Cookware

In Search of the Perfect Cast Iron Pan

May 28, 2012

Food52's Editorial Assistant (and college student) Brette Warshaw is curating her very own first kitchen -- and she needs your help.

Today: Finding the right cast iron pan

Stacked Cast Iron

Buying a cast iron pan is like buying a first cell phone, or appointment book, or pair of glittery high heels: it makes you a little bit more adult.

I’ve got the cell phone, the appointment book, the glittery heels. That cast iron pan? Not there yet.

During my first three years of college -- while not a real adult, per se -- I avoided thinking about cast iron pans, about knives, about Dutch ovens: those culinary badges of honor, those hallmarks of seasoned cooks. I instead relied upon the cheap tools and kitchenware my roommates once bought for our “kitchen” (read: wall of kitchen appliances in the living room) and saved my major culinary projects for the kitchens of my parents, whose cookware collections were plentiful and familiar. Buying sturdy, expensive kitchenware for myself felt frivolous, unnecessary. I was too inexperienced. I was too young.

Until now.

Baby cast iron

Now, I’ve got cast iron pans on the mind, cutting boards and baking sheets, food processors, immersion blenders. (Is that weird? Probably.) I’m ready to cut my bread with a sharp, serrated knife; I’m ready to present dinner on a big, wide serving platter. It’s the summer before my final year of college, and I’m thinking about adulthood. I’m thinking about the real world. 

I’m thinking about my real world kitchen.

In curating this real world kitchen, I’ve made a vow to myself: I will choose all of my cookware intelligently. I will research every major purchase. I will ask for advice. I will make all of my kitchen investments worthwhile, so that in ten years I can look down at my cast iron pan -- or my knife, or my sauté pan, or my Dutch oven -- and remember the time I first used it.

And I will remember how you, dear FOOD52-ers, helped me.

Seasoning cast iron

I therefore bring you the series First Kitchen, where I will guide you through the curation of my first kitchen -- and ask for your help along the way. These posts aren't aimed just at college students. They’re for everyone who wants to make smart choices about their kitchenware -- for experienced cooks looking for a new tool, for novice cooks looking for their first, for a mother or father or friend looking for a thoughtful, useful gift.

My mother and father, though, won’t part with their cast iron pans -- kitchen tools that better with age, that can be passed down through generations. I’ve got to do the adult thing. I’m on my own.

So, naturally, I ask the most adult question one can ask: What’s the best pan to cook pancakes in?

Pancakes, along with more-wholesome eggs, greens, fish, and chicken, are the things I cook the most. A cast iron pan can be used for all of these, plus searing steak and other meats, shallow frying, baking bread, even baking cakes. It passes my first test: it’s worth buying. 

But I’m greedy; I want more. I don’t just want a pan that can cook them all. I want a pan that can cook them all...efficiently. Kindly. Perfectly. This is a long-term commitment. I have high standards.

le creuset cast iron

Bare, Pre-Seasoned or Enameled?

My major decision is what type of material to choose for my cast iron pan. If I base my selection on looks alone, it’s easy; I’d go for the Le Creuset Round Skillet. It’s got elegant, sloping sides and a surface so smooth I stroke it when nobody’s looking. The fact that it’s enameled makes it virtually maintenance-free; no seasoning, no difficult cleaning, little-to-no sticking. It’s also $154.95 – $99.95 for the 10 ¼-inch.

Bare cast iron

Bare cast iron, on the other hand -- the kind that most often gets handed down through generations -- is much less expensive: $16.99 for the classic unseasoned Lodge Logic 10” Chef Skillet. What bare cast iron lacks in looks -- though I still think it’s ruggedly handsome -- it makes up for in economy. The more you use a cast iron pan, the less maintenance it needs; since I’ll be using it often, it won’t take us long to settle in together. A good bare cast iron skillet can cook the same things as the enameled cast iron, though you shouldn't cook anything acidic -- anything with tomatoes, wine, or citrus, for instance -- in a pan that is not properly seasoned

Buying pre-seasoned cast iron is the other option -- $20.97 for the Lodge Logic Pre-Seasoned 12-inch Skillet. Though there’s something romantic about seasoning my own. It’s the adult thing to do, right?

What kind of cast iron pan would you recommend? Check out my First Kitchen Pinterest board to follow along.

Next time, I’ll be covering knives -- and I could use your suggestions!

