After spending 35 hours on research and putting nine cast-iron pans (including super high-end and vintage ones) through a battery of tests, we think the iconic Lodge pre-seasoned 12-inch skillet is best for most people. It has a nonstick-like factory seasoning, roomy cooking area, and easy-to-grip handles, and it’s widely available. Lodge cookware is affordable, made in the USA, and a longtime favorite of home cooks and professional chefs alike.
In our search for the best cast-iron skillet, we baked 16 boxes of Jiffy cornbread, seared 13 pounds of steak, fried 4 pounds of bacon, and cooked two dozen eggs. The Lodge 12-inch cast-iron skillet delivered evenly browned steaks, crisp golden cornbread, and effortless eggs over easy. The roomy 10-inch cooking area is one of the largest of the pans we tested. Lodge edged out the competition on performance, availability, and price.
If the Lodge sells out, we think the Victoria 12-inch cast-iron skillet is an excellent runner-up. The large pour spouts allowed us to drain off grease with zero drips. The sloped sides allow you to stretch the limits of its generous 10¼-inch cooking surface area (the Lodge’s measures 10 inches). In our tests, seared steaks and fried eggs were on a par with our top pick. It‘s not as nonstick straight out of the box as the Lodge, so cornbread crust stuck to its bottom. We also had some issues with the long handle, which throws off the weight distribution and makes the skillet seem heavier (even though it weighs less than our top pick).
For the price, the Camp Chef 12-inch skillet performed impressively. Cornbread released completely when inverted; steak had a thick, consistent sear. After a couple of tries, we successfully flipped fried eggs without any sticking. However, at 9 inches, the cooking surface is the smallest of our picks by 1 inch, and the helper handle is very small and difficult to grasp with a folded towel.
I’ve been writing about cookware for The Sweethome for three years, covering skillets (both tri-ply and nonstick), roasting pans, saucepans, and electric cookers. Before that, I was a cook in fine-dining kitchens for many years and a food editor in the Martha Stewart test kitchens for six years. I’ve spent my whole professional life working in some facet of food and have tens of thousands of hours experience working with all types of cookware.
In addition to my personal experience, we interviewed Nancy Fuller, host of Farmhouse Rules; Jeremiah Langhorne, chef/owner of The Dabney in Washington, DC; Mary Theisen, founder of The Pan Handler; Matt Hartings, professor of chemistry at American University and author of Chemistry in Your Kitchen; and Brad Schwarting, president of Griswold Cast Iron Cookware Association. We also read editorial reviews by Cook’s Illustrated, Serious Eats, and The New York Times (parent company of The Sweethome).
Cast-iron skillets have been an essential tool in American home kitchens for well over a century. Cooks turn to these durable pans for panfrying, searing, baking, and their morning eggs. Cast iron offers much of the versatility of a stainless steel tri-ply skillet at a fraction of the cost. When used and cared for properly, cast iron can also be an effective alternative to nonstick cookware, due to the seasoning (polymerized fat that gives the cast-iron skillets nonstick-like performance) that develops with use. And unlike Teflon-coated pans, cast iron is safe past 500 degrees and can go under the broiler. While nonstick skillets have a short life expectancy—three to five years depending on use—well-maintained cast-iron cookware can last generations.
Cast iron is ideal for searing because of how well it holds onto heat. Matt Hartings, professor of chemistry at American University and author of Chemistry in Your Kitchen, told us, “Cast iron is heavy and dense, and that is the biggest thing it has going for it. It takes a while for the cast iron to really be preheated to where you can use it. But once it’s there, it’s great for searing and high-temperature cooking.” All that stored heat translates to a thick sear on steaks and roasts, crispy fish skin, and deep caramelization on vegetables. Also, with careful tending, cast iron can be used for lower-temp techniques like omelettes and fried eggs (though they brown more than when cooked in a nonstick skillet). Nancy Fuller, host of Farmhouse Rules, loves to cook bacon and eggs in her cast-iron skillet, but warned, “It’s all about controlling the heat, because you can scorch those eggs in a heartbeat.”
