July 15

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The Best Cast Iron Skillets: How Much Should You Spend?

By trk

July 15, 2020

cast iron skillet, cookware, Lodge, review

What qualities make for the best cast iron skillets? It seems like a straightforward question, and one that we didn't think really needed much research. After all, cast iron is cast iron, right? It's all heavy, durable, and lasts forever, right?

As it turns out, though, there are a lot of options for buying cast iron skillets. You can spend $30 or five times that--but what's the difference? What makes high-end cast iron high-end? And is it worth the investment?

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

Here, we delve deeply into cast iron skillets. What they are, what makes them great, and what you're paying for when you buy one. Whatever your budget, you'll be able to buy with confidence and know that you're getting exactly what you want. 

Contents (click to expand)
Table of Contents

The Best Cast Iron Skillets at a Glance

Here's a quick look at our favorite skillets, in the categories we thought were important. You can read more about each below in the reviews.

  • All pans are 12-inches (though makers offer other sizes which can be rated similarly)
  • All pans come pre-seasoned (see more on seasoning and the best fats to use below)
  • All pans have a cast iron (not enameled or nonstick) cooking surface.

Pan Category:

Pros

Cons

Best Overall:
See it on Amazon (with cleaning brush)

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

-Moderately deep sides

-Good heating performance

-Good release (better with use)

-Extremely durable

-Wall height 2.25 in.

-About $35 w/brush

- Made in USA.

-Rough until used several times

-Weighs 8.25 pounds

-Pour spouts drip a little

-Preseasoned with soybean oil

-Goes out of stock frequently on Amazon.

Best Bargain:
Lodge Dual Handle Pan

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

-Moderately deep sides

-Good heating performance

-Good for oven use

-Weighs 7.5 pounds

-Wall height 2.25 in.

-About $20

-Made in USA

-Rough until used several times

-Short handles make it hard to get leverage

-Pour spouts drip a little

-Preseasoned with soybean oil.

Best Deep Skillet:
Cuisinart Chicken Fryer

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

-Lid included

-Deep enough to use as Dutch oven

-Wall height 5 in.

-Excellent reviews

-About $70

-Weighs 14.5 pounds with lid

-Not seasoned with flaxseed oil

-Made in China.

Lightest Weight: 
#10 Field Cast Iron Skillet

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

-Weighs 6 pounds

-Very smooth surface

-Wall height 2.25 in.

-Made in USA.

-Helper handle is too small

-Preseasoned with grapeseed oil

-No pour spouts

-$160.

Smoothest Surface:

Stargazer

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

-Drip-free curved lip (no spouts)

-Grooved handle

-Can buy unseasoned if desired

-Weighs 6.5 pounds

-Wall height 2.3 in.

-Made in USA.

-Company does not use flaxseed oil for seasoning

-$145.

Best Chef-shaped Pan: 
Lodge Chef Collection

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

-Curved bottom ("modern")

-Shallower sides better for using turner

-Weighs 6 lbs

-Wall height about 2 in.

-About $40.

-Shallow sides and curved bottom make it not good for deep frying

-Preseasoned with soybean oil.

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How We Tested

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

We list all the brands we tested below, plus several others that didn't make the cut at the end of the article. 

To test, we first looked at overall design: were the handles easy to grasp? How about the helper handles? Could you pour liquid from the pan without dripping? Were they attractive? Were the pans deep or shallow?--and which you prefer depends on how you're going to use the pan, but we discuss this for each of our recommendations. We also weighed the pans and had several people handle them to determine an overall design score.

Then we checked heating properties: since one of the main drawbacks of cast iron is that it's slow to heat through evenly, we tested how quickly and how evenly pans heated through. We put the pan on a medium gas flame and used an infrared thermometer to check temperature at the center and the edge of the pan every 30 seconds over a 5 minute period. You may be surprised to hear that the differences in heating performance were rather small overall. As you might expect, the thicker, heavier pans tended to heat through more slowly. However, once heated, all the pans held onto heat well. This tells us that a thinner, lighter pan isn't going to sacrifice much as far as performance: not only will it heat through faster, it will also hang onto heat almost as well as the thicker, heavier pans. 

The same heating performance held true for expensive vs. inexpensive cast iron pans: By buying on the lower end of the scale, you don't sacrifice much of anything in performance, and in fact, some of the less expensive pans performed even better than the higher end ones, heating faster and more evenly and hanging onto heat just as well.

After all this, we cooked in the pans. We seared steaks, fried eggs, fried fish, and made cornbread. We looked for evenness of sear, evenness of browning, and how well pans released food. The surprises here were that none of the boutique brands, despite their smoother surfaces, released food any better than the cheaper pans. This was probably due to the seasoning: though all the pans come pre-seasoned, they pretty much all need to be either re-seasoned or simply used several times before they develop that truly slick, nearly nonstick surface that makes cast iron a real competitor to PTFE cookware.

There are reasons to buy expensive cast iron, but performance isn't one of them. (More on this below.)

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What Is Cast Iron? (And What Makes It Great for Skillets?)

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

According to Wikipedia

Cast iron is a group of iron-carbon alloys with a carbon content more than 2%...With its relatively low melting point, good fluidity, castability, excellent machinability, resistance to deformation and wear resistance, cast irons have become an engineering material with a wide range of applications and are used in pipes, machines and automotive industry parts, such as cylinder heads, cylinder blocks and gearbox cases. It is resistant to damage by oxidation.

For all these reasons, cast iron makes excellent skillets. Its ability to hang onto heat for a long time makes it great for most frying tasks, especially searing and deep frying. A cast iron skillet is superior to any other type of skillet at hanging onto heat. 

Though you can buy entire sets of cast iron cookware, we limited this review to skillets. The reason for this is that most people prefer lighter materials, such as clad stainless or aluminum, for other pieces like sauce pans and stock pots. You don't need cast iron's heat retention in these pieces, and the lighter materials are easier to handle. In fact, you probably won't be able to find a cast iron stock pot: imagine trying to lift a full 12-quart cast iron stock pot! (A lot of people would have trouble lifting it even when empty.)

