How we tested
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.
What You Need to Know
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.
What to Look For
- A Smooth Surface—or Gently Pebbly Texture: While the artisan pans with glassy-smooth surfaces performed beautifully, releasing food almost perfectly from the start and staying slick throughout testing, a few pans—our Best Buy, from Lodge, in particular—had a gently nubbly texture that quickly acquired seasoning and became more nonstick during testing. The near-perfect release in its final egg test and easy cleaning matched those of the slick artisan skillets.
- A Broad Cooking Surface: We preferred pans that offered at least 10 inches of flat cooking surface; this allowed plenty of room for cooking and prevented crowding when shallow-frying potato wedges and searing steaks.
- Sides That Are at Least 2 Inches Tall: The sides of one pan measured just 1¾ inches tall (from the pan’s interior bottom); extra height is necessary for containing hot oil and food, such as when frying doughnuts and shallow-frying chicken.
- Heavy Weight: While lighter, thinner pans were much easier to lift, they simply did not do the thing we really want cast iron to do: retain and conduct plenty of heat for deep, even browning. A thick, heavy pan has the mass and density to hold more heat than a thinner pan does and, once preheated, will cook more evenly than a thinner, lighter pan.
Nice to Have
- Longer Handle: Many cast-iron pans (including our favorites) have stubby handles, but a few had larger, rounder handles that angled upward slightly and gave us great leverage for lifting.
- Big Helper Handles: It wasn’t a deal breaker, but we didn’t love petite loops like the one on the Camp Chef skillet. We preferred pans with wide, broad loops we could really hang on to, especially when wearing an oven mitt.
What to Avoid
- Extra-Rough Surfaces: We were able to cook successfully in all the pans we tested, but the super-rough textures of a few were frustrating to clean. When we wiped oil on their hot surfaces, they ripped up paper towels and left lint behind; this kept us from achieving a really thin layer of seasoning, so pans stayed slightly oily and tacky. The effectiveness of their seasoning actually decreased during testing, with more eggs sticking at the end of testing than in the beginning. It will take longer for rough-surfaced pans to become as nonstick as smoother models.
- Lightweight Pans: As much as we loved maneuvering the lighter pans, they browned food evenly only if we preheated them in the oven. We don’t want to have to preheat a pan in the oven every time we want to use it. Heated only on the stovetop, lighter pans developed hot spots, so potato wedges came out half dark and half light, depending on how close the pieces were to the pan’s hotter zones. We had to spend time moving foods around (and risk overcooking them) to even out the browning. Scrambled eggs quickly overcooked in some pans.
- Pour Spouts: Some pans had big, deep pour spouts, while others had tiny ones; one pan had none at all. We poured ¼ cup of oil into a jar from the hot pans after frying the potatoes, and all worked fine, even the one without a spout.
- What’s the difference between artisan and mass-produced cast iron? First, here’s where they’re similar: All cast-iron skillets are literally cast; that is, hot, molten iron is poured into molds made of sand—which melts at a higher temperature than iron—to form the cookware. Once the iron has cooled, the pans are broken out of the sand mold, and then a series of machines (including rotating drums of metal chunks and sand blasters) remove sand, knock off any unwanted spikes of extra iron around the edges of the cookware and, to some extent, smooth the pans’ surfaces. Workers may hand-grind details such as the rim of a pan if it’s especially rough. Afterward, the pans are washed and dried; covered with a thin layer of oil; and baked at a high temperature, which seals and rust-proofs the surface with a layer of seasoning and makes the pans ready to use. Now here’s where they differ: All cast iron is an alloy of iron that contains carbon and silicon, but each maker has its own precise formula, which may affect the cast iron’s characteristics. How it’s heated and poured and the type of sand used for the molding are proprietary factors, too. Large manufacturers tend to make thicker, less-polished cookware because it is easier and more efficient in terms of cost and time to skip hand-finishing steps such as polishing. By contrast, artisan makers often cast their pans to be thinner and lighter overall or to have thinner sides and a thicker bottom (which shaves down the weight but keeps some of the heat retention of thicker cookware). And most artisan makers spend time hand-finishing and polishing their pans’ surfaces to be smoother, which can help the pans become nonstick faster. Artisan cast-iron cookware makers also usually create more unusual, distinctive designs to make their workmanship stand out from traditional pans.