Home cooks and professional chefs alike turn to cast-iron cookware for its unparalleled performance and durability. If you’re looking for a tool to be your kitchen stalwart, a cast-iron skillet is for you.
A great cast-iron pan is affordable, factory-seasoned, and comfortable to hold and maneuver. We preferred skillets with a more generous cooking surface and large pour spouts so you can cook bacon for a crowd and cleanly dispose of the grease. Most 12-inch cast-iron skillets we found in our research were priced between $25 and $40. Compared with stainless steel or copper, cast iron is a relatively crude and inexpensive cooking material. Cast-iron cookware improves with use and develops layers of seasoning, making it a valuable tool in your kitchen in which you’ve invested time and energy, not money.
We wanted to see how cast-iron pans that are widely available for purchase would fare against lighter weight antique pans as well as high-end hand-finished pans. We talk a little more about the vintage pans below, and why you might want one even though the mass-made pans performed just as well. And although there are some expensive cast-iron pans made by newer companies like Finex and Field Company, we found the extra cost isn’t worth it.
“Seasoning” a skillet is the process of treating the surface with fat and heat to create polymerized, hardened layers that make the pan resistant to sticking. Most skillets come pre-seasoned so your pan is ready to use when you buy it. The seasoning on higher quality pans has a smoother texture than cheaper ones, but the price difference between them is at most $15, a small price to pay for successful cooking from day one. That said, you do need to take measures with a brand new cast-iron pan to prevent rusting. We outline proper seasoning instructions in the Care and maintenance section.
Cast-iron cookware is very heavy—our top pick weighs 8¼ pounds—and it gets very hot, so handle comfort is important. We prefer slightly rounded stick handles that allow for a natural grip around the base. A good handle offers security when transferring the pan from stove to oven and draining hot grease. All the 12-inch pans we tested have “helper handles” opposite the stick handle. We prefer roomy helper handles that are easy to grip with a towel or hot mitt for extra control when maneuvering.
A 12-inch cast-iron skillet has 9 to 10 inches of available cooking surface area; we prefer skillets with larger cooking areas. For searing, you want as much space as possible around your meat for steam to escape. Trapped water will prevent the development of a thick browned crust. When cooking bacon for a crowd, you want to do it in as few batches as possible.
Cooking meats at high temperatures often produces grease—bacon, sausage, steak, fried chicken—and we like pans with functional pour spouts that don’t dribble bacon drippings and make a mess. When you take into account the heft and heat of a cast-iron skillet, aiming for the small opening of a jar is challenging on its own without the added headache of subpar pour spouts.
We gave the edge to cast-iron pans that are widely available. Artisanal cast-iron pan companies have limited availability. In the case of one company, there’s an absurdly long waiting list just to buy one.
We bought nine cast-iron pans to run through a battery of tests in the Sweethome kitchen, and we invited New York Times food editor Sam Sifton to join in the fun. The first round of tests involved heating a quarter cup of oil in each skillet until shimmering and pouring the hot fat into a Mason jar to see if the pans could do this with minimal (or no) dribbling on countertops. We also looked at handle comfort and maneuverability when lifting and tilting the pans.
After eliminating some skillets that failed the dribble and maneuverability test, we cooked 6 ounces of bacon until crisp, baked cornbread in the drippings, and unmolded the bread to see the nonstick-ness of the factory seasoning. All our picks had the cleanest releases.
We then cut a whole bottom round roast into thick steaks and seared them in two teaspoons of canola oil to gauge how well each pan seared meat. Finally, we fried two eggs in 1 tablespoon of butter to test how well the seasoning held up and to see how easily a spatula could maneuver around the skillets’ straight sides.