We do like cast iron Dutch ovens because cast iron's heat retention, as well as the heavy lid, are the key to successful braising. However, we prefer enameled cast iron for Dutch ovens. Long cooking times and large amounts of liquids can strip bare cast iron of seasoning, especially when cooking acidic foods like tomato sauce. We talk more about enameled cast iron below

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Pros and Cons of Cast Iron Cookware

Pros

  • Extremely durable
  • Provides an almost nonstick surface with no dangerous chemicals
  •  Many brands are very affordable
  • Holds onto heat very well, making it excellent for searing and deep frying
  • Most brands, including the inexpensive Lodge, are made in the USA.

Cons

  • Slow to heat evenly (always preheat 3-5 minutes)
  • Heavy
  • Rough bottom can scratch a glass cooktop
  • Must be seasoned
  • Must be washed by hand (though easy to wash)
  • Cast iron is brittle, so it can crack when dropped or handled too roughly.

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Cast Iron Vs. Carbon Steel: Which Is Better?

Which is better depends very much on personal preference. Here, we'll discuss the similarities and differences so you can decide for yourself. (We do offer our opinion, though.)

Similarities:

Cast iron and carbon steel both contain about 98% iron, so their heating properties are nearly identical. (Which, as we've mentioned already, are: slow and uneven to heat, but very good at retaining heat.) Both need to be seasoned with fat before use, and both provide a smooth nonstick-like surface for cooking. 

Both are inexpensive and highly durable cookware, though most cast iron edges out most carbon steel in price. Both are sold pre-seasoned, though many carbon steel skillets are sold unseasoned, as well. (Remember: if a pan is a shiny silver color, it's not seasoned. If it's dark brownish or black, it's seasoned.)

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

Differences:

Carbon steel skillets have a unique shape, with angled, shallow sides and a flat handle, as shown above. 

Carbon steel pans are typically pressed out of sheets instead of cast in molds. This makes them considerably thinner than cast iron. Thinness makes them lighter than cast iron, even though they have about the same density.

More significantly, because it's thinner, carbon steel lacks the excellent heat retention you get from cast iron (because: less mass). The heat retention isn't terrible, but if you're searing steaks or deep frying, cast iron is definitely the optimal choice.

Carbon steel's main advantage is that it starts out life much smoother than most cast iron (though some of the boutique brands of cast iron give it a run for its money). But all cheap cast iron smooths out with use, so this advantage is, really, only temporary.

***

A lot of people love carbon steel pans; you'll see them frequently in restaurant kitchens, mainly because they're cheap, durable, and lighter than cast iron. But we kind of think that carbon steel gives you all the drawbacks of cast iron without the benefits. For example, though lighter, carbon steel is still heavy--so if you want a truly lightweight pan, you should probably go with aluminum or clad stainless. And that heat retention thing? It's the whole reason you use cast iron--so why settle for something that doesn't hold heat as well? Especially when cast iron is cheaper?

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Cast Iron Vs. Nonstick Pans: Which Is Better?

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

Again, which is better is largely personal preference, depending on what you value most about cookware.

If ease of care is high on your list, then you will no doubt prefer nonstick cookware, as this is its main selling point: no more cooked on messes! All that gunk and grease will just wipe right off!

Most nonstick cookware is also inexpensive and lightweight, both of which are appealing qualities for a lot of cooks.

Unfortunately, nonstick cookware has a number of drawbacks. It's delicate, so you can't use high heat or metal utensils. And that nonstick coating? It doesn't last very long. Most nonstick pans have a life span of less than five years, and frequently doesn't survive even that long.

The main drawback of nonstick cookware, though, is that it contains questionable chemicals that may not be safe, and may even cause cancer and other serious illnesses. 

Cast iron has none of these issues. It can take high heat and all sorts of abuse, and it actually gets more nonstick with time and use. Most importantly, it's completely safe and non-toxic. In fact, most people need more iron in their diet, so using cast iron can actually be good for you.

There will always be valid reasons for using nonstick cookware: if you have medical issues that require you to use lightweight pans, for example, or if you're stringently avoiding any extra fat in your diet. And cast iron will never be as nonstick as a brand new PTFE pan--so if eggs are a struggle for you, nonstick definitely serves a purpose.

To learn more about nonstick cookware, check out our Cookware Archives.

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What Is Seasoning? And Why Is it Necessary?

Seasoning is the process of adding a coating of oil (or fat) to the cooking surface of a cast iron skillet and heating it until it forms a protective coating. Without this seasoning, cast iron rusts very quickly and will also react with acidic foods, giving them an off, metallic flavor. Thus, seasoning is an essential part of using a cast iron skillet.

Polymerization is the technical term for what seasoning a cast iron (or carbon steel) pan actually does. Under high heat, the oil and metal react to actually create new compounds ("polymers") that are neither iron nor oil, but a transformed combination of both. This polymerized surface is smooth, non-reactive, and almost as slippery and easy to clean as PTFE nonstick. 

Seasoning can last for a very long time, depending on use and care, but cast iron skillets do need to be re-seasoned occasionally. Liquids, acidic foods, scrubbing, and dishwashing soap can all take their toll on the polymerized surface, so it has to be re-applied.

Sometimes, you can simply re-season a pan; sometimes, if the pan is blotchy, rusty, or tacky, it needs to be completely stripped of polymers before reseasoning. 

We aren't going to go into the how-to of seasoning, as many other sites have covered this topic thoroughly. This is the best site we've found for a description of how to season cast iron cookware.

Or, if you just want a quick tutorial, here's a great 3-minute video that's easy to follow:

What Is the Best Fat for Seasoning Cast Iron Skillets?

