Published September 1, 2007. From Cook's Illustrated.
Is cast iron the original nonstick pan? Do recent innovations improve on this traditional kitchen workhorse?
Over the past 30 years, nonstick skillets have taken the place of cast iron in most homes. But with disturbing reports about the effects of nonstick coatings on the environment and our health, we decided to take another look at cast iron to see if it's worth bringing back into the kitchen.
Cast iron has always been known to have a few advantages over other types of cookware. Its material and weight give it excellent heat retention for high-heat cooking techniques such as frying and searing. You can use it on the stovetop or bake with it in the oven. Its durability is legendary—many people are still cooking with cast-iron pans handed down for generations. Unlike most consumer products, cast-iron pans actually improve with time and heavy use.
Cast iron also has disadvantages. It's heavy and needs special care. It must be seasoned to prevent it from rusting or reacting with the foods you cook. Until its seasoning is well established, food will stick to it. You shouldn't use soap or steel wool on it, lest you strip off the seasoning. But manufacturers have been tweaking the design and materials to maintain its principal benefits while diminishing some of the downside. They have begun coating the surface with a variety of materials to either begin the seasoning process or render it unnecessary. In some cases, new coatings bonded onto the cast iron make soap and even the dishwasher no longer off-limits. Unfortunately, the one thing that didn't get better with innovation was price: Traditional unseasoned cast-iron skillets are a true bargain, costing between $11 and $20. Most preseasoned pans are also fairly cheap, at $15 to $30, but we found fancier pans that hovered around the $100 mark.
There were several factors that distinguished the high-ranked models. First, they were seasoned by the manufacturer. Seasoning new pans in the oven creates oily fumes and a mess as shortening drips off the pan.
What's more, the unseasoned pans lagged behind the factory-seasoned pans in nonstick performance throughout our testing. Their lighter hue also produced lighter browning on the corn bread than the solidly black preseasoned pans.
Second, evenness of cooking without hot spots or heat surges was very important. We wanted a pan that wouldn't cool off too much when food was added and would quickly climb back to the desired temperature.
A third key factor was the diameter of the interior cooking surface, which made a difference when trying to accommodate multiple chicken breasts or steaks without crowding or steaming. We have a strong preference for the larger pans.
Weight was a thorny issue. While we preferred the bigger pans, they tended to be heavy and difficult for a smaller cook to manipulate in tasks such as swirling melting butter, pouring off a pan sauce, and flipping to release corn bread. Good handle design can help offset the problem.
Durability is one of the biggest virtues of cast iron. In the case of cast iron, you don't need to spend more to get more—simple cast iron pans were more resistant to scratching that enameled or nickel-finished pans.