It’s no surprise that the Lodge 12-inch pre-seasoned cast-iron skillet is our favorite. Besides being from one of the most iconic cookware brands in the country, it has a smooth cooking surface, comfortable handles, and a large cooking area. In our tests, the Lodge performed as well as, and sometimes even better, than the more expensive, lighter pans, both vintage and new. Lodge’s products are used by chefs and cooking personalities, widely available, and affordable. Oh yeah, and they’re still made in the USA.
What made the Lodge skillet stand out from the competition is the quality of the seasoning. Out of the box, it was the front-runner because the surface, while appearing rough and pebbly, felt smoothest to the touch when compared with all of the other new, affordably priced pans we tested. Our initial observations were confirmed when cornbread inverted from the skillet almost completely intact, save for a small bit of crust that stuck in the middle. For a brand new skillet, that’s impressive performance and in stark contrast to the Utopia Kitchen—an obvious knockoff of the Lodge design—which unmolded half of the cornbread, leaving the rest stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Another characteristic of the Lodge that jumped out at us when comparing the skillets is the comfortable handle. The design of the small stick handle allows you to naturally grasp it at the position where you have the most control, choked up at the base. The roomy helper handle on the other side of the skillet is big enough to wrap your fingers underneath with a bulky dishtowel. When we were pouring hot oil, our grip on the handle was secure and we always kept control of the pan.
With a diameter of 10 inches, the Lodge has one of the largest cooking areas of our picks. That’s big enough to fit a large rib eye steak, 6 ounces of standard-sliced bacon, or four large fried eggs. In comparison, our budget pick, the Camp Chef, has a cooking area that measures 9½ inches across, which made 6 ounces of bacon a tight fit.
The Lodge was a solid performer in every test. We were left with only one stray drop of oil on the countertop when testing the pour spouts. Cornbread had a crisp golden crust. Steak seared pretty evenly with minimal spottiness in a couple of places. Fried eggs released with moderate golden laciness around the edges, and the shape of the pan allowed for good spatula maneuvering. Sam Sifton was impressed by the Lodge, saying, “The only thing I really don’t like about the new Lodges is the excessive branding,” referring to the logo emblazoned on the helper handle. He added, “I like their performance a lot.”
Two more very important things that make Lodge skillets desirable are their availability and affordability. Lodge skillets are available on multiple websites (including Amazon) as well as through national retail chains, independently owned hardware stores, and cooking stores. This skillet is an affordable pan that will become smoother with use and most likely last a lifetime with proper care. That longevity easily beats the short life expectancy—three to five years—of a nonstick skillet.
The 10.25-inch Lodge skillet is just as durable and even more affordable, sometimes a third of the price of of its 12-inch sibling. It has less usable cooking area, so searing large roasts and spatchcock chickens might not be possible. Still, it’s a great value, especially if you live in a smaller household.
Lodge skillets have a huge following from home cooks and professionals alike. Chef Jeremiah Langhorne uses them in his kitchen at The Dabney in DC. He told us in an interview, “I cook a great deal with cast iron at the restaurant. We have a large wood-burning hearth and the only pans we use in the hearth are cast iron.” When asked what he liked to cook most in cast-iron skillets, he said, “We love the sear, the char cast iron can put on fish, meat, or vegetables. Cornbread must be made in a cast iron.”
Lodge doesn’t have a formal written guarantee or warranty on its classic cast-iron ware, but its website says: “We do stand behind every product manufactured. For product problems, please contact Lodge Customer Service and we will solve the problem to your satisfaction.” That said, I have Lodge skillets in my house that range in age from 15 to 20 years old, and I’ve never had a problem. The lack of a warranty doesn’t concern us because Lodge cast-iron skillets are very durable.
At 8¼ pounds, the Lodge 12-inch skillet is the heaviest we tested. It weighs a pound more than the Victoria, 1¾ pounds more than Camp Chef, and almost twice as much as the Wagner Ware skillets. We think this is fine since the Lodge has a big helper handle and the stick handle allows for maximum leverage with a comfortable grip.
