Tested by Stevie Stewart for Food Network Kitchen
When it comes to cast iron, many people think of the heavy black pan that’s been used to make steak for generations. And while a solid cast-iron skillet is a kitchen tool that stands the test of time, today there are a lot more options on the market. The modern cast-iron skillet landscape includes pans that are much lighter than their traditional counterparts, pans with longer handles, and some with a smoother finish. Some pans cost less than $20, while other artisanal designs can set a buyer back $100 or more.
We found the best pans don’t cost an arm and a leg, and they sacrifice nothing when it comes to functionality. Most of the pans we tested required similar upkeep, and they varied in weight, handle length, surface texture and design. We kept these details in mind when choosing our favorites.
This article has been reviewed since its original publish date for accuracy, pricing and availability. We stand by our list of top cast iron skillet picks.
Cast iron has a reputation for being difficult to maintain. While the material does require some attention to make it truly nonstick and to prevent it from rusting, if you follow a few basic steps, you won’t have any trouble keeping that pan slick and happy for a lifetime — or more.
Make cornbread first. Baking cornbread is a great first recipe to add an additional layer of seasoning to the pan. Pretty much all pans come pre-seasoned these days, but the more you cook in yours, the more nonstick it will become. Cornbread will add a layer of fat to the pan and allow the pan to heat at a consistent temperature for an extended period of time, creating a nice even layer of seasoning to your pan.
Wash it with water. Don’t be afraid to wash your pan with water! If you have really stuck-on pieces of meat from searing or from cooking your first scrambled eggs, don’t hesitate to put your pan in the sink and use some water to help you loosen the food. Most of the brands we selected also say it is OK to use a small amount of dish soap on their pans if needed. The most-important thing when it comes to water and cast iron is to make sure there is no water left on the pan when you’re done cooking or washing it.
That said, use water sparingly! Our favorite technique for getting stuck-on food off the pan is to add about a half-inch of water to the pan, bring to a boil for about a minute, let cool slightly, pour out the water and wipe dry. Then, place the pan over low heat for about five minutes to remove any residual water (see note above). Next, simply add about a teaspoon of oil (use oil that has a high smoke point like vegetable, coconut or flax seed) to the pan while it is still warm, and wipe dry with a clean towel until the pan has a matte finish and does not feel or look overly oily. Your pan is now dry, clean and protected with a nice coating of oil.
Keep some salt nearby. Another trusted cleaning technique used by many chefs in the Food Network Kitchen is coarse salt. Add a layer of salt to the pan while the pan is still warm, then use a dry towel to scrub off any stuck-on food items. The salt will act as an abrasive and help to take off any food that has attached to the pan’s surface. Then just wipe clean with a towel, heat again over the stove and then wipe with about a teaspoon of oil.
It’s possible to over-season your pan. Cast-iron pans come with specific instructions for how to season them, but, ultimately, you add a small amount of oil to both the inside and the outside of the pan and place it in a hot oven for about an hour. This is great to do if your seasoning ever looks uneven or dull. Just be careful not to add too much oil. You want to almost wipe it all away before you place in the oven or you could create a web-like surface from the oil dripping in your pan and this is very difficult to get rid of.
As all of the pans we tested were “pre-seasoned,” we started cooking right away. We first made a batch of simple cornbread to see how evenly the pans baked, as well as how nonstick they were initially. We then tested a batch of fried eggs in each pan to also see how nonstick they were from the beginning. After the eggs, we poured oil from the pans to see how well the pour spouts worked (or how easy it was to pour if there weren’t any spouts). Next, we seared New York strip steaks in each pan to test how well they browned the meat and how easy the pans were to clean. We then seasoned the pans based on each company’s instruction. Finally, we fried another set of eggs to see how different the seasoning was after all the cooking we had done prior.
We eliminated pans that were too heavy and difficult to maneuver or that had unnecessary features like extra-long handles that did not seem to add to the function of the pan. Our test included some artisanal pans and although they were beautiful to look at, we found the seasoning and care instructions to be overly specific for such a high price point.