Technically, you can use any type of fat to season cast iron, because any type of fat will transform to polymers under high heat. From bacon grease to butter to olive oil, whatever you have on hand will work.

However, some fats are definitely better than others. You might think you want to use a fat with a neutral flavor, or a high smoke point, or one with healthy attributes (like Omega 3 fatty acids). But because the resulting polymers are no longer actually fat, none of thise things matter. What matters is the fat's ability to form polymers.

Instead of getting into all the chemistry of it (you can click over to this link if you're interested in that), we'll just say that the best oil to use is flaxseed oil. (It's just coincidence that flaxseed oil is high in Omega 3 fatty acids).

So, yes, you can use any cooking oil you have on hand and it will work. But for best results, get the flaxseed oil--food grade, of course.

About Preseasoned Pans

Most of the cast iron skillets on the market today are preseasoned, meaning they've been treated with oil to form that smooth, polymerized surface. You can tell by the color of a skillet whether it's pre-seaoned or not: bare cast iron is a silverish gray color, while seasoned cast iron is dark brown or black.

However, any preseasoned pan you buy is almost certainly going to need more seasoning for optimal results. And this is true no matter how much you spend on a skillet. Preseasoning is a good start--and a great rust prohibitor--but for best results, you're going to have to do some more seasoning.

There is an alternative: If you don't mind a bit of a stickiness for the first few weeks of using your new skillet, regular use will also help build up seasoning. As long as you use the pan properly and dry it thoroughly after use, you can get results similar to re-seasoning.

We're disappointed that none of our favorites come with a flaxseed seasoning. So if you want to improve whatever pan you buy, get the flaxseed oil and give your pan a good seasoning.

You may be able to get by without doing it, but you won't regret doing it, either. 

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What About Expensive Cast Iron Skillets? (Are They Worth It?)

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

In the past five years or so, the cast iron cookware market has exploded with new, upscale options. Artisan makers are offering cast iron skillets made the "old school" way. That is, hand poured and hand polished: processes that mass market makers like Lodge no longer use. (This is why inexpensive skillets have a rougher surface and are usually heavier than artisan brands.)

So. If you're reading this, the real question looming in your mind is probably "Should I go with the Lodge, or should I splurge on one of the expensive brands?"

The answer is that it depends what you're looking for in a cast iron skillet.

Pros of expensive cast iron skillets

  • Hand-poured, resulting in thinner, lighter weight pans
  • Hand-polished, so they're smoother and slicker than inexpensive cast iron skillets
  • As durable and long-lasting as all cast iron
  • Design may be prettier, depending on your preferences.

Cons of expensive cast iron skillets

  • Lighter color can result in staining (which disappears as pans darken with use)
  • Still going to be a little sticky and will probably need seasoning out of the box (yes, even if preseasoned)
  • The heating properties are the same as for inexpensive cast iron (that is, slow and uneven, with excellent heat retention)
  • Probably won't be seasoned with flaxseed oil (a minor issue).

Keep in mind that cast iron is cast iron: paying more isn't going to get you a more durable pan, or a pan that heats faster or more evenly. It's all going to perform about the same, and it's all going to be extremely durable.

Having said all of this, here are our recommendations.

-If you want cast iron but need a lighter weight pan, then the jump to an artisan brand is justified, as that's the only way you're going to get "light" cast iron. (And there's a big difference in maneuverability between an 8 pound pan and a 6 pound pan.)

-If you want that smooth, polished surface and budget is not an issue, then go with a higher-end brand. The polished finish doesn't really get you all that much performance wise, as all cast iron becomes smooth and slippery with use, but there's no drawback to it, either. 

-Finally, if budget is not an issue for you and you simply prefer an artisan brand--and they are certainly pretty!--then go for it. It's perfectly fine to spend whatever you want to spend, so if a ritzy cast iron pan will make you happy, then that's what you should buy.

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What About Enameled Cast Iron?

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

Enameling solves the problem of having to seaon by coating the cast iron with durable, long-lived, ceramic-based enamel. The baked-on enamel is almost as durable as cast iron itself, though it can chip if you whack it too hard with a steel spatula (for example), and it can get small surface cracks ("crazing") from abrupt temperature changes. In general, though, the enamel coating is pretty tough (especially on the high-end brands such as le Crueset and Staub).

The advantages of enameled cast iron are that it doesn't require seasoning, and there are no worries about the cast iron reacting with food or rusting. Disadvantages are that the enameled surface, while smooth, cannot replicate the nonstick surface of well-seasoned cast iron. 

Enameled cast iron is great for Dutch ovens because of how they're used: for long braises in a lot of liquid, which can strip the seasoning off bare cast iron. It's not as necessary for skillets, which are generally used for quicker cooking tasks. And the skillet tasks that do go longer--such as baking cornbread, or deep frying--won't strip a pan's seasoning. 

In fact, enameled cast iron skillets are, for most tasks, more of a detriment than an advantage, because the best thing about bare cast iron is the smooth, nonstick surface. You'll never get that from an enameled pan.

Some people will argue with this, saying that enamel is as nonstick as well-seasoned cast iron. But our response to this is that these people have probably never used truly well-seasoned cast iron. Enamel isn't a terrible surface to cook on; we liken it to cooking on clad stainless, which we also really like. However, only well-seasoned cast iron can come close the smoothness and slipperiness of a PTFE skillet. 

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Myths About Cast Iron (What Not to Believe)

You can't cook acidic foods in non-enameled cast iron. False! If cast iron is well-seasoned, there's no iron in contact with your food, so you can cook acidic foods in cast iron. However, acidic foods--like tomato sauce--will take a toll on the seasoning, especially if you're doing a long cook such as a braise. This is why we recommend enameled cast iron for Dutch ovens. But for short to medium cooking times, go ahead and use your cast iron skillet for acidic foods.

You can't use soap when you wash cast iron. False! You actually can use soap when you wash your cast iron skillet. However, soap will take a toll on the seasoning, so use it sparingly. And try to avoid de-greasers if possible, opting instead for a natural soap (like castille).

