Let’s talk about quality cast iron skillets. Of all the tools in your kitchen, there’s none more worth the effort than your trusty cast iron skillet. They’re inexpensive, they last a lifetime, and they’re a surefire way ensure you have what you need to get the job done.
Of course, there’s no better way to impress people than with a fully equipped kitchen. It lends a certain level of credibility, even to those who probably don’t deserve it. And having all the pots, pans, knives, measuring cups, colanders, bowls, and beaters galore isn’t a bad thing; but it’s definitely not indicative of a skilled or experienced cook. Hell, a talented artist can do more with a pencil and a bar napkin than some people can do with the support of a full-on studio. A photographer worth their salt can bang harder on an iPhone than a weekend warrior with a $3000 DSLR. It’s the way of the world.
Our point is, cast iron skillets are the do-all workhorses of every kitchen, and we don’t think they get nearly the credit they deserve. Well, that changes now.
What The Hell Is a Cast Iron Skillet?
Cast iron is one of the most diverse cooking materials on the planet, and has been used in cooking applications since the 5th century B.C.—yes, seriously. Cast iron was also used in all types of ancient weaponry, from cannons and artillery, to construction materials and kettles. For literally thousands of years, men have used cast iron to help build the world.
Scientifically, cast iron is a superior cooking material because it’s a very dense, porous metal. What that means in the kitchen is that, while it takes some time to heat up, cast iron excels at getting very hot, heating very evenly, and retaining heat indisputably better than any other cooking material.
Today, cast iron is used most commonly in cookware because it’s comparatively inexpensive (versus other types of cookware), easy to maintain, and can be used anywhere from the stove to the campfire.
There are plenty of cookware companies that specialize in cast iron skillets and other pans, pots, and kettles. They come in different shapes and sizes for different applications, but the best thing about them is that no matter how refined or pinpoint-precise their applications are, a basic skillet can cover most of what you’re cooking, whether it be braising the perfect pork shoulder, searing a thick-cut steak, frying up some chicken, baking the best corn bread of your life, or even handling some Sunday morning pancakes and bacon.
We’ll get more into why people love cast iron the way they do below, but the essential need-to-know info is this: They’re inexpensive, they will literally outlast you, they cook incredibly evenly, retain heat well, are naturally non-stick if properly cared for, and can be used literally anywhere. You could stick one of these things on the surface of the sun and it’d still cook you some perfect over-easy eggs.
Why Is Cast Iron Better?
Hey man, we get it. We just basically told you that you can probably cook better on 2,500-year-old cookware than most of what you’d get from the fancy high-end stuff you see in all those YouTube videos you’ve been gushing over these last few months.
You may have also read that one bull shit Esquire advice column where the writer says his $150 copper-core non-stick pan can do anything a $15 Lodge skillet can (You spelled “Revere Ware” wrong, by the way, you cast iron denying heathen).
In either case, we get it. You’re discerning and smart and skeptical.
But we need there’s a reason why millions of people are still cooking on cast iron 2,500 years after it was first discovered, and why so many people are willing to fight ne’er-do-well Esquire staff in its defense.
If you’re looking for the perfectly seared steak, you haven’t lived until you’ve done it in a cast iron skillet. If you’re looking for the ideal fried egg, cast iron is your answer. If you’re trying to make a creamy salmon piccata that’ll make your fucking toes curl up, cast iron is your diamond in the rough.
In a nutshell: Skillets are inexpensive and incredibly durable, easy to use, versatile, can be used to cook most things in most places, are always ready and willing to work, and Esquire is filled with liars.
What Is “Seasoning” and How Can You Keep Your Cast Iron Skillet Clean?
The biggest “issue” people have with cast iron skillets and other cast iron cookware is there’s a little work and effort, called “seasoning,” that must be put into cleaning, keeping, and maintaining them. It’s nothing crazy, but the fact that most people advise against washing them with dish soap is often enough to give some people a small coronary over it.
Seasoning essentially involves layering the skillet in grease or fat, and then baking it for a certain period of time. This creates a coating that helps keep the skillet looking good, working well, and creates a natural non-stick surface that makes cooking on it a breeze. The best part is, as that seasoning gets added to and baked into the pan, this surface only gets better as time goes on.
Most—almost all—cast iron companies sell their cookware pre-seasoned these days (Who’s going to order a skillet that might show up rusty?), but it’s also important to keep seasoning your skillet once it has arrived. That’s why most manufacturers and astute chefs recommend cooking fatty things on it for the first month or so after you receive it.
It’s also worth noting that fans of cast iron appreciate the fact that they won’t be dealing with any of the harmful chemicals or carcinogens that are believed to melt into and contaminate food, as is the case with the prolonged use of most modern non-stick cookware. If you’re looking for a health-conscious alternative, cast iron is one of the best ways to go.
As far as cleaning your cast iron skillet goes, that process is also super simple.
The most important rule to remember is to clean your skillet soon after cooking. It doesn’t have to be red hot or anything, but the sooner you clean it, the better.
Start by adding hot water to the pan, and then gently scrubbing it with the coarse side of a sponge, or a specially designed nylon brush. The emphasis here is on scrubbing it gently, so as not to take off any bits or chunks of seasoning. If seasoning does manage to come off in the cleaning process, no worries—you can always just re-season it after.
After that, take some kosher salt and add it to the pan with a little bit of hot water. From there, take a wooden spoon or stiff spatula (Avoid using metal utensils or brushes so you don’t damage the seasoning), and gently scrape away at the bigger bits and pieces of stuck-on food left in the pan.
Then, rinse everything off with some more hot water, and then put it on the stove to dry. You don’t have to get the pan searing hot; just hot enough to dry the leftover water in the pan.
