Cast iron skillets make cooking a cinch. Their slick surface keeps foods from sticking to them, allowing you to prepare even the most delicate of items, like eggs or whitefish, without mangling them.
They’re not as good at conducting heat as some other metals, like aluminum or copper, so they take a little longer to heat up. But, once a cast iron skillet gets hot enough to cook in, it distributes that heat evenly and is capable of holding on to it for a long time, even after you’ve removed it from the stove.
Add to that the fact that they’re cheap, sturdy, durable, easy to clean, and can be used on virtually any source of heat—be it your stove, oven, grill, or a sputtering campfire—and they start to seem like a pretty sweet deal to anyone on the hunt for new cookware.
Take a look at the listings of any online retailer or head to your town’s department store, and you’re bound to notice one thing: nowadays, cast iron skillets come in all shapes and sizes.
Unless you know a thing or two about cast iron cookware, it’s hard not to ask yourself…
Are all cast iron skillets the same?
Every cast iron skillet heats evenly and retains heat well, but not all makes and models are created equal. Some have traditional designs, and others have distinct shapes and handles. Some are pre-seasoned, and others require you to season them yourself. The cooking surface can be rougher or finer.
In this post, I will give you a crash course on selecting a cast iron skillet. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know the key differences between the most popular types of skillets out there so that you can select the best one for your needs and wants.
Traditional vs. Modern Design
When it comes to the way that they’re designed, cast iron pans generally fall into one of two categories.
Traditionally designed pans resemble the old-school Griswold and Wagner skillets your granny used to cook with. Most pans with a modern design look like they fell out of some UFO hovering above Roswell, New Mexico.
A traditionally-designed cast iron skillet is plain, round, and heavy. It has one or two pouring spouts and comes with a bare-iron handle, without the bells and whistles, and may or may not have a helper handle on the other side.
Take the Lodge 10.25-inch cast iron skillet as an example. Lodge is an American cast iron cookware foundry. Dating back to 1896, it’s also the longest-standing maker of cast iron skillets in the country.
Lodge pans look like heirlooms and are about as basic as cast iron skillets get, giving you fewer oddball features to worry about. This basicness is precisely what most people who cook with cast iron tend to look for.
Cast iron skillets with a modern design tend to come in many shapes and forms. 99.9% of the time, you’ll recognize them by the fact that they have unusual features that make them strange, to the extent that—at least at first glance—they look uncomfortable to use.
Take Finex, another American company that got bought up by Lodge in 2019, which makes expensive and highly unusual skillets.
Finex skillets have an octagonal shape with eight rounded corners that serve as pour spouts that double up as evenly-spaced steam vents when covered with the Adams-family-style lid.
The wound-steel handle stays cool longer and cools off quicker than the handles on traditionally-designed cast iron skillets. Yet some say it isn’t as comfortable to hold as Finex describes and can be hard to clean.
Short Handles vs. Long Handles
When selecting a skillet, no matter if with a traditional or modern design, test the handle. The handles on some modes have sharp edges that cut into your hand, making the cooking vessel uncomfortable to lift and hold as a whole.
The length and width of the handles also matter. A longer handle helps you keep your hand further away from the source of heat, which can be a blessing on gas stoves or on the outside grill. Shorter handles get hotter, faster, but they also give you a steadier grip on the pan.
What kind of handle you choose comes down to personal preference. Even if you intend to buy your skillet on the Internet, it’s a good idea to head to a department store or hypermarket that has it and get a feel for it before you make the purchase. It saves you the hassle of having to return it and select another make or model.
Pre-Seasoned vs. Unseasoned
Seasoning—the process of greasing your skillet with a paper towel soaked in cooking oil, then baking it onto the iron for about an hour in a 450°F (230°C) oven—is something that every owner of cast iron cooking vessels sooner or later needs to learn how to do.
Some cast iron skillets are sold pre-seasoned for your convenience, which means that the grunt of seasoning has already been taken care of for you in the factory. Other skillets come unseasoned, so you’ll have to do this yourself before you get cooking with them.
Like all sources of modern-day convenience, pre-seasoning has its ups and downs.
On the one hand, you don’t have to season your pan, at least initially. On the other, and as that saying goes, if you want something done right, you usually have to do it yourself.
A good few cast iron users say that the factory pre-seasoning on their pans flakes off. Since that’s a sign that the seasoning hasn’t been applied properly in the first place, they have to strip it off and reseason them.
Rough vs. Smooth Cooking Surface
Some skillets (for example, those made by Lodge) have a rougher and more porous cooking surface that holds on to the seasoning better but occasionally latches onto more delicate foods, like eggs or pancakes.
You can tell when the surface of a cast iron skillet is rough when you run your hand on it, and it looks, feels, and sounds like sandpaper.
This isn’t a problem per se, and it doesn’t bother most cooks at all. But a handy few who like their pans smooth will strip the pre-seasoning off and sand down the skillet by hand or with an electric sander.
“Have you ever felt a truck bed liner?,” Cowboy Kent Rollins rhetorically asks in a YouTube video on the topic. “If you run your hand across it, you know what I’m talking about.”
The surface on other skillets, like Stargazer and Smithey Ironware, has been smoothed by a CNC machine (a computer-controlled machine that’s been pre-programmed to do specific tasks to same-sized pieces of metal), giving it a polished, satin-like finish.
As a general rule of thumb, smoother cast iron skillets are harder to season, and building up a good seasoning on them takes a few weeks. However, their surface is remarkably non-stick and significantly easier to wipe down than those of their rougher counterparts.
Match Your Pan’s Size to Your Household
Suppose you cook for yourself and you seldom have family or friends over. In that case, a 10.25-inch pan will deliver on the majority of your cooking needs. That’s also a good size for couples who eat their food in smaller portions.
Home cooks who prepare sizeable meals for two or who cook for three should consider getting a pan with a diameter of 12 inches. You get just the amount of space you need to maneuver thick cuts of steak, large pieces of poultry, and salmon fillets.
Those who cook for a large family or who often feed a crowd should consider 13-14 inches. Before you buy one, however, make sure your stove has a burner or cooking zone that’s large enough to accommodate it.
I’ve written extensively on the topic at a post titled, “What Skillet Size is Right for You?” If you’re looking for more help picking the right pan size, go check it out!
Why Some Skillets Are Cheaper Than Others
Bigger foundries, which not that many are left of in the country as most went out of the business in the 20th century, have so-called economies of scale.
They have bargaining power with their suppliers and can negotiate the cost of metal and parts down. They’ve also automated their production processes over time, which means they rely more on machines and less on workers.
The only foundry that’s left standing in the USA which fits this category is Lodge. Recently, Eater went to their factory to tell the story of how their pans are made:
Artisanal cast iron makers are teams of two or three (up to a dozen or so) people who have to pay higher prices for metal and rely on local service suppliers to smelt iron, cast pans, and/or smoothen them out using CNC machines.
Think Borough Furnace, Field Company, Landcaster Cast Iron, Smithey Ironware, and a handful of other cast iron pan makers in the USA.
Though their pans and pots retail for anywhere from $100 to $300, by paying that price, you’re supporting small businesses and handymen across the country.
At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong by supporting either.