An Expert Guide to Cast Iron Skillets
Kitchen Expert Paul Zarate explains how to find the best iron skillet that works for you, and how to get the most out of your cast iron skillet.
Why Choose a Cast Iron Skillet?
Purchasing a brand-new cast iron pan can be a daunting and intimidating purchase, especially if it is your first time buying one. The are many things to consider when purchasing your first cast iron pan. First, let me tell you that a cast iron pan is nothing to be afraid of, especially if you love to cook. They range in price from affordable to expensive, but it is essential to consider that this will be the most versatile pan in your kitchen, and its long-lasting durability will far outweigh the costs. It can sustain a variety of cooking surfaces and, when maintained, it will last beyond a lifetime for future generations as a family heirloom.
Buying a Cast Iron Skillet
There are many brands making cast iron skillets on the market today. When considering purchasing your first cast iron skillet I recommend considering how often you want to use it and what types of dishes you wish to cook. Are you going to only sear steaks and cook bacon, maybe caramelize onions? For these jobs, a simple 10” cast iron skillet will do. If it is going to be your go-to cookware for the majority of dishes you cook, I suggest an enamel-lined set since they are easier to clean and maintain. This may include two different-sized skillets and a dutch oven. It is also important to consider how much cleaning and maintenance you want to do.
Traditional cast iron pans take more time to develop seasoning and more care, but over time, they will develop deep seasoning. Enamel-lined cast iron skillets are often easier to maintain, are stovetop and oven safe, and come pre-seasoned. In fact, most cast iron skillets are pre-seasoned. The amount of pre-seasoning depends on the brand, but a simple eye test can tell how much a cast iron pan has been pre-seasoned. The darker the color of the skillet, the more it has been pre-seasoned; the lighter the color, the less it has been pre-seasoned. The texture of the cast iron skillet’s surface can help determine the amount of pre-seasoning, as well. A rougher surface means less pre-seasoning and a smooth surface suggests the cast iron skillet has been pre-seasoned more thoroughly.
I also recommend considering the weight of a cast iron pan or cast iron skillet. There has been a trend towards lighter-weight cast iron cookware—a heavy bottom will heat slowly and evenly, while a lighter-weight pan will come to temperature quicker. Lighter-weight cast iron skillets do retain an even heat and perform well under high heat as well, in addition to being easier to maneuver and store than traditional cast iron cookware. This really comes down to the preference of the cook. A lighter pan will heat quicker and distribute heat evenly, but through experience, I have found that a heavier cast iron pan has a more even heat distribution throughout the pan as well as superior heat retention.
Cast Iron Skillet Brands and Types
Lodge is the top-recognized brand for cast iron skillets. Chance is, if there is a piece of generational cast iron cookware in your family, it is more than likely made by Lodge. Lodge makes a variety of cast iron skillets in various sizes and depths and come with the essential parts of a cast iron skillet—double pour spouts, handle, and helper handle for two-handed lifting and maneuverability.
Lodge cast iron skillets are extremely durable. They perform well under the high heat required to sear a steak to perfection and can also bake cornbread in the oven. You can even take it camping and throw it over the campfire! I have a 10.25" Lodge cast iron skillet that I use for frying eggs, cooking bacon, searing a steak or pork chops, and roasting bone-in chicken thighs in the oven. Lodge also offers a dutch oven which is excellent for braising and even deep-frying. The dutch ovens are oven and campfire safe, have two handles, and include a lid with a handle for easy removal.
Victoria is another brand on par with Lodge. Victoria offers cast iron skillets, dutch ovens, and cast iron griddles. Cast iron griddles are great for making homemade tortillas or for throwing on the grill, bringing to high heat, and sizzling fajitas.
If heirloom cast iron skillets are your jam then keep an eye out for a Griswold or Wagner. These are heirloom cast iron skillets that can fetch up to $1500 a piece online! Original Wagner’s were in production from 1891-1952. The company was sold, but they continue to produce products today. Griswold discontinued production in 1957. If you have either a Griswold or Wagner cast iron skillet in your possession, take great care of it and cook with it.
If the maintenance of a Lodge cast iron skillet seems overwhelming to you, I personally use enameled cast iron cookware. Le Creuset makes a variety of cast iron cookware, cast iron skillets, and dutch ovens. The enamel is pre-seasoned and just needs a quick wash with warm water and dish soap and to be dried thoroughly. Once the enamel cast iron is dry, apply a teaspoon of vegetable oil and rub it in with a paper towel. It is now ready to cook your favorite dish!
Le Creuset cast iron skillets also include the essential features: a large loop handle for improved grip, two pour spouts, and a robust handle helper for easy holding. Le Creuset enamel-lined cast iron skillets are available in a variety of colors and sizes and all their cast iron cookware is oven and dishwasher-safe. Le Creuset does recommend hand washing though!
I have a preference for dutch ovens, and Le Creuset has been on my wish list for some time. They produce an even heat when warmed on the stovetop and maintain excellent heat distribution for braising.