If our top pick sells out (which is highly unlikely), the Victoria 12-inch cast-iron skillet is an excellent runner-up. It has a generous cooking area and bigger pour spouts. It performed on a par with the Lodge in searing steaks and cooking eggs, but it didn’t give us as clean a release on cornbread. The factory seasoning is thinner than Lodge’s, so it’ll need some extra rounds of seasoning at home. The longer stick handle throws off the weight distribution and makes the pan seem heavier, even though the Victoria weighs a pound less than the Lodge.
Victoria’s cooking area measures 10¼ inches (a bit larger than the Lodge at 10 inches). The sloped sides are more rounded than our top pick, which is good for whisking pan sauces, and the shape allows to push the capacity limits a bit (meaning you can squeeze in one more piece of bacon). When searing steaks, the Victoria skillet yielded the same browning as the Lodge, mostly consistent with slight spottiness on the edges.
Bigger pour spouts mean easier draining of meat drippings. Victoria’s large spouts allowed us to pour off hot oil without a single drip. The longer stick handle is shaped in a way that makes you grasp it towards the end. This isn’t ideal for a cast-iron skillet, since the heavy weight is best managed when your hand is choked up on the handle. For simple maneuvering, we had to use the helper handle for stability, which is big and comfortable to hold with a towel.
Victoria’s factory seasoning was second to Lodge in our tests, and it showed when we inverted our cornbread, in which 25 percent of the crust stuck to the pan. When we fried eggs—which was the last test and after two additional rounds of seasoning—they released with zero struggle or scraping. The Victoria isn’t as cook-ready from the factory as the Lodge, but it can get there quickly.
Victoria cast-iron cookware comes with a lifetime warranty that protects against craftsmanship defects.
If you want to spend as little as possible on a quality cast-iron pan, the Camp Chef 12-inch cast-iron skillet has you covered. The Camp Chef skillet comes with a pretty rough-textured surface. But that didn’t keep it from turning out flawless cornbread. In fact, out of all the cast-iron skillets we tested, the Camp Chef was the only one to invert cornbread completely with no sticking. It had a deeper golden crust than our other two picks, but not offensively dark.
It seared a steak as well as our other two picks, with minimal spottiness. However, fried eggs stuck a bit and were difficult to flip. The biggest dings against this pan are the combination of the high sides and the 9½-inch cooking area (the smallest of our picks), which made maneuvering a spatula under delicate foods tricky. There’s a shallow, rounded ridge on the bottom that could make cooking on glass and induction cooktops tricky or difficult.
The stick handle on the Camp Chef is grippy and comfortable to hold. The helper handle, though, is very small and doesn’t offer as much support as our other two picks. That said, the price of this skillet can’t be beat. If you want an inexpensive skillet for camping, or you’re a first-time cast iron cook, this is a decent entry-level pan. Camp Chef offers a 90-day warranty on manufacturer’s defects. It doesn’t cover misuse or rusting from poor upkeep.
The easiest way to maintain your cast-iron pan is with regular use. A clever trick is to keep it on your stove, or easily at hand, so it’s convenient to use (it also doesn’t hurt to cook bacon and other fatty foods in it from time to time). The cast iron our grandparents bought came raw (unseasoned), and everyday use was the only way to season the cookware.
Contrary to popular belief, you can wash your pan with a drop of mild dish soap and hot water. Mary Theisen said, “The soap thing drives me crazy. You can use soap on cast-iron pans, as long as it seasoned properly, you’re not going to wreck your pan if you use a little bit of soap. If I have a really dirty pan, I’d rather use the soap because I don’t want to have a pan with food particles sitting around.” Another way to loosen stubborn cooked-on food is to pour hot tap water in the skillet while it’s still hot and let it boil for a minute or two, then transfer to the sink and wash. Always hand-wash and make sure to dry your pan completely. You can do this over low heat on the stove or in the oven.
