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We put 15 cast iron skillets through multiple rounds of testing to see which ones would come out on top.
I nearly drove myself nuts before initiating testing for this review just trying to decide what qualities a”good” cast iron pan should have. Cast iron itself is not a good conductor of heat, but it retains heat well. Those two characteristics are interlinked: the better a metal conducts heat, the worse it holds onto it. So if I find one pan that conducts heat better than all the rest, should I reward it for that or not?
I fretted similarly about how I would factor in each pan’s weight. Cast iron is heavy, even for me, and I’m far from the weakest person you might find in a kitchen. So is a lighter-weight pan better? On your wrists, sure, but at what cost? The mass of a cast iron pan is, at least in theory, central to its ability to hold lots of heat. If a heavy skillet proves to sear steaks better than a lighter one, how do I decide what the ideal balance is between those potentially opposing qualities?
In the end, my testing solved these conundrums for me: The best cast iron pan is the one that performs its core tasks—searing, baking, and nonstick frying and sautéing—with success. And what my testing revealed is that, for all the nerding out one can do about cast iron, there’s practically no difference in performance from one pan to the next. Yes, you read that right: For all their variations in weight, size, smoothness, and form, most cast iron pans perform about the same under the same conditions.
This finding left me with a much easier determination to make, one that mostly took into account cost, brand reliability, as well as ergonomics and other user experience (UX) considerations.
To assess these pans, I focused on tasks that would reveal how well each cast iron skillet performed its most important functions: searing, frying and sautéing, and baking. I also measured heat conduction over time at both the center and edge of each pan, and recorded each one’s weight, bottom thickness and diameter, and smoothness, in case any of those attributes might help explain how the pans performed in the more practical tests.
On top of that, I analyzed ergonomic factors like handle comfort and pour-spout efficacy.
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Cast iron is not a good heat conductor, but that doesn’t mean all the skillets in my test would conduct heat equally poorly. I needed to assess how quickly and evenly each pan heated on the stovetop. (Whether being a better conductor of heat or not is good or bad was a question for the other tests to help me answer.)
To find out, I set a stovetop gas burner to what I would describe as a medium flame, then set each pan on top. From the moment each pan was set down, I used an infrared thermometer to record the temperature every 10 seconds for 20 intervals (totaling 3 minutes 20 seconds). I allowed all the pans to cool back to room temperature and then repeated the test while measuring each skillet at its edge (to keep the”edge” position consistent on pans of slightly different diameters, I used the bars on the stovetop grate underneath to help me set my sights).
Over the course of 3 minutes and 20 seconds, I measured the temperature of the floor of each skillet at both the center and edge, taking readings every ten seconds. This chart shows the final temperature each skillet registered at the 3 minute, 20 second mark.
The results here were remarkably different: Some of the skillets still hadn’t hit 200°F by the end of the heating cycle while others were above 400°F. Now, as I explained above, there’s no reason to assume a slower-to-heat cast iron skillet is worse than a faster one, nor vice versa. That’s a question the performance tests would have to help answer.
Still, I did see some trends. First, while it doesn’t map perfectly to the mass of each skillet, overall the ones that were fastest to heat were also the lighter-weight ones, while the slowest were the heaviest. This makes sense: The more metal there is to heat up, the longer it will take.
One exception to this observation was the Butter Pat skillet, which is one of the newcomers to the cast iron market. It was the second slowest to heat, but solidly middle-of-the-pack in terms of weight. In its case, the distribution of metal may help explain why it heated so much slower than the other pans of similar weight: The Butter Pat has much thinner walls and more of its mass in its base. (This accumulation of mass in the base may also explain why the Butter Pat, unlike almost every other skillet, had such similar degrees of heating at both the edge and center of the base, since there is much less metal in the walls to continuously siphon off heat as it radiates towards them.)
Eggs stuck in nearly every skillet; over time as seasoning builds up, this will no longer happen.
After running through my heat conduction measurements, it was time to take these pans for a real spin. I was curious to find out how well-seasoned each skillet was out of the box (good seasoning=more nonstick). Since cast iron cookware requires ongoing maintenance to build up great seasoning, I didn’t necessarily think skillets that underperformed in this test should be disqualified, but I figured it could help as a tie-breaker.
Judging by sight alone, some of the skillets arrived better seasoned than others: Some were a lighter brown color, indicating less build-up of seasoning applied at the factory, while others were jet-black, a sign of much more substantial seasoning accumulation.
Two skillets showing different amounts of out-of-the-box seasoning (a lighter brown cast suggests less build up of seasoning, while darker black suggests more).
To test each one, I first gave each skillet a bonus layer of seasoning (two skillets in the group required a pre-seasoning step before first use, so it only seemed fair to put them all through the same process). Then I preheated all of the skillets in ovens set to 250°F. Working one at a time, I removed a skillet from the oven and set it over a consistent moderate flame. Next I added one tablespoon of oil and let it heat for 30 seconds before cracking two eggs into the pan.
Using this pre-heating process, each egg sizzled gently when it hit the pan, which was just what I wanted to see: any cooler and the egg wouldn’t be frying, any hotter and it’d have a much easier time not sticking. This was exactly the heat level I’d use in one of my prized cast iron skillets at home to gently fry an egg without it sticking.