Cast iron is hard to maintain. Well, it's not Teflon, but the truth is that cast iron is actually quite easy to maintain--almost as easy as Teflon. True, seasoning is a bit of a hassle. But it's not hard, and once seasoned, you just have to be sure to rinse, dry thoroughly, and apply a thin coat of oil every time you use the pan. The biggest problem with cast iron is that if it stays wet, it rusts. That's what you're trying to avoid. Other than that, it's no harder to maintain than any other kind of cookware, and except for nonstick, it's probably the easiest cookware to maintain.

Cast iron heats very evenly. False! (And you hear this one all the time.) Cast iron actually heats very unevenly. Its structure is rough and brittle, and heat passes through it in fits and starts. So, uneven heating. Yet once heated through (always allow several minutes of preheating before using your cast iron skillet!), cast iron retains heat like nothing else can. Literally: Cast iron hangs onto heat better than any other cookware material in existence. This heat retention is cast iron's true magnificence, and the property that makes it so great for searing, deep frying, and most everyday skillet tasks.

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What to Look for in a Cast Iron Skillet

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

As with other cookware, we recommend looking at several categories when shopping for cast iron skillets: heating properties, durability, stability, design/aesthetics, price, and warranty. Here are our thoughts for each category.

Heating Properties

As we said above, cast iron has both good and bad heating properties. The bad is that it heats very slowly and very unevenly (compared to aluminum or copper). The good is that once heated through, cast iron retains heat very well--it will stay hot for a really long time. 

For most uses, the good outweighs the bad. You can simply preheat your cast iron for several minutes to circumvent the slowness and unevenness, and the excellent heat retention is what makes cast iron so excellent for searing steaks and deep frying. Other materials, including aluminum and copper, are much more responsive to changes in temperature, making them not as good for these tasks. For searing, deep frying, and braising, cast iron reigns supreme. 

Of particular interest here may be the fact that all cast iron has the same heating properties. This means that no matter what you spend, cast iron is going to heat slowly and unevenly and hang onto heat for a long time. Boutique cast iron tends to be thinner and lighter, which you'd think would affect the heating properties, but it really doesn't make all that much difference. If anything, thinner cast iron will have worse heat retention, but in our testing, the differences were very small. 

Durability

All cast iron gets 5 stars for durability. Its reputation for lasting for decades--even centuries--is valid, and this is true for all cast iron skillets (regardless of what you spend).

Cast iron's only durability issue is its brittleness: it can crack with a hard impact. It's uncommon, but it can happen. So try not to drop your cast iron, and don't use it as a weapon. 

Stability

One of cast iron's drawbacks is that it rusts easily, so the stability of bare cast iron is poor. Seasoning solves this problem, though, and seasoned cast iron is extremely stable, neither rusting nor reacting with food.

Keep in mind that cast iron must be re-seasoned occasionally to retain its stability, and that proper care is also an important factor in preventing rust and reacting with foods. You should always wash and thoroughly dry cast iron after every use; even seasoned cast iron can rust if not dried thoroughly.

The upshot: with proper seasoning, use, and care, cast iron is stable and non-reactive. Without proper seasoning, use, and care, cast iron rusts easily and can react with foods. 

Design/Aesthetics

Design is the most personal attribute of cookware, which basically means that you should buy cookware that you think is practical as well as attractive.

Most cast iron skillets have flat bottoms and straight, fairly high sides, like the traditional Lodge skillet shown here:

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

This makes them good for pan frying, searing, sautéing, and deep frying. It's the most common shape for cast iron skillets. 

Some cast iron skillets have a curved, shallower sides, like this Lodge Chef Collection skillet:

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

This makes them good for many frying tasks--and an excellent alternative to a nonstick or clad stainless skillet--but not safe for deep frying. 

You should consider how you're going to use a pan before you buy to make sure you get one that suits your needs. 

Another consideration is handles. While no handle design is going to make a heavy cast iron skillet easy to maneuver, you definitely want a cast iron skillet with a good helper handle (that is, the small handle opposite the long one that allows you to use both hands to pick up the skillet). Ideally, you should be able to fit your fingers inside a helper handle comfortably even with a towel or heating pad; this is the safest way to grip it. Not all helper handles are created equally. Some are too small, some have no loop, and some pans even lack helper handles entirely--a terrible design for any cast iron skillet 10 inches or larger. They require the helper handle, or they aren't safe to use. 

Lids: most cast iron skillets are sold without lids, so we won't talk about them too much here. Note that if you have a lid from another pan of the same diameter as your cast iron, it will probably fit your cast iron skillet. You can also buy lids separately for Lodge skillets, both cast iron and glass. (These will also probably fit other brands of cast iron, as well.)

Finally, consider overall design: do you like the looks of the skillet? There isn't a lot of variety to the aesthetic choices in the cast iron skillet market, however, some of the more expensive artisan brands do have a fancier look. (This octagonal skillet from Finex is probably the most unique cast iron design out there. The craftsmanship is exceptional, but we don't recommend it because of the price and the weight--most artisanal cast iron is lighter than this brand.)

Price 

Until recently, cast iron was one of the most economically priced skillets on the market. For less than $30, you could buy yourself a pre-seasoned skillet that would literally last for centuries. Mass market brands like Lodge still get a top rating for their affordability.

The boutique brands now available have ushered in a new market for cast iron skillets. Some of these brands cost ten times what you'd pay for a dependable old Lodge skillet. 

Is the higher price justified? Yes and no. There's definitely a higher level of craftmanship and, dare we say, love put into these artisan pans. And because of this craftsmanship (and love!), these skillets can have some really nice features, like thinner walls, lighter weight, and a smoother cooking surface. If those things are important to you, then the higher price is certainly justified. Only you can decide what factors matter and how much you're willing to pay.

