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If the heated debates over the proper care and usage of a cast iron pan has you feeling a little unsure about what you’re supposed to be looking for, the first thing to remember is that you’re not alone. The second thing to remember is that the best cast iron pans and skillets are far less complicated than you may have been led to believe. There are, however, a few things we think it’s important to keep in mind.
What Are the Best Cast Iron Pans?
The best cast iron pans can be used for everything from frying eggs to searing steak, with even heat distribution and remarkable flavor. Sometimes known as a cast iron skillet, these pans are made from durable materials that work on stoves and in ovens, and over campfires too. A good cast iron pan has the ability to last for years if conditioned well.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Cast Iron Pans?
The first thing to know is that there are right and wrong ways to cook with cast iron, and we often find that people complaining about a certain pan’s features or lack thereof simply haven’t figured out how to use their pan correctly. For one thing, cast iron pans are not truly nonstick, and will take many uses and seasonings before they develop the smooth sheen you’re probably imagining. While many pans claim to arrive pre-seasoned and ready to be cooked with right away, a lot of home chefs say these pans can still use a few more layers of pre-seasoning before they’re at optimal performance. As far as the best seasoning method goes, people may differ, but most methods involve coating the pan in a thin layer of oil and then “baking” it in the oven for about an hour or so.
Another thing to remember is that cast iron does not heat evenly at first. However, it retains heat incredibly well. This means whenever you’re using a cast iron pan you must let the pan heat completely before cooking if you want your food to be cooked evenly.
Having covered the basics, there are a few other things we always look for.
Things to Consider When Buying a Cast Iron Skillet
Pure Cast Iron vs. Enameled Cast Iron: Enameled cast iron is slightly different from the large, pure cast iron pans you’re probably imagining. Unlike straight cast iron, these can sometimes be washed in the dishwasher and are a little less high maintenance. That said, they may not last as long and without proper care, the enamel has been known to chip and peel after a while.
Brand: Good cast iron will last a lifetime (or several), while skillets made from inferior materials will warp and eventually become useless. Griswold is known as the “classic” cast iron brand, but these pans are often extremely expensive and hard to come by. Other reputable brands like Lodge and Le Creuset are just as reliable.
Size and Shape: The optimal size and shape will depend on your personal needs and preferences, but a good place to start is a 10 or 12-inch pan, which works for a wide range of foods. As far as shape, we like flat-bottomed pans that get direct contact with heat, and specific design features, like an ergonomically-shaped handle or convenient depth.
1. Le Creuset Signature Iron Handle Skillet
The black enamel interior of this Le Creuset cast iron skillet means it does not require additional seasoning as other cast irons do. According to the manufacturer, it is also dishwasher-safe, though the anxious among you might want to use your best judgment when testing this out.
More importantly, this pan still comes with the most desirable attributes of cast iron cookware. It offers superior heat retention, requires very little cooking oil, and can be used in the oven as well as the stovetop. And like a classic cast iron pan, over time you will notice that it has developed a natural patina ideal for searing and frying.
Details like pour spouts on either side, an unusually broad and shallow shape, jaunty color, and large looped handle facilitating a better grip are what set this particular piece apart.
2. Lodge Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet
Lodge is one of the top brands for cast iron cookware. Virtually indestructible, if treated properly, this pan can last for years without losing its quality or cooking prowess. This skillet’s heat retention is pretty much unbeatable, as is its versatility of use — perfect for everything from roasting to campfires.
We like this pan’s rounded sides and wide surface area. And we really love the silicone handle holder, which covers the hot handle and keeps you from accidentally searing the daylights out of your fingers when you go to grab it by accident.
The manufacturer says the pan comes pre-seasoned, but cast iron devotees still advise layering an additional coat or two of your own to achieve a shiny black surface before cooking.
3. Utopia Kitchen Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet
This cast iron has less brand recognition than Lodge or Le Creuset, but we don’t want that to dissuade you. Home cooks who purchased this skillet remark on the quality of the cast iron, which is heavy and durable. The broad surface area and size allows for plenty of room for even your biggest meals.
We like the 12.5-inch size of this skillet, but be aware this might be an inch or so larger than you expect. This skillet is also pre-seasoned, but like the pan above, we’d recommend adding a few additional layers of seasoning yourself.
4. Cuisinart Chef’s Classic Enameled Cast Iron Fry Pan
Cuisinart’s enameled cast iron skillet comes with all the low maintenance advantages of enamel, including being dishwasher-safe and no need for tedious seasoning. But we particularly like the shape of this skillet, which has a perfectly flat bottom surface, and sharp, rather than sloped edges. This keeps food centered and contained, and delivers more even cooking.
This pan also has a large, wide-angled handle that more comfortably distributes the weight of the pan and makes for a sturdier grip. Plus, it comes in a variety of colors to suit whatever your kitchen’s style happens to be.