Is A Cast-Iron Skillet Actually Worth It? Absolutely. These 2 Are Our Favorites

Is A Cast-Iron Skillet Actually Worth It? Absolutely. These 2 Are Our Favorites

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Updated 2:06 PM EDT, Fri July 30, 2021

Lesley Kennedy/CNN

CNN —  

Cast-iron skillets are durable, naturally nonstick, great at retaining heat and beloved by celebrated chefs and amateur home cooks alike. And, unlike most modern kitchenware, the rugged workhorses only get better with time. Not lucky enough to have inherited Great-Grandma’s vintage Wagner or Griswold pan, lovingly seasoned over the decades to a perfectly nonstick finish? Today’s new models come preseasoned and promise to be ready to use right out of the box.

To see which new cast-iron skillets work best, we put 10 highly rated models through a battery of tests, eventually settling on two that should suit cooks on a budget and those looking for an heirloom pan:

Best cast-iron skillet overall

The Chef Collection pan — the company’s lightest skillet — outperformed most of its much higher-priced competitors at nearly every test we threw at it.

Best splurge cast-iron skillet

For those willing to pay extra for a more aesthetic skillet, the Smithey’s ultra-smooth, polished interior and copper color makes it stand out, while also delivering top-notch performance.

Lesley Kennedy/CNN

Lodge Chef Collection 12-Inch Skillet

Since 1896, South Pittsburg, Tennessee-based Lodge Cast Iron has been churning out cast-iron cookware, and garnering rave reviews along the way. We found the reasonably priced Lodge Chef Collection 12-Inch Cast-Iron Skillet lives up to the hype. The Chef Collection pan — the company’s lightest skillet — outperformed most of its much higher-priced competitors at nearly every test we threw at it.

The Lodge Chef Collection 12-Inch Skillet rose to the top of our rankings for not only delivering great results across all of our testing criteria, but also for its affordable price. Lodge, the oldest and longest-running American cast iron manufacturer, reimagined its classic cast-iron skillet in 2019, releasing the Chef Collection that’s 15% lighter and features a slightly elevated, elongated and curved handle that gives better leverage and control. It has slightly sloped sidewalls that, while shallower than the classic version, make it easy to move your spatula around the pan.

Weighing just 6.5 pounds, compared to the classic version’s 8 pounds, the Chef Collection comes preseasoned with 100% natural vegetable oil and has two slightly larger pour spouts that allowed us to deftly remove oil from the pan without a dribble in sight. Out of the box, the pan was quite smooth, with a slight pebbling, and, after giving it a quick clean, we put it straight to use, baking the cast iron staple of cornbread. With just 1 tablespoon of butter melted in the pan before pouring in our batter, the cornbread released beautifully from the pan, leaving only crumbs from our cutting behind.

Lesley Kennedy/CNN

Lodge Chef Collection 12-Inch Skillet

Fried eggs fared just as well: Again, cooked in 1 tablespoon of butter, they released and flipped with zero sticking, simply gliding around the pan. The steak we seared in 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil did stick slightly, but came up with a gentle tug of our tongs. The sear, however, was nice and even with just the crust you want when cooking on a skillet.

The Lodge also featured our favorite handle. The elongated, curved design made it quite comfortable to hold, and gave plenty of room for our bulky oven mitt to fit around. The helper handle was also big enough to get a nice grip on, which gives a big assist when you’re trying to lift the filled pan from the oven to the stovetop and back again.

The skillet came in second when it came to how quickly it heated oil, but where the Lodge Chef Collection fell a bit behind was in our heat distribution test: Using an infrared thermometer, we found the middle to be quite a bit hotter than the perimeter. To counteract that, we suggest rotating the pan while cooking, especially if you’ve got, say, several slices of bacon going at once. The 12-inch pan is large enough to cook six eggs at a time, making it a great option when feeding a family. But for those cooking for one or two or who prefer a lighter skillet, it also comes in 8-inch and 10-inch sizes, at just over 3 pounds and 4.6 pounds, respectively.

Like all the pans we tested, the skillet was super easy to clean up: Cast iron is not dishwasher-safe, but the preseasoning means little food sticks to the pan and anything that was left behind came out easily with a simple scrub brush or dish towel. (Tip: Be sure to dry the pan completely, and don’t let it soak in water, as cast iron will rust if left wet.) Reseasoning the pan was also a breeze: Add a thin layer of oil, distribute it with a paper towel and bake it upside down for an hour or so. That’s it.

With Lodge’s long and well-regarded company history, lifetime warranty, great results and approximately $50 price point, we think the Chef Collection 12-Inch Cast-Iron Skillet will be the new focal point of your kitchen essentials.

Lesley Kennedy/CNN

Smithey No. 10 Cast-Iron Skillet

The Charleston, South Carolina-based Smithey has only been around since 2015 but builds heirloom-quality pans in the United States with the aim of honoring classic vintage cast-iron pieces. Straight out of the box, we had high hopes for the Smithey No. 10 Cast-Iron Skillet, if only due to its beautiful aesthetics. With its ultra-smooth, polished interior, copper color, signature three-hole design on the helper handle and pretty stamped California Valley quail bird logo, the craftsmanship is easy to spot.