Warranty

Even though cast iron is rarely defective, you should buy from a company that offers a warranty or good customer service. Buying a known brand (like Lodge or Cuisinart) or a brand made in the USA makes all the difference for getting good customer service. 

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How to Care for a Cast Iron Skillet

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?
  • Season well before first use and as needed to keep pan in good shape.
  • For the first several uses, use plenty of fat--this helps build up seasoning and makes the pan more nonstick.
  • Always wash after use. Use a nylon scrubby pad to remove food bits if necessary, or toss some salt in there to use as a gentle abrasive.
  • Contrary to popular belief, you can use soap on seasoned cast iron. Just use a tiny amount (and preferably not a de-greaser).
  • Dry thoroughly to avoid rusting, then coat with a very thin layer of oil. 
  • We do not recommend using chain mail scrubbers. They work, but they abuse the seasoning.
  • Store with towels or paper towels between to protect seasoned surface.

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Best Cast Iron Skillet Overall: Lodge

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

See Lodge cast iron skillet on Amazon (with brush)

See Lodge cast iron lid on Amazon

See Lodge glass lid on Amazon

Features

  • Good heating performance
  • Good release (better with use)
  • Wall height 2.25 in.
  • Has a flat cooking surface of 10-inches
  • 4 quart capacity
  • About $20 by itself/$35 w/brush/$50 with lid (sold separately)
  • Made in USA.

Lodge is the quintessential American made product. The company, located in Tennessee, has been in business more than 100 years, and they are known for their durable workhorse-of-a-pan cast iron products. Unlike American made clad stainless cookware, Lodge cast iron is not only top quality, it's also very affordably priced.

Lodge pans are a little rough when new because they do not undergo a polishing process like the more expensive boutique brands--now popping up everywhere--do. This makes them a little less nonstick when new, but that's okay because all new cast iron needs to be re-seasoned before use for best results, anyway. And the more you use the pan, the smoother it gets. The polymerized cooking oils build up and fill in all the gaps on the pan's surface. After just a few weeks of regular use, you'll be astonished at how much smoother--and how much more nonstick--the cooking surface is. 

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

The Lodge skillet passed all of our tests very well. It heats slowly, like all cast iron, but once heated through--give your pan a good 5 minutes to preheat!--it holds onto heat really well. This pan seared steaks beautifully, released eggs and fish well (though it needed to be re-seasoned to do so), and produced perfect golden brown cornbread that practically slid out of the pan. 

The handle is fine--not the best and not the worst. Since all of our testers have been using Lodge pans for decades, it was hard for anyone to form an objective opinion. The truth is that no handle design is going to make an 8 pound skillet much easier to maneuver, but the Lodge handles are fine. The helper handle is key to handling a heavy pan, and Lodge helper handles are large and easy to get your fingers around, with or without a towel or heating pad. 

The pour spouts drip a little, but they aren't terrible. We don't recommend spending hundreds more just to get a slightly better pour spout experience. 

One of the biggest issues with Lodge skillets is their availability on Amazon: they are out of stock frequently. And you may only be able to find one as a set, or with an extra feature such as the cleaning brush we linked to here. 

You may want to shop around for Lodge skillets, anyway. They're available at all kinds of stores, and you may find one even cheaper at your local hardware store than on Amazon. 

Lodge doesn't exactly offer a warranty on their products. Instead, they offer the Lodge promise. It's not a lifetime guarantee but rather a pledge to make sure buyers are satisfied with their cookware. Since Lodge products tend to last for centuries, the lack of a bona fide warranty isn't a big issue.

Pros and Cons of Lodge Cast Iron Skillet

Pros
  • Deep sides
  • Good heating performance
  • Good release (better with use)
  • Extremely durable
  • Excellent customer service
  • Made in USA.
Cons
  • Rough until used several times
  • Weighs 8.25 pounds
  • Pour spouts drip a little
  • Preseasoned with soybean oil
  • Warranty info is sketchy
  • Goes out of stock frequently on Amazon.

Conclusion/Recommendation for Lodge Skillet

The standard Lodge skillet is a solid performer at a fraction of the price of some boutique brands. It's not fancy, but it will do everything the more expensive skillets will do, especially after re-seasoning and a few weeks of regular use. All in all, an excellent product at an excellent price. 

You may want to shop around, too: availability on Amazon is often limited, and you may find a better price, say, at your local hardware store.

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The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

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Best Bargain Cast Iron Skillet: Lodge Short Handled Skillet

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

See Lodge Short Handled Skillet on Amazon

Features

  • Good heating performance
  • Great for oven use
  • Weighs 7.5 pounds
  • 10-inch cooking surface
  • 4 quart capacity
  • Wall height 2.3-inch
  • About $20
  • Made in USA.

We considered going with a different brand of skillet, but decided to pick Lodge for best value, too, since its value is part of what makes it the best skillet overall. While you could probably be happy with any brand of inexpensive cast iron skillet, Lodge has the best reputation by far--and is still made in the USA, whereas most other bargain brands are made overseas. With Lodge, you're sure to get an excellent product and excellent customer service at a bargain price. (Note: See below for a few of the other brands we looked at.)

This is a short-handled version of the standard Lodge skillet with the same build quality and heating performance. It weighs slightly less because of the short handles and is excellent for oven use (cornbread, roasting chickens, etc.). Performance was pretty much identical to the standard Lodge (reviewed above), with great searing, good release, and the need for more use and seasoning to smooth out the surface.

Note that the biggest drawback of this skillet was the difficulty of getting leverage to lift it when full. You probably never realize how much you rely on that long handle for leverage until you don't have it.

Warranty info: Lodge doesn't offer a warranty on their products. Instead, they offer the Lodge promise. It's not a lifetime guarantee but rather a pledge to make sure buyers are satisfied with their cookware. Since Lodge products tend to last for centuries, the lack of an actual warranty isn't a big issue.

