B I try to keep my collection pretty minimalist; if it’s not broken, I don’t fix it.
My patience level for a pan that needs some work is
A I’d rather have something that performs consistently right out of the box.
B I’m willing to put in some extra effort for something I really like, as long as it’s going to pay off in the end.
I want my cast-iron skillet to be
A A specialty tool I use for recipes that really benefit from its singular characteristics.
B Basically a complete replacement for my nonstick skillet whenever possible.
If You Picked Mostly Option A
Try one of the newer enameled cast-iron skillets. You’ll pay a slightly higher price, but seasoning is never an issue and cleanup is much more straightforward. Plus, you can color coordinate! Our recommended 12-inch enameled skillets range from $50 to $180.
Stick with a traditional skillet. They’re hardy, inexpensive, and long-lasting, with just a few simple rules to follow about care and maintenance to keep them in perfect working order. Our favorite 12-inch traditional skillet costs around $30 and lasts a lifetime—or longer.
Cast Iron Cookoff
A cast-iron pan will last a lifetime—as long as you choose the right one.
While you may think of a cast-iron skillet as one of the most straightforward, no-frills options on the market, there are actually a surprising number of factors to take into account when buying one, and there are many more options today than there were 50 years ago. I purchased 10 cast-iron skillets, six enameled and four traditional, each about 12 inches in diameter.
How I Tested
- I scrambled eggs, seared steaks, made a tomato-caper pan sauce (to check if its acidity reacted with the pan surface), skillet-roasted thick fish fillets that went from stove to oven, baked cornbread, and shallow-fried breaded chicken cutlets.
- At the end of testing, I scrambled more eggs to see whether the pans’ surfaces had evolved.
- To simulate years of kitchen use, I plunged 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 spoon.
What I Learned
- Thicker pans are more sluggish to heat, hung on to hot spots for longer, and finally became too hot, making it a challenge to brown food evenly.
- Weight, handle length, and breadth make a big difference in how easy cast-iron pans are to use. The pans in our lineup ranged from 6½ pounds to nearly 9 pounds. Longer handles gave better leverage, though shorter ones worked if the pan had a good helper handle.
- Low, flaring, curved sides are usually ideal in a skillet. But a thoroughly preheated cast-iron skillet radiates heat so intensely that browning was easy even in pans with higher, straighter sides, as long as they had a broad enough cooking surface.
- The best pans in our lineup measure at least 10 inches across the cooking surface, which provides enough room for even the biggest steaks to brown without crowding and steaming.
- Neither enameled nor traditional cast iron is “best.” Both offer great heat retention and superior browning, and there are standout options for both types of pans at a variety of price points. To see which type of pan fits your cooking style better, take our quiz.
What About Lightweight Cast Iron?
Another new option on the market in recent years is lightweight cast iron. Unlike traditional cast-iron pans, lightweight cast-iron pans are made in a metal mold, which allows them to be made thinner. They are also machined or milled to thin them further, and their handles are attached separately with rivets. I tried three lightweight cast-iron skillets, comparing them with my favorite traditional cast-iron skillet in several tests.
All of the pans I tried were indeed lighter than a traditional cast-iron skillet—but that was pretty much their only advantage. All three lightweight pans heated up and cooled down faster than the thicker traditional cast iron. While they were easier to lift and handle, 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. Overall, lightweight cast-iron skillets proved a disappointment, so they aren’t included in my recommendations.
Expand Your Cast-Iron Collection
I’ve gathered my favorite cast-iron products—beyond the skillet. Here are my favorites that withstood the test treatment to earn a place in my kitchen.
Top-Rated Cast-Iron Equipment