- Why are the artisan pans golden brown?Completely unseasoned cast-iron pans are light gray in color, and preseasoned pans are typically black. Until the 21st century, people bought unseasoned pans, scrubbed off the protective wax they were coated in, and seasoned them at home (just as we do now with most carbon-steel cookware). However, now nearly all cast-iron cookware, including the skillets in our lineup, is sold preseasoned. To preseason their pans, manufacturers spray them with a proprietary vegetable oil (some use flaxseed or grapeseed oil, while others do not specify beyond “vegetable oil”) and then bake them to polymerize the oil, meaning that the fat molecules link together and bond to the iron, which seals it and protects it from rusting—and usually turns the surface of the pans black. Because these pans are preseasoned, you can begin cooking with them immediately. The artisan pans in our lineup were a stunning light gold or coppery color when they arrived because they are more lightly preseasoned. Once you start to cook in them, the pans become blotchy and mottled for a while (wok expert Grace Young calls this period of building pan seasoning “adolescence,” which strikes us as the perfect description). Eventually, with lots of use, these pans will lose their blotchy look and turn solid black.
- Should I strip and reseason my new cast-iron skillet? Do yourself a favor and just start cooking. The manufacturers’ baseline coating lets you skip lots of mess, smoke, and trouble and get to the good part of cast-iron skillets: cooking and eating great food. The only time you may need to completely strip a pan and reseason it is if it’s extremely rusty or gunky—way past the point you could fix it with steel wool and elbow grease.
- Can I use my cast-iron skillet on every type of stove? Yes. Cast-iron skillets work on gas, induction, and electric stoves. They’ll also perform well on your grill or campfire. If you have a glass-topped stove, be gentle. Lift and place the pan gently and don’t drag it, to avoid scratching or cracking the glass.
Other Tools You Might Want
- O-Cedar Rinse Fresh Pot & Pan Brush: This brush will effectively remove stuck food while keeping your hands out of hot water; its bristles rinse out easily, but it can also be thrown in the dishwasher.
- Chain Mail Scrubber: Its stainless-steel rings get any stubborn, stuck food off the pan’s surface without stripping seasoning.
- Kosher Salt: A handful of coarse kosher salt and some vegetable oil in a warm pan make a naturally excellent combination for scrubbing and seasoning your pan at the same time.
- Paper Towels: We use a wad of paper towels to wipe a small portion of oil all over a clean, dry cast-iron pan set over medium heat after each time we cook to keep its seasoning in top condition.
Some Recipes to Get You Started
- Cast Iron Pan Pizza: A cast-iron skillet’s heat retention makes excellent pan pizza with crispy frico around the edges of the crust.
- Cast Iron Pan-Seared Flank Steak with Crispy Potatoes and Chimichurri: Even after making it 10 times during testing, we still loved this hearty one-pan recipe.
- Cast Iron Best Scrambled Eggs: Skip the nonstick pan the next time you cook breakfast.
- Cast Iron Fried Chicken Sandwiches: Shallow-frying chicken for crispy sandwiches in your cast-iron skillet is delicious—and good for the pan’s seasoning.
- Scramble four eggs with 1½ teaspoons of butter in new pans
- Pan-sear flank steak, preheating each pan to 500 degrees in the oven according to the recipe
- Shallow-fry potato wedges on the stovetop
- Skillet-roast thick cod fillets, starting on the stove and finishing in the oven
- Bake cornbread and flip the pan to remove the cornbread and evaluate browning and sticking
- Repeat the scrambled egg test to compare the seasoning at the conclusion of testing
Performance: We evaluated the food prepared in each pan on its appearance, flavor, and texture. We also evaluated release; pans lost points if food stuck.
Ease of Use: We considered how easy the pans were to lift, cook in, and transfer to and from the oven.
Cleanup: We rated pans on whether they were difficult to scrub clean after cooking or if they were very rough and frustrating to wipe with paper towels because they tore lint from the towels, making it difficult to remove excess oil.