Pros and Cons of Lodge Short-handled Skillet

Pros
  • Excellent for oven use
  • Large cooking surface
  • Slightly taller sides than standard Lodge
  • Weighs a pound less than long-handled Lodge of same size (7.5 lb)
  • Affordable
  • Excellent customer service from Lodge
  • Made in USA.
Cons
  • Short handles can be hard to grip (no leverage)
  • Pour spouts drip a little
  • Preseasoned with soybean oil (flaxseed has higher smoke point)
  • Warranty info is sketchy
  • Needs use and seasing to smooth out surface and make more nonstick.

Conclusion/Recommendation for Lodge Short-Handled Skillet

The Lodge short-handled skillet is a great choice if you're going to be using it in the oven frequently or have limited storage space. The short handles make it a little tricky to get leverage on a full pot, so buy only if you have another good reason to go with the short handles. Otherwise, go with the standard Lodge skillet.

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The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

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Best Deep Cast Iron Skillet: Cuisinart Chicken Fryer

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

See Cuisinart Chicken Fryer deep skillet on Amazon

Features

  • Lid included
  • Deep enough to use as a small Dutch oven
  • Wall height 5 in.
  • Weighs 14.5 pounds with lid, 10 pounds without
  • Has a 9.75-inch cooking surface/4.25 quart capacity
  • About $70
  • Made in China
  • Lifetime warranty.

The Cuisinart Chicken Fryer is a high-sided skillet designed for deep frying, but great for many other tasks as well. We were thrilled to include a Cuisinart product because they make good quality, affordable cookware with a lifetime warranty. 

Note that only the black skillet on this page is bare cast iron. The colored choices are enameled. If you want enameled that's fine, but this review is for the bare cast iron pot only (which is about half the price of the enameled ones).

We love Cuisinart. Not all their products are great, but the ones that are defy expectation--they should cost a lot more than they do. 

We also love deep sauté pans (like this brilliant clad stainless pan from All-Clad) too. They are kitchen workhorses, great for everything from stir fries to braises to soups and stews, and just about everything in between. The only drawback of the deep sauté pan is that it's tricky to get a turner in there to flip food, so you probably want a shallower skillet for pan frying steaks, burgers, fish, etc.

But for everything else, deep pans are brilliant.

Thus, this Cuisinart Chicken Fryer is the meeting of two of our favorite kitchen tools: Cuisinart and the deep sauté pan. It's perfect for deep frying--not too deep, and definitely not too shallow. It's a truly multi-purpose pan.

The main drawback of this pan is that it's heavy: more than 14 pounds with the lid, and about 10 pounds without it. That's to be expected from cast iron, but yes: it's significant.

Another drawback is that the pan is made in China. All the rest of the pans we tested are made in the USA. If that matters to you, buy a Lodge deep skillet instead--but note that it doesn't come with a lid, and it's more expensive. (You may be able to find a Lodge deep skillet with a lid if you check the Lodge skillet page on Amazon, but they are frequently out of stock.)

The Chicken Fryer's design is great, with a universally loved helper handle (big, roomy, and easy to grip), a curved handle that's easy to grab hold of and use for leverage, and a lid that fits snugly and is easy to remove/replace even when hot from the oven (with a towel, of course). The pour spouts work great, although the weight made this a tricky pan to pour from (we didn't try it with anything hot, but waited for the cooking oil to cool to room temperature--probably a wise choice for anyone without extreme upper body strength). 

The pan performed flawlessly in all of our tests, too. It seared beautifully, it released food easily, and it made a perfectly golden brown cornbread that popped right out of the pan. The black cooking surface made it impossible to notice any staining, which we count as a plus.

As with all inexpensive cast iron, the surface was a little gritty but smoothed out after a number of uses. Eggs wanted to stick at first but went away with use. After several uses, the surface of the pan is as close to nonstick as anything else we tested. 

Overall a really great pan. 

Pros and Cons of Cuisinart Chicken Fryer Deep Skillets

Pros
  • Deep enough to use as Dutch oven
  • Enameled exterior in assorted colors
  • Affordable (about $70)
  • Lots of love from Amazon reviewers
  • Lifetime warranty.
Cons
  • Weighs 14.5 pounds with lid
  • Enamel exterior may chip
  • Not seasoned with flaxseed oil
  • Enamel exterior raises the price
  • Sapines ad labore duius nunc
  • Made in China.

Conclusion/Recommendation for Cuisinart Chicken Fryer

The Cuisinart Chicken Fryer is a great deep skillet that will prove extremely useful to anyone who prepares large amounts of food or is looking for a deep frying pan. Its only real drawback is its weight--at about 10 pounds without the lid, it's a lot to handle when full of food or hot oil. As with the rest of the pans we tested, it will benefit from additional seasoning, but we thought it performed as well as any of them, regardless of price.


***Remember that this review is for the bare cast iron option only. Other pans on this Amazon page are enameled, and quite a bit more expensive.***

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The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

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Lightest Weight Cast Iron Skillet: #10 Field Cast Iron Skillet

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

See #10 Field Cast Iron Skillet at Field website

Features

  • Weighs 6 pounds
  • Very smooth surface
  • Wall height 2.25 in.
  • 12-inch skillet has 9.75-inch cooking surface/3.4 quart capacity
  • About $165
  • Uses 75-90% recycled iron
  • Made in USA.

Field is a Kickstarter-funded startup that focuses solely on high-end cast iron skillets. Their skillets are made from 75-90% recycled iron, and made in the USA. 

You can tell from the photo above how smooth these skillets are--and they are. What you can't tell is how light they are: a 12-inch skillet that weighs only 6 pounds? This is almost unheard of in the world of cast iron cookware.

Lighter cast iron is more expensive to make, so the higher price is somewhat justified. 

Overall we thought the Field skillet was great. The only real complaint is that the helper handle is on the small side, so you have to be careful when you grab the hot pan with a towel. It isn't unsafe, as you can get a good grip on it, but we're used to a bigger helper handle--and one with a loop to get our fingers around. This one is both small and loopless. Not a deal breaker by any means, but if you have large hands, or want the security of a loop you can get your fingers around, you may prefer a pan with a bigger helper handle. 