Email me at [email protected] with your First Kitchen recommendations -- your favorite tools, your favorite cookware, your favorite cookbooks. All wisdom is appreciated.

Salting cast iron

138 Comments

May September 24, 2016
I, too, have been pleasantly surprised with my Paderno pans - top-of-their-line, canadian-made stainless, and when pre-heated properly they combine the best of both cast iron and non-stick pan's quality. So - they're non-stick, keep their temperature, heat evenly, clean up with ease after, and 0 rust!
 
May September 24, 2016
I, too, have been pleasantly surprised with my Paderno pans - top-of-their-line, canadian-made stainless, and when pre-heated properly they combine the best of both cast iron and non-stick pan's quality. So - they're non-stick, keep their temperature, heat evenly, clean up with ease after, and 0 rust!
 
GregoryBPortland September 24, 2016
As someone who has old Griswold and Wagner cast iron, I agree with josefernandez about the quality of these pans, however, sources that I respect like Lodge pans a great deal, and I've often seen them praised on America's Test Kitchen in their equipment segments. Apparently you can get a very good non-stick finish from these pans. So I'm not yet ready to write them off. I've also got an update on my thread about carbon steel. I have since come to really like my Paderno pan. Despite it's light weight, I've been able to develop a beautiful non-stick finish to this little pan. If I control the heat, the pan does the rest. I also invested in a 10 1/4" Matfer Bourgeat saute pan and this has turned out to be my favorite of the three I own. This terrific pan developed its non-stick surface quickly and has been turning out sautes, eggs, and other quick-fry chores without losing it's silky surface. I also like the fact that there are no rivets on the inside of the pan, and the handle is better designed than the de Buyer pans for use inside the oven. I'm still using my beloved cast iron, but the addition of carbon steel has enhanced my cooking (perfect for pan searing a steak and finishing it in the oven)!
 
josefernandez September 22, 2016
If you can find one, get the 100 year old Griswold or Wagner...basically anything before WWI is good. Put a 100 year old Griswold and a modern Lodge side by side and you'll see a huge difference.<br /><br />If you can't pass the idea of using a 100 year old cookware (many do) and want something more modern, consider an Iwachu cast iron pan http://amzn.to/2djW1ug . They are from Japan and still do things the old school way, which is why I only use them along with my century old Griswold.
 
GregoryBPortland December 7, 2015
Since this conversation is still open, I've bought two carbon steel pans. the first is a nearly 12-inch De Buyer French carbon steel pan. The other is a Paderno, much-lighter-weight carbon steel pan--about 8-inches. The De Buyer is a superb pan with similar non-stick properties as cast iron once it is seasoned. It's heavy--heavy as cast iron. But it is a workhorse, and I'm happy to have it join the rest of my pots and pans. I'm a bit disappointed in the Paderno pan. It's a little too light weight, and it hasn't taken to seasoning as well as the De Buyer pan. I do like the lighter weight, and I'm working on maintaining a seasoned finish. This means, I have to control the heat a little more studiously. But I high recommend the De Buyer pan.
 
sboulton December 7, 2015
I have a terrific 6 inch Wusthof flat edge vegetable cleaver that I use a lot, a Global Santoku which is great too, but what I really adore using are the Miyabi chef's and utility knives. Thin carbon steel blades slice thru everything like butter.
 
Djay December 7, 2015
I'm going to take a look at your favorites and maybe give some a try. As you clearly know, there is nothing like a good sharp well-balanced knife that does the job well and doesn't injure you in the process because it's badly made.
 
Djay December 7, 2015
Since your original posting was from May 2012, I am curious about what knives you finally settled on. I love a good knife and, after trying dozens, this is my essential list: Wusthof Wave 8" chef's knife, Victorinox wavy edge bread knife and a Dexter 5 1/2" scalloped utility knife which is basically a slim tomato knife, also perfect for slicing small crusty breads, cheese and separating the peels from melon wedges.
 
[email protected] January 29, 2015
Well...I have a good bit of cast iron. I love every single pan too. Unfortunately my larger pans are warped and my aunts pans are very crusty. Due to age and rusts I guess. Not comfortable using those. I do have a couple of the very old Erie brand that I feel is superior to others. It is lighter than other pans and super smooth. They are my favorites. I have to say I bought the 12 inch lodge pan at walmart and I am suprised how much I love it now. At first I was very skeptical because the grainy surface but that pan has totally made me change my mind on new cast iron. It is smoothing out just like someone else said. I wanted a large pan and didn't want to pay a fortune. So glad I bought it. As for Caphalon Cast iron I wouldn't have one of those even if paid to take it. They sold out in my book and I won't buy cast iron made in china. Especially when Lodge is cheaper and much better quality than the piece of crap calphalon I looked at. If you cant get Erie griswald or wagner. Get a lodge. If you use it a lot it smooths down. I wouldn't hesitate to buy another!
 