So we were delighted to discover the super-smooth 10-inch skillet we tested not only looked lovely on our countertop, but its performance was as good as its looks, proving to be one of the most nonstick of all the pans we tested. Preseasoned with multiple layers of grapeseed oil, it aced nearly all our tests. Cornbread? Baked perfectly crisp on the outside, it released from the pan without a hitch. Fried eggs? They just slid across the pan. The steak? It picked right up without sticking to the skillet at all, searing nicely with a beautifully crisp crust.

Lesley Kennedy/CNN

Smithey No. 10 Cast-Iron Skillet

The Smithey also heated oil the fastest, scored near the top when it came to heat distribution and, with its two well-sized pour spouts, didn’t leave a drop of oil outside the jar we poured it into. The three holes on the helper handle are a trademark of the brand, but they also serve a functional purpose, allowing you to easily hang the pan from a rack and giving it better grip. The 10-inch skillet is on the heavier side of the pans we tested, but the slightly curved handle offered a nice balance, so it was still easy to control.

Again, as with all the pans we tested, cleanup of the Smithey No. 10 was easy, as was seasoning. It should be noted that the pan’s surface began to appear blotchy with each use, but that happened to all the higher-end pans we tested. The blotchiness evens out with use, causing that original copper tone to turn to a black patina over time.

Also available in a 6-, 8- and 12-inch versions (engraving is available on some models, if you want to personalize your pan), and featuring a lifetime warranty, we recognize $160 is a lot to spend on a pan. But with its great performance, we’re fairly certain this will become an heirloom piece you’ll be happy to pass on to your kids.

Lesley Kennedy/CNN

New to cooking with a cast-iron pan or avoiding it because you’ve heard you can’t ever get it wet, wash it with soap or that you must bake the pan for hours after each use? There are a lot of cleaning and caring myths surrounding cast iron, but the truth may put your fears to rest.

First, you certainly can get cast iron wet — you just don’t want to soak the pan for long periods of time to avoid any rusting that may occur. When the pan has cooled, rinse it with hot water by hand and use a stiff bristled scrub brush or the abrasive side of a sponge to remove any bits of food, oil or grease. For stubborn spots, it’s perfectly fine to use a small amount of mild dish soap. The important thing here is to dry the pan completely right away. Water left on the pan can cause rust, but know that even those stains can be removed quite easily by scrubbing the area with steel wool. If you like, once the pan is completely dry, add a thin coat of vegetable oil to the pan using a paper towel, rubbing it in thoroughly before storing.

Finally, since new cast-iron pans come preseasoned, they’re ready to use immediately. And the great thing is the pan keeps getting seasoned naturally each time you cook with it. But if your pan starts to stick or needs to be restored, all it takes to build up extra seasoning is to coat the pan in a light layer of cooking oil, rub it in with a paper towel and then either heat it in the oven upside down at 500 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour or on the stovetop on medium-high heat until the oil dries, repeating as necessary.

And that’s about all it takes. While you can’t put your cast-iron pans in the dishwasher as you would with modern nonstick pans, when properly cared for they’ll perform just as well, and they’ll last a whole lot longer.

While at a glance many of the cast-iron skillets we tested appear quite similar, they do differ when it comes to categories such as performance, build and ease of care. Our testing included 10 cast-iron skillets, ranging in price from $22 to $295. All were preseasoned, easy to clean and measured 10 to 12 inches in diameter. We compared everything from weight, handle comfort and ease of pouring oil from the pan into a Mason jar, to how long each took to heat oil and the evenness of heat distribution across each pan, to, perhaps most importantly, how well they worked — and how nonstick they really were — when it came to searing a steak, frying an egg and baking cornbread.

We focused on the following criteria when testing each model:

Performance

Evenness of heat distribution: Cast iron is known for holding its temperature, but not necessarily heating evenly. To see which pans did a better job, we used an infrared thermometer gun to measure heat at all areas of the pan. Time to heat frying oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit: Using the thermometer gun and a stopwatch app, we timed how long it took a half cup of oil to reach the temperature in each pan. Seared steak: We cooked the same size rib eye in 1 tablespoon of oil at the same temperature for the same time period, noting whether it stuck to the pan, how well it seared and how uniform the searing was. Fried egg: We fried an egg in 1 tablespoon of melted butter, recording whether it stuck to the pan and how easy it was to flip. Cornbread: Using the same recipe poured into 1 tablespoon of melted butter, we noted whether the bread had a nice uniform browning on top and how well it released from the pan when slicing. Build and design

Weight: How much does it weigh, and does it seem too heavy or too light? Diameter of pan: How many inches is it across? Quality of materials: Was the surface smooth? Were there any scratches, casting marks or voids? Handle: Was the handle comfortable or ergonomic? Was it too short or too long? Was it easy to grab while wea

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