Cooking in this pan was a pleasure. It gave steaks an excellent crispy sear and released all food easily, including oven-baked cornbread. Like other pans we tested, it developed some blotchy stains after searing, but we're pretty sure this is because the pan needed more seasoning (something you'll probably find for any pre-seasoned cast iron skillet). The spots went away with use as the pan developed more seasoning.

You might think that being lighter and thinner would affect the heating performance, and that it wouldn't hang onto heat as well as a thicker, heavier skillet. The Field heated throughout a little slower than the Lodge, which we didn't expect because it's thinner, but the difference was small, and other than that, the thinner walls didn't affect performance at all. All to say that the Field is a great all-around cast iron skillet.

The lack of a pour spout didn't hurt the performance a bit. It poured almost exactly like all the pans with a spout--that is, with very little dripping.

We don't like that the Field skillet is preseasoned with grapeseed oil. Grapeseed oil does not have a super high smoke point and also isn't the healthiest oil to use, as it's high in Omega-6 fatty acids and also a very highly processed oil. We suggest that if you buy this pan, you also buy some flaxseed oil and season a few more times before use. This should eliminate any issues with staining and also make the pan even more nonstick.

The warranty page is a bit vague. Field doesn't not promise a lifetime warranty, but they do say they are available to help you solve problems for the lifetime of the pan. The good news is that no matter what cast iron you buy, it's probably going to provide service for a very long time.

If you're looking for a lighter skillet or a smooth surface and don't mind splurging, this pan is as good a choice as the Stargazer (reviewed below). But at $160, you really have to fall in love with it. 

Pros and Cons of #10 Field Cast Iron Skillets

Pros
  • Weighs only 6 pounds
  • Smooth cooking surface
  • Minimalist design
  • Made in USA.
Cons
  • Helper handle is too small
  • Preseasoned with grapeseed oil
  • No pour spouts
  • Blotchy stains appeared after searing (needs more seasoning)
  • Vague warranty information
  • $160.

Conclusion/Recommendation for Field #10 Skillet

If you can afford it, the Field 12-inch skillet is light at only 6 pounds, with a ground and polished surface that makes it a pleasure to use right out of the box, though like all pre-seasoned cast iron, it would benefit from more seasoning. The 9.75-inch cooking surface is roomy. Heating performance is very similar to cast iron costing significantly less, however, so unless the lighter weight and/or smooth surface are primary considerations, you can get virtually the same heating and durability for a fraction of the price from Lodge.

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The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

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Smoothest Cast Iron Skillet: Stargazer

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

Go to Stargazer website

Features

  • Drip-free curved lip (no spouts)
  • Grooved handle
  • Can buy unseasoned if desired
  • Weighs 6.5 pounds
  • Wall height 2.3 in.
  • 12-inch skillet has 9.4-inch cooking surface/3.4 quart capacity
  • Made in USA
  • Uses mostly recycled iron and "sustainable" manufacturing processes
  • Lifetime warranty.

Stargazer is an American company founded in 2015 by a cookware design specialist. They use mostly recycled iron and "sustainable" manufacturing processes (though they don't explain what exactly that means). They also use American-made packaging and sell directly to consumers through their website.

Even though we're calling the Stargazer the smoothest cast iron skillet, it's actually just the least expensive of the boutique brands we tested, all of which are ground/polished to a smooth finish that inexpensive cast iron skillets just don't have. So if a smooth surface is important to you and money isn't a concern, you can go with any of the boutique brands. If there's another one with a design or features that caught your eye, it's hard to go wrong with any of them.

But the Stargazer is, at about $145, the least expensive boutique cast iron skillet we tested. It also has some other nice features such as the curved lip (a feature unique among cast iron skillets) and a great U-shaped handle and large helper handle that makes it easy to grasp and stabilize the pan. A couple of testers thought the handle was uncomfortable--it reminded them of the almost universally hated All-Clad handle--but most of us liked it.

You also have the option of buying the Stargazer seasoned or unseasoned. If you have strong feelings about using flaxseed oil for seasoning (as we do), this is an excellent option, as Stargazer does not use flaxseed oil to season their pans.  

In testing, the Stargazer got some blotchy discoloration on the cooking surface. This isn't dangerous, and it happens because the pan needs more seasoning. But this need for more seasoning was the case with every pan we tested, and a testament to the fact that cast iron--no matter how much you spend on it--gets better with use like no other type of cookware on the market.

The 9.4-inch cooking surface is slightly smaller than some others we tested, but still provides a good bit of room.

Other than the issue of discoloration--which disappeared with use--the Stargazer skillet performed really well. Eggs stuck a little bit the first time we used it, even with butter, but after a few uses the pan developed that slick, almost-nonstick surface that makes cast iron such a great choice. Steaks came out crispy, fish and cornbread both released easily from the pan without a mess. 

The curved lip was great, providing easy pouring with nary a dribble down the side of the pan--and no worries about hitting a pour spout to avoid drips.

The standard wall height and flat cooking surface make this a good choice for all frying tasks, including replacing your nonstick skillet (if desired).

Pros and Cons of Stargazer Cast Iron Skillet

Pros
  • Drip-free curved lip (no spouts)
  • U-shaped handle design for easy stabilizing
  • Can buy seasoned or unseasoned
  • Weighs 6.5 pounds
  • Made in USA
  • Lifetime warranty.
Cons
  • Company does  not use flaxseed oil for seasoning
  • Blotchy stains appeared after searing (went away with more seasoning and use)
  • At $145, expensive unless the smooth surface is your main concern.

