A chef’s kitchen isn’t complete without a cast iron skillet. Made from an iron-carbon alloy, these heavy duty pans are an essential and versatile tool for use on the grill, on a stovetop, or even over a campfire. Chefs love cast iron because the durable material retains heat better than stainless steel, and the cooking surface improves over time as it’s used and re-seasoned. As it cooks, food leaves behind a natural coating on the pan that provides flavor as well as a reliable non-stick surface for simmering, searing, braising, baking, and sautéing pretty much anything.
Cleaning Your Skillet
Cast iron skillets are tough, but you still need to take care of them. The cleaning ritual can seem intimidating to newbies, but really, maintenance is quite simple. Since water causes rust on cast iron, the first rule to remember is to never soak a skillet. You can, however, wash it by hand with a small amount of soap and use a scrubber to pry off stuck bits of food, according to skillet manufacturer Lodge. Once you’re done scrubbing, immediately dry your skillet thoroughly with a lint-free cloth.
Seasoning Your Skillet
To keep that non-stick coating in shape, you’ll need to season your skillet. Add a thin, even layer of cooking oil to its surface, and then place it upside down in a 500-degree oven for an hour. Take it out, let it cool, and your skillet will be ready for its next use.
Cast iron skillets come in many different varieties. Below, we’ve rounded up the best types for different uses, from cooking for a crowd to whipping up a meal in the backcountry.
The Best Cast Iron Skillets
1. Best Overall: Victoria 12-inch Cast Iron Skillet
It’s not often that the best all-around choice is the same as the best wallet-friendly pick, but that’s certainly the case with this sturdy sub-$30 skillet. Although it’s available in several sizes, 12 inches is the standard—in that size, it’ll fit on pretty much every burner. This one is pre-seasoned with a 100 percent non-GMO flaxseed oil coating, so it’s ready for cooking up bacon, frittatas, or cobbler right out of the box. The long handle makes it effortless to wield and two drip spouts on either side make draining liquids a cinch.
[$25; amazon.com]Get it
2. Best Splurge: Le Creuset Signature Skillet
Cookware can be functional and handsome, and Le Creuset skillets win high marks for aesthetics. Made in France, these fancy pans feature a non-stick, chip resistant finish on the cooking side so you don’t have to season it for its first use (though it never hurts to add a little oil before the first fry). The enamel side comes in multiple colors to match any kitchen, and the pans range in size from six to 12 inches. They’re also safe for the dishwasher and for use with metal utensils.
[$120–220; lecreuset.com]Get it
3. Best for Big Meals: Bayou Classic 20-inch Cast Iron Skillet
When you’re cooking for a full house, grab this whopper of a skillet. Because of its generous size, it’s ideal for making jumbo portions, and you can also use it on a fire or outdoor propane burner. At 23 pounds empty, it’s definitely bulky, but two handles on either side help you maneuver it (though you might need to recruit some help to move it when it’s full of food). It comes pre-seasoned, although the manufacturer recommends seasoning it yourself for best results.
[$110; bayouclassicdepot.com]Get it
4. Best for Camping: Camp Chef 7-inch Mini Skillets
Just because you’re sleeping in a tent, doesn’t mean your meals can’t be delicious. These seven-inch skillets (they’re sold in pairs) are smaller than average, which makes them easier to handle and clean when you’re away from a kitchen. Each one has just enough room for sautéing veggies for fireside tacos or cooking a full personal pizza. Plus, they’re lighter than other skillets, so you can slip one into your pack for a short trek into the backcountry.
[$10; campchef.com]Get it
5. Best Deep Dish: Lodge Blacklock Triple Seasoned Cast Iron Deep Saute Pan
For soups and slow roasts, you’ll want a skillet with higher sides and a lid. Some might call it a pot, but the Lodge deep saute pan is 4.5 inches deep and holds up to 4 quarts of tasty goodness. The lid features an aluminum knob that’s easy to grip, and the pan has a long and short handle on either side for maximum carrying stability. This one has been triple-seasoned, though Lodge recommends applying a thin layer of cooking oil to the surface before each use.
[$150; williams-sonoma.com]Get it
6. Best Size-to-Weight Ratio: Stargazer 10.5-inch Cast Iron Skillet
The creator of the Stargazer skillet worked through 21 prototypes before he finalized his design. Each of these skillets is cast, machined, smoothed, and seasoned in the U.S., and the trademark bronze color comes from the seasoning, not the metal: Stargazer uses a blend of non-GMO canola, grapeseed, and sunflower oils (you can also order an unseasoned pan). The flared rim allows for drip-free pouring, the smooth surface makes it easy to clean, and at 5.2 pounds for a 10.5-inch skillet, it’s the lightest high-quality pan out there.
[$115; stargazercastiron.com]Get it
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