From there, re-season as necessary or, if it’s good to go, take some vegetable oil or shortening and apply a thin coat to the skillet before storing.
Which Cast Iron Skillet Should You Buy?
So, when all is said and done, which cast iron skillet is best for you? Well, that question is a little less straightforward than you’re probably thinking. What size are you look for? Do you have a preferred brand? What budget are you working with? Do you want a flat surface or a grill pan? Are you looking for enameled or non-enameled? You can buy yourself a brand-spanking new rig, but don’t be surprised when you see a hobbyist crying tears of joy at the local flea market when they snag a 50-year-old Griswold or Vollrath for 20 bucks.
Yes, those people exist; no they aren’t crazy. They’re just taking this as seriously as they should.
Picking the right cast iron skillet isn’t a decision you should make lightly, so we wanted to lend a helping hand. Here are some of our favorite skillets for every budget and style type.
Victoria 12-Inch Large Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet
We kept saying inexpensive up above, so now let’s prove it with a few picks. The 12-inch pre-seasoned cast iron skillet from Victoria is a prime example. It’s a little heavier than most high-dollar skillets on the market, but no one’s buying cast iron for its light weight. All of Victoria’s skillets come with a beautiful longer handle that make cooking with them more convenient, their pre-seasoning is one of the best out of all the lower budget skillets, and like every other cast iron skillet, they’ll stand the test of time. $18
Lodge 10.25-Inch Cast Iron Skillet
It’s impossible to talk about the options people have out there for great skillets that won’t break your bank without mentioning Lodge, the modern company that really paved the way for the cast iron skillet revival we’ve seen over the last few years.
And the 10.25-inch cast iron skillet they put out is one of their most popular—and one of our personal favorite everyday cooking skillets. These standard, basic skillets come pre-seasoned from the factory, meaning they can be cooked on right out of the box, and their products are dependable and worth every penny of the few pennies you’ll spend on them. $27
Essenso Convex Curved Base 11.8-Inch Cast Iron Grill Pan
The possibilities of quality cast iron are endless, with all different shapes, sizes, and styles having been developed over the few decades or so. This cast grill pan from the folks at Essenso is a primary example of that kind of innovation.
You’ll enjoy the same benefits of a regular cast iron skillet—natural non-stick, incredible durability, even heating, and unsurpassable heat retention—but on a surface that’s more like a backyard grill. If you’re looking for the best steaks of your life, you’ve found it.
Le Creuset Signature Iron Handle Skillet, 9-inch
In what could be an article all on its own, it’s important to understand that there are two different overall types of cast iron skillets out there—enameled and non-enameled. People love enameled skillets because they need no additional seasoning, require less oil for cooking, and generally hold up better over time.
You know Le Creuset for their magnificent and time-tested Dutch ovens, but they also make an extraordinary (and surprisingly affordable) enamel cast iron skillet. We love their skillet’s design, with its massive sturdy handle and simple large loop-style front handle that makes handling simple. The other huge benefit to enamel is that it’s completely dishwasher safe, which means you can have all the awesome benefits of cooking with cast iron without any of the “hassle” of cleaning, seasoning, and re-seasoning. $85
Field Cast Iron Skillet #8
The folks at Field make some of the best cast iron skillets in the game, with their #8 being our personal favorite. People love vintage cast iron because they were lighter than a lot of the stuff we see today, and they also had very smooth surfaces, which lent themselves to incredibly smooth non-stick cooking surfaces. Remember that bit up top we said about dudes crying at flea markets? Well, that’s why.
The folks at Field studied this old technology and technique, made improvements where they felt necessary, and the result is their incredible line of beautiful quality, lightweight, and superbly smooth cast iron skillets, which they claim is the closest you’ll get to classic glory in a modern package. $125
Smithey Ironware Co. No. 10
Smithey is another modern cast iron cookware company made right here in the U.S.A. Everything they do from their designing, to their casting, unique polishing, finishing, and packaging is done at their company headquarters down in Charleston, South Carolina.
These guys have also adopted design strategy from the classic vintage skillets cast iron fanatics know and love, meaning their pans are incredibly smooth and non-stick right out of the box. Aside from their beautiful casting techniques, they also employ a unique and beautiful finishing method that helps give their skillets their butter smooth, almost copper-looking surface, which means cooking on them is as good as it gets, from the first day you get it. $160
Butter Pat Industries Heather
Go to any cast iron forum or review site, and you’ll see people raving about any of the stuff Butter Pat Industries puts into their lineup. Of their cast iron skillets, the Heather, is the best because it’s a modestly large pan with some incredible design features—their proprietary hand-casting, their deep pour spouts, their lunky (but useful) front grips—makes it our absolute favorite. They’re also heavily reputed to be the best non-stick skillet right out of the box, with some customers saying they didn’t even need to add oil to the pan when cooking a perfect fried egg.
Their price tag is certainly extravagant, but each individual pan is made to order in the U.S.A., and more than 40 people perform 60 or more key steps that make each pan special, unique, and totally perfect right out of the box. If you’re looking for the best of the best and price isn’t an issue, these guys are definitely your huckleberry. $195
Lodge 3.5 Inch Cast Iron Mini Skillet
We wanted to throw one smaller cast iron skillet on our list because these things make for perfect camping cookware. The small 3.5-inch from Lodge is an excellent and incredibly inexpensive addition to any camper pack or rucksack rig, and is perfect for small items like fried eggs or flapjacks. You can expect the same quality standards you would from any of Lodge’s products, with the added packability of something small and unobtrusive. For the guy on the go, it’s a win-win. $7