Conclusion/Recommendation for Stargazer Skillet

The Stargazer is not the only smooth-surfaced cast iron skillet out there, but it was the least expensive one we tested. If you like the design of the skillet and really want the smooth surface, this is the most affordable option. Or, if you want to support a company that uses "sustainsable" manufacturing processes, this is a good option too (like the Field skillet above). However, if you want to save some money, you can get similar (if not identical) performance for a lot less--and the rough surfaces smooth out with just a few weeks of regular use.

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The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

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Best "Modern" Shaped Skillet: Lodge Chef Collection

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

See Lodge Chef Collection skillet at Sur la Table

Features

  • Curved bottom ("modern" shape)
  • Shallower sides better for using turner
  • Weighs 6 lbs
  • Wall height about 2 in.
  • About $40.

Most cast iron skillets are actually closer in shape to sauté pans: that is, they have straight sides and a completely flat cooking surface. (The fact that the sides are slightly angled puts them in the skillet/frying pan camp, however--read more here.) The Chef Collection is Lodge's "modern" shaped skillet, which means that instead of straight, steep-ish sides, the sides are rounded and curve up from the bottom. The pan is also slightly shallower than standard Lodge skillets.

It may be easier to see the shape by looking at a side view:

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

This shape replicates that of typical nonstick and clad stainless skillets, and is great for basic frying and sautéing. If you want to use your cast iron skillet for standard cooking tasks like making eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, stir fries, burgers, etc., the Chef Collection is ideal. It's a great option if you want to move away from a PTFE nonstick or even a clad stainless skillet, both of which usually have this modern shape. 

However, it's not great for the one task that cast iron excels at: deep frying. Because the Chef Collection skillet is shallow with curved sides, it would be incredibly unsafe to fill it with hot oil.

Since cast iron is so excellent for deep frying, this is a real drawback. 

On the other hand, Lodge pans are very affordable, so if you want this pan for daily use and another one for deep frying and searing, you can probably afford both. 

We found that the pan performed every test as well as the others we tested, including those costing a lot more. Eggs, steak, fish and cornbread all turned out well. 

Warranty info: Lodge doesn't offer a warranty on their products. Instead, they offer the Lodge promise. It's not a lifetime guarantee but rather a pledge to make sure buyers are satisfied with their cookware. Since Lodge products tend to last for centuries, the lack of an actual warranty isn't a big issue.

Pros and Cons of Lodge Chef Collection Skillets

Pros
  • 2 pounds lighter than standard Lodge 12-in. skillet
  • Curved sides make it easy to use turner to flip food
  • Shallow sides allow for better evaporation
  • Angled handle, easy to grasp
  • Affordable
  • Excellent customer service
  • Made in USA.
Cons
  • Rounded shape is not safe for deep frying
  • Shallower sides won't hold as much food or liquid
  • Higher priced than standard Lodge skillet
  • Warranty info is sketchy
  • Lighter weight won't hang onto heat quite as well as standard Lodge skillet (though the difference in testing was negligible).

Conclusion/Recommendation for Lodge Chef Collection Skillet

The Lodge Chef Collection skillet is shaped like a modern skillet, with curved, shallow-ish sides and weighs only 6.5 pounds, a full 2 pounds lighter than the standard Lodge of the same size. The shape makes it a great replacement for daily-use nonstick or clad stainless skillets, but it also makes it unsafe for deep frying. If you want an all purpose cast iron skillet, the Chef Collection probably isn't the best choice.

buy lodge chef collection skillet at sur la table:

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

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Other Brands We Looked At

Amazon Basics Cast Iron Skillet: This could work as best bargain skillet. We found the surface rougher than Lodge, and recommend buying the American-made brand (Lodge) for not a lot more money. Also, at this time, Amazon Basics didn't have a 12-inch skillet in stock.

Butterpat "Joan" 12-Inch Skillet: Nice design, smooth surface. Slow to heat but also the most even heating of all the skillets we tested, probably due to the thicker bottom/thinner wall design. At 7 pounds, lighter than Lodge but not as light as some other boutique brands. At $295, the highest priced of all the brands we tested, and too much for most people to justify. 

Home Complete Cast Iron Skillet: $22. Surface is a little rougher than Lodge, but otherwise a good buy.

le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Skillet: Though a nice skillet, an enameled skillet is different enough from a bare cast iron skillet that they go in a different category. Enamel is smooth but not nonstick and will not get smoother with use. It's a nice skillet but a bare surface is actually better for most frying tasks and at over $200, we're not sure this skillet is the best choice for most cooks. (However, we love enameled cast iron Dutch ovens--find out why here.)

Michigan Made 13" Skillet by Marquette Castings: Excellent quality, beautiful craftsmanship, very smooth surface, made in USA, but we don't recommend because it's $194. Instead we recommend Lodge's short handled 12-inch skillet that costs about a tenth of this one.

Smithey Ironware No. 12 Cast Iron Skillet: Gorgeous looks, good pour spouts, but expensive, and slow-ish to heat evenly. Also, at 8 pounds, as heavy as the much less expensive Lodge. $200.

Utopia Kitchens 12.5-Inch Cast Iron Skillet: A bargain at about $25, but too many complaints about cracks, rust and other quality issues. Spend a little more and get the Lodge.

Victoria Cast Iron Skillet: Similar to Lodge in price and quality, slightly smoother (but still rough) finish than Lodge. We considered this for our best overall skillet, but didn't choose it because 1) it's not American made (made in Columbia), and 2) the 10-inch skillet has no helper handle. All full-sized cast iron skillets should have helper handles as they are unwieldy, especially when filled and hot.

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Final Thoughts

The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

A cast iron skillet is an essential piece for most home cooks. You don't have to spend a lot to get one that will serve you well for decades, but if have the budget, the higher end cast iron has a few advantages. It won't heat any faster or more evenly, but it tends to weigh less and have a smoother cooking surface.

Whichever way you go, you can be sure a cast iron skillet will be a great addition to your kitchen.

Thanks for reading!

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The Best Cast Iron Skillet: How Much Should You Spend?

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