Cooking With Cast Iron
A cast iron skillet is one of the most versatile tools in your kitchen. Although cast iron is a poor conductor of heat, it does retain and will hold even heat for an extended time. This is a skillet that you can use for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It's great for frying eggs, baking, roasting, or giving a steak a perfect sear at high heat. It is oven safe so you will have the ability to roast as well as bake. That means that there are a variety of cooking surfaces that it can be used on—such as the stovetop, oven, grill, and over the campfire. Spatchcock a whole chicken, sear it in the skillet, and throw it in the oven to roast with garlic and spring onions. Versatility achieved! A cast iron skillet's multi-application makes it a popular choice among chefs as well as home cooks.
The most important factor to consider when cooking with your cast iron skillet is developing layers of seasoning from the start. Seasoning on a cast iron skillet are layers of fat on the cooking surface developed over repeated use. A cast iron skillet is seasoned when an easy-release cooking surface is formed.
Expert Tip: I recommend starting off with cast iron skillet cornbread. The butter fat from the cornbread batter will give the cast iron skillet an even coat of seasoning while baking.
A dutch oven is an excellent vessel for braising on the stovetop or in the oven. They are also excellent for soups and stews and even bring hot water to a boil rapidly. I use mine effectively to boil water for pasta.
Avoid cooking acidic foods such as tomato sauce and citrus-based sauces in your cast iron skillet. Acidic foods cooked in a cast iron skillet will create a metallic taste from the pan, and the dish will taste more like a penny than its intended outcome!
Seasoning and Cleaning
Now that you have purchased your first cast iron skillet, you have to learn how to clean and season it. Once your pan is completely dry, it is time to season your cast iron skillet. Start by adding a teaspoon of vegetable oil to your cast iron skillet, and rub it in gently with a paper towel. Heat it in the oven and then let it cool. Repeat this process with each use and cleaning, and your cast iron skillet will develop a deep patina—a fancy word for seasoning your cast iron skillet. Repeating the seasoning process creates layers of oils that protect the cooking surface and make it easy to release food from the surface, essentially turning it into the best non-stick pan in your kitchen. The ultimate goal of seasoning a cast iron skillet is to develop a smooth, easy-release cooking surface.
Once you’re done cooking, don't worry if there is food residue left on your pan. It is easy to clean. First, and most importantly, do not put it in the dishwasher! The dishwasher will ruin your cast iron pan. If there is food stuck on it, just place it on the stove, add a cup of water, and simmer. This will loosen up the bits of remaining food that you can then scrape off with a wooden spoon. Now, be careful when removing the pan from the heat. Grab a couple of kitchen towels and wrap them around the handle and helper handle for two-handed lifting. Pour the excess water out through the pour spouts and rinse the cast iron skillet with warm water and a touch of dish soap. Rinse and dry immediately. Place your cast iron skillet back on the stovetop at medium-low heat for about 10 minutes to remove any excess water and condensation. Repeat the seasoning process by placing the oiled-up cast iron skillet in a preheated oven for an hour.
A few tools are required for regular cast iron skillet maintenance which will make cleaning your cast iron skillet a breeze. A soft bristle brush is handy for removing excess food when washing. I also recommend a steel-chain scrubber which is a great tool for getting caked-on food off of your cast iron skillet.
When you're giving your cast iron skillet or dutch oven a rest, they can be stored in the oven or kitchen cabinet. Just make sure your cast iron skillet is completely dry before storage to prevent rust.
Expert Tip: keep your cast iron cookware on the stovetop. This will give you all the incentive you'll need to make them part of your regular cooking arsenal and will inspire you to make many memorable dishes to share with family and friends!
Bonus! Expert Recipe: Cast Iron Skillet Chicken Thighs
This is a quick weeknight meal that pairs well with pasta, salads, rice, or your favorite side dish of choice. For this dish, you will need…
- four bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs,
- three cloves of garlic,
- fresh rosemary sprigs,
- coarse kosher salt,
- cracked black pepper,
- extra virgin olive oil,
- and lemon slices for garnish.
Preheat the oven to 425℉. Place your cast iron skillet on the stovetop over a medium-high burner. Add olive oil to the skillet. Salt and pepper the chicken thighs to taste and smash several cloves of garlic. Once the cast iron skillet is at an even heat and the olive oil is hot, place the chicken skin-side down and sear for about 2-3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add the garlic cloves, and continue to render the fat from the skin for 10-12 minutes. Place the chicken thighs in the oven and continue to roast for 15 minutes. Flip the chicken thighs skin-side up and continue to cook for an additional 5 minutes. The skin will be extra crispy at this point! Remove the cast iron skillet from the heat and place the chicken thighs on a serving dish.
Take it up another level and make a pan sauce from the drippings. This is called pan fond, and it is packed with flavor. Place the cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add your deglazing liquid such as chicken stock or white wine (the one you're drinking with dinner works just fine). Scrape the frond from the pan while reducing the liquid by half. Add a liberal pat of butter, and season with salt and pepper. Now you have a delicious sauce to pour over your chicken!
If you are looking for more cookware options for that next big meal and the tools to expand your cooking chops, connect with one of our outstanding Kitchen Experts who will assist in establishing the best cookware and cutlery for your culinary journey.