If you have a brand new pan, it’ll have a factory seasoning. To ensure that seasoning will last, follow these steps after the first few times you use your pan:
Here’s a short list of things you should never do to your cast-iron pan:
Your cast-iron cookware will occasionally need to be re-seasoned throughout its life. It can happen because the pan got too hot and the food pulled some seasoning away, or sometimes it just thins out. To re-season cookware, follow Sheryl Canter’s step-by-step instructions for properly stripping old seasoning and re-seasoning cast-iron cookware.
Since the popularity of cast iron has spiked in recent years, the demand for antique skillets made anywhere from the late 1800s to mid-20th century by now-defunct companies like Wagner and Griswold has skyrocketed. Now that more people are seeking out these pans, the prices have quadrupled in some cases.
Antique and vintage cast-iron cookware were hand-poured into sand molds and hand-polished to a smooth finish. These labor-intensive pans were cast from thinner molds, which resulted in a lighter heft. Vintage pans are prized for their light weight because they’re easier to maneuver. The hand polishing makes for a slicker cooking surface. In contrast, most modern cast-iron pans are mass-produced on automated production lines. They retain the rough texture of the sand mold and weigh almost twice as much as their antique counterparts because the walls are thicker. In our tests, we found the heft of a skillet doesn’t have any bearing on cooking performance; it’s just personal preference.
For this review, we bought two Wagner #10 skillets—which are slightly smaller than the 12-inch modern skillets we tested—from eBay, and seasoned them ourselves with Sheryl Canter’s technique. Both Wagner skillets released cornbread with a little sticking in the middle. One of the skillets arrived much slicker than the other, and it released fried eggs a little easier. But the super-smooth surface allowed steak to dome in the middle when the muscle shrinked. The other skillet put an even sear on steak and released fried eggs after a tiny bit of coaxing from a spatula.
Our top pick, the Lodge 12-inch cast-iron skillet, performed as well, and sometimes better, than the antique pans. The Lodge skillet gave us better release on cornbread and more consistent sear on steak. But when it came to frying eggs, Wagner’s smooth finish acted like nonstick coating. After cooking on all the skillets, Sam Sifton said of the Wagners, “Love that super-smooth surface. And if you come across one and like the price, I’d say: Get it. At the very least, you’ll have a story to tell.” The light weight on antique skillets is also a plus, especially since the old Wagner #10 pans don’t have a helper handle for extra support.
Whether you buy new or old cast iron is up to your personal tastes and budget. If you’re interested in something antique, be prepared to hunt and pay three to four times the price of our top pick. We think the Lodge is an excellent and affordable skillet, but finding a treasure with a story attached is important to some folks. Mary Theisen, founder of The Pan Handler said, “To me I would rather have the old pans because I’d rather have the history. Cooking with something that families have cooked on since the 1800s just means something to me.” When shopping for a vintage or antique cast-iron skillet (for use, not collecting), here are some things to keep in mind:
The overdesigned Finex 12-inch octagonal skillet is part of the indie movement of cast iron producers trying to make pans the old way. Finex skillets have a polished cooking area, but the walls are left with the casting texture. While the spiraled polished stainless steel handle is designed to stay cool, it didn’t in our tests. The handle is too thick to grasp securely with a folded towel, and it slipped in my hand when pouring drippings. The helper handle is small and doesn’t offer much for support. The eight corners of the skillet are touted to offer versatility when pouring, but every corner dribbled on our counter.
The Utopia Kitchen skillet is an obvious Lodge knock-off, except that the seasoning on the Utopia is thin and ineffective against sticking and the pour spouts dribbled a lot of oil on our countertops.
The Calphalon cast-iron skillet didn’t make it past the first round for having the worst pour spouts. The stick handle is small and uncomfortable and the helper handle is hard to grasp.
The skillet from Bluebonnet Cookware was the only unseasoned new pan we tested. It’s only available as a 10-inch pan and it’s very heavy for its size. The cooking surface is crudely buffed smooth. We completed seven rounds of seasoning and the Bluebonnet pan never formed an even, black layer. It’s uncomfortable to hold and maneuver, and was eliminated after the first round.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: March 15, 2017