GregoryBPortland February 9, 2014
So agree with you about Lodge cast iron. Mediocre--better to look for Wagner Ware or Griswold at flea markets. Far superior. Never heard of Findlay, and will now have to keep an eye out for it. Is Wagner Ware still being made today?
 
paseo February 9, 2014
There is a website for American Culinary that sells Wagner. I have bought a round griddle and frying pan in the last few years- both are smooth, seem well cast and say on the reverse that they are made in the USA. I cannot spend time at flea mkts and am not a fan of ebay so this was where I went. I am happy with both. they were easy to season and have worked just like cast iron should.
 
May February 9, 2014
If you can find one, an old Findlay cast iron pan has immaculately smooth inner walls, which stay very non-sticky once seasoned. A venerable Canadian company, sadly no more, but their pans live on. They sometimes show up on Ebay: <br />http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_trksid=p2050601.m570.l1313.TR0.TRC0.Xfindlay+cast+iron&_nkw=findlay+cast+iron&_sacat=0&_from=R40<br />I loathe my new Lodge cast iron frying pan, because the surface is all bobbly. Yuck. Anyone want it, they can have it for the $ of shipping!
 
paseo February 9, 2014
I am with you on the texture of Lodge - like pavement and it never will get smooth. My new Wagner is smooth (someone left an electric burner on the old, old one and it warped) -
 
CLG February 4, 2014
What is the pan in the first picture? <br /><br />And -- the Pinterest board doesn't seem to be up, or at least the link doesn't work. <br /><br />Thanks
 
Greenstuff February 4, 2014
There are three pans in the first picture--the red Le Creuset round skillet, the Lodge 10-inch, and a carbon steel.
 
CLG February 4, 2014
Thanks, it's the carbon steel I'm interested in. Guess I was looking at the 2nd picture. Brette, I hope you look into (and post about) carbon steel pans too.
 
GregoryBPortland January 24, 2014
I've weighed in on this subject already, but one saute pan has me intrigued. The French carbon steel pans have been praised for their durability, heat conduction, and their ability to season over the years so they have a similar smoothness as cast iron. Anyone else have a 10 or 12-inch carbon steel pan with a long handle that wants to comment about their experiences with these French pans, please speak up.
 
Ginny February 12, 2014
I think I have a carbon steel pan. A 10" skillet with a long handle. It's made by deBuyer from France. I love it. I got rid of my nonstick pans because I worried about chemicals. The pan is known as a mineral pan. It cooks as well as cast iron, but is thinner and much lighter. As I get older, the cast iron is too heaving to move around. The deBuyer is great. Once it's seasoned, it's nonstick. I just wipe it clean, dry it, and put a little oil on it.
 
Hanh V. April 22, 2015
I'm a little late to the conversation, but I too have the deBuyer Mineral B carbon steel pans, 10" & 12". I also converted to these pans to get away from nonstick. The 10" gets used daily for morning omelettes. I absolutely love it. (When cooking eggs on cast iron, heat the pan well before adding the eggs, otherwise it'll stick & be a nightmare to clean.) My only complaint is after baking corn bread the seasoning on the bottom & along lower half of sides were stripped off. Maybe I waited too long to remove the corn bread? When that happened, I used my pan daily for over a year before I baked with it; I'm hesitant to try again. Other than that, they're fantastic. Food cooks great, tastes better & easy to clean.
 
jackie January 24, 2014
My husband and his sister have been trying to locate a pan their Mom used....from Italy. It was a hinged, cast iron grill pan the size a chicken breast and veggies could fit into on one side. Maybe like a fritatta pan. Any help would be appreciated!
 
