Features 4 minutes 01 November 2019

Tools of the Trade: How To Choose a Cast Iron Skillet

What to look for in a cast iron pan that's right for your kitchen.

kitchen tools Tools of the Trade

When it comes to kitchen tools, cookware rarely gets better with age. However, cast iron pans are seemingly a weird exception to this rule. Not only are they generally very affordable, legend has it that if you treat them right and cook with them regularly, not only will they last for a literal lifetime—if not longer!—they'll actually improve with use.

But is this legend true? Do cast iron pans actually get better with age? And why are the pans of our grandparents—the kind that people scour basements, yard sales, thrift stores, and antique shops for—considered so superior to most modern pans fresh from the factory?

Note: Cooking equipment made from cast iron comes in many shapes and sizes, including cornbread molds, deep pots used for making stews or baking bread, and griddles. For the purposes of this conversation we focused on cast iron skillets that do not have an enameled coating.

Different Types of Cast Iron Skillets

There are essentially three types of cast iron skillets: antiques, which date up until around the middle of the 20th century and include brands like Griswold and Wagner Ware; modern rough surface cast iron skillets made by companies such as Lodge; and modern smooth surface cast iron skillets made by companies like Butter Pat Industries and Finex.

Are Antique Cast Iron Skillets Better?

According to Dennis Powell, owner and founder of the cast iron manufacturer Butter Pat Industries, the reason antique cast iron pans are so desirable is because, quite simply, they're superior products. The manufacturing processes of yore resulted in pans that were thinner, lighter, and smoother, which is why antique pans are a delight to hold and use, and why the surface is less bumpy (and thus more non-stick) than you'll find with the more common cast iron pans of today.

Modern cast iron skillets are manufactured using molds made of sand, similar to how they were made a century ago. The difference is that in olden days foundries used molds that were much larger and employed a process that was significantly slower and more labor intensive, which simply isn't cost effective anymore. They also used a much finer grained sand than is used today, which produced smoother pans. But that fine-grained sand exposed foundry workers to lung-damaging silica dust, and workplace safety regulations put in place by OSHA have made fine-grained sand casting a thing of the past.

What Should I Look for in an Antique Cast Iron Skillet?

First, place the pan on an even surface and see if it wobbles. It's not uncommon for older skillets to experience warping, or for the bottom of the pan to start "dropping out" (bowing in the center). Also skip pans that have significant pitting, any type of cracking, or major rust damage. (Minor surface rust can be removed with steel wool, but major rust damage is a deal breaker.) If the price is within your budget, antique pans are definitely worth adding to your kitchen.

What Should I Look for in a Modern Cast Iron Skillet?

Modern cast iron skillets are not all created using the same process, nor do they perform the same.

The heavy pans with a rougher surface that most cooks are familiar with, such as those made by Lodge, are great for searing and braising. Iron is a great heat retainer, and once you get it good and hot it'll stay that way without much temperature fluctuation. However, that heat retention also means that skillets like these are not particularly well suited for cooking things that require fine temperature control. The rougher surface also means that food is more prone to sticking, and is the reason that Lodge sells their pans pre-seasoned. The seasoning helps with releasability, but these should not be considered non-stick pans.

Skillets from companies like Finex and Butter Pat, on the other hand, have much smoother surfaces thanks to differences in manufacturing, and also have differences in weight.

Like Lodge, Finex makes hefty pans suitable for searing or braising. Both companies also use a subtractive method to polish the surface of their pans, meaning that any bumps or uneven patches are ground off until the surface is uniform. Unlike Lodge however, Finex pans have an extremely smooth surface, making them a great choice if you want to sear delicate proteins like scallops or fish without having to worry about them fusing to the cooking surface. It's not non-stick, but for a cast iron product it's closer than not.

Butter Pat's claim to fame is that its manufacturing process is not subtractive, meaning that they achieve their smooth surface purely through manufacturing and surface polishing. Butter Pat's pans are also much lighter than Lodge and Finex. This means that they're more suited to baking pies or casseroles and are not going to be quite as effective at searing or braising.

Lodge, and other brands that manufacture similar pans, are without a doubt the most affordable option. Lodge's standard 10.25-inch skillet costs a mere $26.75 (and can frequently be found for less than $20), and its newly released premium, lighter Blacklock line is $60 for the same size. For comparison, Butter Pat's 10-inch "Heather" skillet is $195 and Finex's 10-inch skillet is $175. The price differential is because Lodge pans are made using an automated process, whereas Finex and Butter Pat pans are not.


How Do You Season a Cast Iron Skillet? (And What Is Seasoning Anyway?)

Seasoning is perhaps one of the least understood aspects of cooking with cast iron, something which understandably irks Powell, who says, "We've forgotten as a culture why smoothness makes a difference." According to Powell, when pans (like his) have a smooth surface, seasoning isn't explicitly necessary, because the act of seasoning exists solely as a way of compensating for the rough surface of common, modern cast iron skillets.

Imagine the surface of a cast iron pan as a series of mountains and valleys. "The seasoning fills in the valleys," says Powell. "When you scrape your tool over the top of it you're shoving the seasoning down into the valleys and slowly you're going to be leveling that material off to the tops of the mountains." It's having an even surface that helps to make the surface non-stick.

If you want to season a cast iron pan, apply a thin layer of neutral, high smoke point oil like vegetable, canola or soybean across the surface and bake at 400˚F for one hour. Avoid using rendered animal fat or olive oil though, as they may go rancid. If you're concerned about oil pooling inside the pan while it's seasoning, place the pan inside your oven upside down with a sheet pan underneath to catch any runoff. Regular use will also help to keep a pan seasoned.

How to Take Care of a Cast Iron Skillet

1. Clean your cast iron pan soon after using it as opposed to letting it sit around for days with food or liquid inside. And contrary to popular belief, don't be afraid to use a little soap. Soap will break down new fats and oils, but won't damage established seasoning.

2. If your cast iron skillet has food stuck to the interior that can't be removed with a sponge, try using a stiff-bristled brush or a scratch-proof nylon or silicone pan scraper. Seasoning is hardy, but it can be removed if you scrub too hard or use an abrasive tool.

3. Dry your pan thoroughly after washing and use a paper towel to apply a thin layer of neutral oil to the interior and exterior of the pan, which will protect the pan from ambient moisture.

4. Don't leave a cast iron skillet on a lit flame or inside a hot oven for too long unless you're actually cooking with it, as prolonged heat exposure for an empty pan can damage it.

5. Cast iron is sturdy, but it isn't invulnerable. Treat your pans with care and if you're using an antique pan, avoid dropping it or clanging it around too much. Antique pans are thinner and more prone to cracking than modern pans.

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