Cast iron skillets are well-known for being sturdy, long-lasting, and virtually indestructible. But are they really?
When talking to my family and friends about cookware, they’re usually surprised to learn that cast iron skillets can (and often do) break when dropped.
Why is that the case?
The answer is in the way cast iron is traditionally made.
Foundries make cast iron skillets by heating iron, steel, and alloys to a temperature so high that they melt.
Then, they pour the molten metal into molds made of sand. Sand has a higher melting point than iron, so the molds stay intact as the red-hot metal cools down and solidifies.
The cast gets broken once the metal has hardened, and the single-piece cast iron skillet emerges from the sand. It’s cleaned from the sand and rubble, and it’s ready for its first seasoning.
It turns out that the same trait that makes cast iron skillets so sturdy—the fact that they’re made of a single piece of molten cast iron—is also their biggest weakness.
“Cast iron is durable, but not unbreakable. Like glass, the properties that make cast iron hard also make it brittle,” according to The Cast Iron Collector. Subjected to impact, it “will break before it bends.”
Cast iron is brittle and cannot be worked, hot or cold. The only way to shape it is to melt and cast it, according to metallurgy professionals:
Cast iron “cannot be bent, stretched, or hammered into shape, since its weak tensile strength means that it will fracture before it bends or distorts,” the team behind the Reliance Foundry says.
Once it’s cooled down and solidified, the resulting cookware is heavy and stern but also fragile and susceptible to cracking or breaking.
If you accidentally drop your cast iron skillet, especially from an upper cabinet on a concrete or tile floor, there’s a high chance it will break into two or more pieces as soon as it hits the ground.
So what steps can you take to prevent this from happening?
How to Prevent Your Cast Iron Cookware From Breaking
Personally, I’ve found the most uncomplicated measures against everyday clumsiness also to be the most effective.
Presume that it’s not a question of “if,” but “when” someone in your household will mishandle a skillet, grill pan, or Dutch oven—and prepare by minimizing the risk for it.
Store your cast iron cookware in a cabinet that’s as close to the ground as possible. That way, even if someone accidentally drops a pan or pot, it won’t fall from a height tall enough to break it into pieces.
Since cast iron is heavy, the propensity of it breaking is directly proportional to the height and, subsequently, the force of the fall.
“We are storing our new frying pan in the drawer under the stove, and suffering through the inconvenience of having to lift out the Dutch oven first in order to get at it,” a member of Instructables shares after her 27-year-old cast iron skillet fell from the tallest cabinet and snapped in two.
“We feel that this is much cheaper than buying new kitchen equipment.”
Also, one important note to make. All of what’s written above assumes that you own a single-piece cast iron skillet, grill pan, or Dutch oven.
If the vessels in your collection have bolt-on handles, keep in mind that they can easily detach or break in case of a fall (especially if made of bakelite).
Happily, you can find plenty of replacement handles on the Internet.
Can You Weld Cast Iron Skillet?
Suppose the unspeakable happened: your heritage cast iron skillet fell to the ground and wound up in two pieces.
It was handed down from your grandparents, or you’ve just been using it for decades—and you’re not ready to let go of it.
Can you somehow fix it?
Though broken cast iron can be welded back, the success ratio is just 50%, writes Pierre Young of Welding Headquarters. There’s a high chance that the cookware will have cracks or damage once you’re done welding it.
The problem, according to Young, is in the high carbon content of the cast iron: “While you weld, this carbon might transfer to the metal being weld or the area next to the weld metal that is heated. This can cause increased brittleness or hardness which can lead to post-weld cracks.”
The broader community of machinists and metallurgists seems to agree with him.
“I don’t know anyone who’s successfully welded an old, used cast iron frying pan, myself included. I gave up trying years ago. It’s impossible to get all the grease out,” shares a member of the Practical Machinist forum.
Yet some, like Don52 at Miller’s forum, seem to have succeeded—and share their tips and tricks for how they made it happen with others. So what’s the bottom line?
If the piece in question is precious to you and your family and has sentimental value, welding it back could be an option worth trying. What’s the worst that could happen, anyway? It’s already broken and rendered unusable, so there’s a 1/2 chance that it can only get better.
All your attempts to fix your cast iron skillet failed? Instead of throwing it out, consider repurposing what’s left of it as wall art in your garage or cabin in the woods. Or find a practical use for it in your garden.
Contrary to what most people think, cast iron skillets can (and often do) break when they fall from a tall enough height. As a material, cast iron is as fragile and brittle as it is heavy and sturdy, so do your best to handle it with care.