May February 9, 2014
Jackie - hopefully you're still watching this discussion, as I just found one (aluminum, though) on Ebay, the fount of all things: <br />http://www.ebay.com/itm/VINTAGE-CLUB-ALUMINUM-OMELET-FISH-PAN-HINGED-CAST-ALUMINUM-/191064767911?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item2c7c58fda7
 
carol_tanenbaum January 19, 2013
I'm not sure how come it took me so long to catch up with this, but for what it's worth, I have my great-great grandmother's cast iron frying pans. She died around 1934, so these pans are most likely 100 yrs old. And still going strong! Used one the other night. Makes great scrambled/fried eggs, or almost anything else you can think of. At this point, they don't need seasoning at all. At most, I rinse them with water, and put them over a hot flame on the stove to dry them -- the same way my mother and grandmother did. Treat your pans with love, cook well in them, and hand them down to many generations to come.
 
left B. January 13, 2013
After writing my last note about all of the wonderful cast iron pans in our kitchen I forgot to say that the real workhorse for us is the fairly large Copco enamel lidded pot which we use for soups,<br />stews, and tomato based dishes like stuffed cabbage. I should also add that the Axford broilers are a must for us, for grilling sausage, toast, fish, etc. I want to repeat how terrific the cast iron loaf pans are for both yeast breads and quick breads. Chad Robertson in his outstanding TARTINE BREAD book describes his use of a dutch oven: a cast iron combo cooker consisting of a shallow frying pan and a deep pan which are used in conjunction with one another, either one serving as the lid for the other. He says that this simulates a professional baker's oven, combining a sealed moist chamber and a strong radiant heat. <br />
 
Eric S. January 4, 2013
I have 10" and 12" Lodge cast iron skillets that are used constantly. This last Christmas I received a 12" Calphalon tri-ply skillet. the cast iron get used constantly, and lives on my stove top. They may have had a rough texture when I got them, but over the years they've become glassy smooth. Nothing sticks, and I only add a touch of oil or cooking spray. I've been playing the the stainless skillet lately, and I think it all comes down to proper technique: always heat the pan first, add the oil, and cook. The stainless makes it easy to see the fond, and deglazing is a breeze. Also, it's light.<br /><br />I also have a Lodge enameled 6qt dutch oven, as well as the grill pan and panini press. Mine have the old phenolic resin knobs, but they can be replaced for $7.95 each from Lodge (item # ECSSK). I've had both for a few years now, and while the enamel is a bit stained in the dutch oven, they work perfectly. Of all my pieces, the panini press gets the least use; maybe a few sandwiches a month. I wouldn't part with any of them.
 
Eric S. January 4, 2013
I should mention that the replacement knobs are stainless, and are rated to 500F.
 
GregoryBPortland January 4, 2013
My old Copco cast iron enamel ware is battered and their white insides have discolored over the years. But I wouldn't get rid of any of the pieces. The chicken fryer is excellent, as is the three-quart pot (makes great chocolate sauce). I have a Le Creuset brasier with a domed lid that makes the silkiest gravies after long braisings. I have three Dutch ovens from Copco, Mario Batali (poor quality enamel, by the way--chips easily), Le Creuset, etc. All are work horses in my kitchen, along with a Batali baking dish, which I think was created for lasagna. I don't have any Lodge ware. My cast iron pans are Griswald (what a beautiful patina these pots and pans have), which have become expensively collectible, and Wagner ware, which is also of excellent quality. A friend of mine recently passed on and I was offered his extensive collection of Griswald pots, pans, corn bread bakers, etc. But I don't' have room anymore but I would have loved cooking in them. I do find myself impatient with people who complain that good cookware is too heavy. They prefer those thin non-stick pans that burn easily. Not for me. <br />
 
Eric S. January 4, 2013
I grew up with cast iron. My mom has several pieces that belonged to her great grandmother; her mother wanted new fancy non-stick stuff for herself. I don't think my mom has ever reseasoned those pieces. I don't know where they were made, but I suspect there'll be a knife fight between me and my sisters to see who ends up with them when my mom passes (sometime in the distant future, I hope).<br /><br />One of my sister's worked at Williams & Sonoma a few years ago, and she and my dad conspired to use her discount to purchase a big set of Le Creuset for my mom as a Christmas gift. She was over the moon, and she uses her stuff daily. There's nothing like quality cookware that has history, durability, and utility.
 