In every single pan (except the Starfrit, but it’s an outlier with some kind of coating on it), the eggs fused to the metal. The Butter Pat and Smithey skillets had some of the most severe sticking, and they also had appeared to the eye to be the least seasoned out of the box, but none of the other skillets performed well enough to declare an obvious winner. The clear lesson here is that almost no cast iron pan arrives with its potential nonstick surface fully realized: You will need to build up the seasoning at home no matter what.
Just about every skillet, when preheated properly, put a great sear on beef.
The next test was all about high heat: How well could each skillet sear a steak? I used thick slabs of boneless beef short ribs to find out.
For this test, I preheated all of the pans in 500°F ovens. Then, working one at a time, I removed them, added 1 tablespoon of oil, then seared two large short rib slabs in each, turning them every 30 seconds for a total of 3 minutes per side.
Just like in the egg-frying test, all the skillets performed incredibly similarly, except this time they did their job well. Just about every single one produced deeply browned and crusty steak on both sides. If there was a difference, I had a hard time spotting it. The only one that I thought maybe wasn’t as good was the Amazon skillet, which I thought possibly put less of a good sear on the second side of the steaks (but, again, I wasn’t certain even as I stared and prodded it, so the difference wasn’t by any means huge).
It was nearly impossible to spot any differences when baking cornbread in each skillet.
My third real-world test was baking cornbread. I hoped to see three things here: First, how deeply and evenly browned each cornbread was on the bottom and sides; second, how much rise did each cornbread experience; and third, how much did any of the cornbreads stick.
What I saw instead were nearly identical loaves of cornbread coming out of every single skillet. Each one browned the bread evenly and deeply on both the bottom and sides, indicating that they all have enough stored heat all over, certainly more than the room-temp batter could counteract when it was ladled in. Each one also rose similarly, indicating they each delivered similar heat into the batter, causing similar levels of oven spring. And, finally, none of them stuck to the metal, indicating that after the first round of pre-seasoning, followed by the egg frying test and the steak-searing test, the seasoning was beginning to build up on all of them. With a few more uses, they’d all be ready to fry some eggs with no trouble.
Comfort and Ergonomics
Weighing and measuring the skillets.
Given how little light was shed on the skillets based on performance, other characteristics like price, comfort, and some design considerations were going to be the primary deciding factors.
During all of the prior testing, I had been taking UX notes, including which skillets were the most uncomfortable to hold and which were just too dang heavy. I also ran an oil-pouring test, filling each skillet with a half-cup of oil, then pouring it back out into a narrow jar to see which channeled the fluid most effectively.
I learned that the best pour spouts are large and deep, and if you can’t have that, you’re better off having no pour spout at all: The skillets with shallow and small spouts tended to dribble the most. While good to know, I didn’t consider small spouts a dealbreaker if the pan otherwise performed well and is well priced.
How We Chose Our Winners
Given how similarly all of the cast iron pans performed in these tests, the real decision came down to comfort, ergonomics, and price. For that reason, I’m recommending two Lodge skillets, since they’re affordable, reliable, and backed up by an established company with a proven track record. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t recommend some of the newer, more expensive skillets I tested, however.
Some of the pricier skillets in this group were a pleasure to use. Several feature a much smoother cooking surface, the result of a sanding or polishing step that removes the casting’s naturally rough surface. This is a step that adds labor and cost to the manufacturing process and contributes to a higher price. A smoother surface may not have much impact on performance, but it’s without a doubt more pleasurable to run a metal spatula across it.
There are also economies of scale to consider: It’s to be expected that smaller manufacturers that are just entering the market won’t be able to compete with a large company like Lodge on cost. Competition is still a good thing, and I’m glad it’s been reintroduced into the cast iron cookware market; hopefully over time the presence of these new contenders will be a benefit to the consumer overall. Please do read about the other brands below to see if any are of interest to you.
The Best Everyday Cast Iron Skillet: Lodge 10.25-Inch Skillet
Lodge skillets have been a staple in the Serious Eats test kitchen and many of our homes for years. They’re affordable and well-made by a company that has a longer track record producing cast iron cookware than any other in the Unites States. Unlike almost every other more affordably priced cast iron brand, Lodge still makes their plain cast iron cookware in the United States (their enameled cast iron, on the other hand, is manufactured abroad).
This skillet does run slightly heavy at about five-and-a-half pounds, which is about one pound heavier than the average for all the skillets in this review. Still, the handle is comfortable to hold both bare-handed and with a towel or oven mitt. And while the basic line from Lodge doesn’t have the lighter weight and smooth finish of vintage pieces and more expensive contemporary brands, there’s little to no impact on performance as a result of this.
If we have one gripe, it’s that Lodge’s pour spouts are small and shallow, leading to more frequent dribbles and spills in our tests, but this is hardly a reason not to buy one given the price and overall quality.
Although this test focused on 10-inch skillets, it’s also worth considering the larger
12-inch size, either in addition to this one, or, perhaps for bigger families, instead of it.
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