nakao November 26, 2012
My first and most used lodge iron is the large reversible skillet that fits over two burners. Since then my interest in cast iron has become stronger and decided to share that love story: http://knakao.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/cook-like-a-man-with-a-cast-iron-pan/
 
left B. June 3, 2012
A coincidence to find your cast iron concerns and all the comments when i have just been getting serious about cleaning up a few rusty ones (using recipes for cleaning which I find on line) and re-seasoning some and caring for them better by not using soap but simply a sponge and/or scotchbrite scrubber. We have eleven skillets and 3 dutch ovens and recently 2 Lodge loaf pans, <br />great for cornbread and other loaf breads.(Found one in a thrift store but only AFTER I bought one <br />new. Either way they are worth it.) All the rest are second hand except for one passed down from <br />my wife's great-grandmother, daughter of a civil war soldier. This one is the largest, deepest and <br />has the best surface of all of them. I use one skillet solely for ice when I am steaming the oven in making bread. <br />
 
susan G. June 3, 2012
Search Hotline (top right box) -- the topic of cleaning and reviving old cast iron has been discussed, and you'll get lots of input. <br />I am enjoying this conversation. I had no idea what a cult we are -- fans of cast iron!
 
SpinachTiger June 3, 2012
I have seven cast iron pans (old fashioned kind) that were given to me at various times. I use them ALL, all the time. I have the enameled dutch ovens for braising etc. but there is nothing like the old fashioned black cast iron pans. Easy maintenance, high heats for roasting chicken or baking pizza. Great to make pies in or start meat on top of stove and finish in oven. I have constructed an island where I can hand them at waist level. I wouldn't trade them for anything. You can't get better value or cooking. I use my all-clad when there's sauces involved, etc. As far as seasoning, a slow oven with some grapeseed oil or other high heat oil (not olive oil, ever) and you're good to go. <br /> <br />I have several sizes. I think you need them all. I also have a cast iron griddle that is priceless for pancakes and tortillas.
 
Kumayama June 1, 2012
After several decades of acquiring cookware my wife and i now have a fairly eclectic group to chose from--everything from Mauviel copper to AllClad Coppercore to long discontinued heavy guage MagPro and modern Calphlon anodized aluminum to commercial pans to both modern and antique, bare and enameled cast iron. By far my favorite for most uses are those that are cast iron with the Lodge 15" skillet my most favored of the favorites. That skillet gives lots of room to fry potatoes, multiple strips of bacon or a cut up chicken without crowding. <br /> <br />A couple of points I haven't seen mentioned yet is the ability to use bare cast iron on an outdoor grill, either gas or electric. You don't have to worry about the bottoms becoming scratched up if you have cast iron grates, but best of all you can move major frying tasks outdoors where the spatters and oily smoke can dissipate in the open air instead of within your kitchen. It can also be safer to do deep frying tasks oudoors. I've found the 15" to fit really well on our grills. <br /> <br />Unlike aluminum, copper and some stainless steel (e.g., older AllClad Coppercore), cast iron works beautifully on an induction burner. <br /> <br />Now one of the drawbacks of some of the courser cast iron pieces is that they can scratch the ceramic/glass tops found on many more modern electric stoves. This can also happen with an induction cook top. However this is easily prevented by using some sandpaper to smooth the contact surfaces. This is easy to do with some120 grit sandpaper used by hand or on a random orbit power sander . This takes but a few minutes and is much easier to do than some of the other maintenance tasks associated with cast iron. The random orbit sander can also work great to clean and smooth the floor of the skillet, though I've never found the texture of a Lodge product to pose any problem in use. Just wash thoroughly and reseason after sanding. <br /> <br />I'd also like to correct some miss information about where Lodge cast iron is made. While it is true that some Lodge accessories come from China (things like camp stove tongs), all the cast iron cookware is made in the Lodge factory in Tennessee. Now there are stores like Cabelas that sell Lodge cookware right along side their own line of China sourced cast iron cookware. They look very similar (especially some of the bakeware molds), so it's easy to mistake one for another. Now the Chinese cast iron may be equally functional, but I've always chosen Lodge instead. <br /> <br />For just starting out, I'd select a Lodge or other cast iron skillet around 10.5 inches, (iideally one with somewhat deeper sides-often called a chicken fryer) and one you could obtain a cast iron lid for. Then save up to follow this with a LeCreuset Dutch oven (though expensive, you'll come to appreciate the enamalled interior for this). The next purchase for me would be the big 15 inch Lodge skillet--I find it to be the most versatile piece of cookware I've owned. Indeed if I had to go off onto the world with only one piece of cookware, this would be it
 
Kumayama June 1, 2012
Can't find a means to edit comments so am using this "reply" to note I meant to write "outdoor grill, either gas or charcoal", not gas or electric.