Like a hammer, a quality mattress, and at least one comfortable place to sit and read (no, not the toilet), a cast iron skillet is one of those things just about every home needs. Cast iron requires a little more attention and care than a pan made from something like stainless steel, but in exchange for a well-maintained layer of seasoning, you get a piece of cookware that's rugged enough to put a profound sear on the thickest steak while delicate enough to allow a frying egg to glide across its surface without sticking. A cast iron pan can also last for generations, provided you don't utterly abuse it.
For a long time, you didn't have much of a choice when acquiring cast iron pots and pans. You were either lucky enough to inherit your grandmother's old pieces, or you went and bought a brand new Lodge.* And let's be clear, that's not meant as a dig against Lodge. After America's cast iron heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when companies like Griswold, Wagner, and Blacklock (Lodge's name before it switched to its current one in 1910) made some of the finest cast iron cookware this nation has ever seen, the industry almost completely collapsed. By the late 1900s, Lodge was pretty much the only domestic cast iron cookware foundry left. Their modern pans don't sport the smooth finish that the good vintage stuff is prized for, but they're otherwise totally reliable pieces of cookware.
* Or you frequented antique markets and yard sales for vintage cast iron pieces, then fixed them up yourself following our guide.
Recently, though, there's been a cast iron resurgence, and many of the newer brands launched on sites like Kickstarter. The impetus for this cast iron renaissance, if I can call it that, is hard to pin down, but I suspect this last decade's growing interest in heritage goods combined with crowd-driven financing models like Kickstarter have played their part. Oh, and of course it probably hasn't hurt that websites like this one have been praising and demystifying cast iron for years.
Just a few years ago I saw little purpose in reviewing cast iron cookware, given the lack of options out there. Today the situation is radically different. The market is swirling with options, and the price differences can be staggering: A 10-inch skillet can cost you anywhere from under $20 to over $200—and, mind you, I'm not including pricier enameled cast iron like Le Creuset in these figures.
To explore this new cast iron landscape, I tested 15 cast iron skillets, all under a $200 price cap, to determine whether any of the newcomers are offering valuable performance enhancements that might justify the cost. I chose to run the review using 10-inch skillets (or the closest to that measurement available from each manufacturer), since it's one of the more useful sizes for most homes. Ten-inch skillets are also more affordable than their similarly useful 12-inch counterparts; if I'd conducted this review using the larger 12-inch sizes, several brands would have been eliminated due to their being over my $200 limit.
Our Favorites, at a Glance
The Best Everyday Cast Iron Skillet: Lodge 10.25-Inch Skillet
Lodge's basic cast iron skillet has long been one of our most recommended pieces of kitchenware, and it remains so today. It's a little heavier than some of the other options out there, but it performs as well as anything else we tested and has a price that's hard to argue with. Add in that it's made in the USA by an established company with a proven track record, and we see little reason for most folks (living in the United States) to look elsewhere. This 10.25-inch size is arguably the most useful for most people, but the larger 12-inch skillet is nice to own as well, especially for bigger families.
The Best Lightweight Cast Iron Skillet: Lodge Blacklock 10.25-Inch Skillet
This new line of cast iron cookware from Lodge is clearly trying to capitalize on the renewed interest in vintage-style cast iron, especially now that the market has become crowded with startups attempting to revive the old cast iron standards of lighter weight and smoother surfaces. While Lodge's Blacklock line does not seem to be smoother than any of its other cast iron, it is remarkably less heavy. We found little to no difference in performance between it and its heavier counterpart, so if you can spend more, you'll likely appreciate how much easier it is to move this skillet around your kitchen.
The Criteria: What We Look for in a Great Cast Iron Skillet
I nearly drove myself nuts before initiating testing for this review just trying to decide what qualities a "good" cast iron pan should have. Cast iron itself is not a good conductor of heat, but it retains heat well. Those two characteristics are interlinked: the better a metal conducts heat, the worse it holds onto it. So if I find one pan that conducts heat better than all the rest, should I reward it for that or not?
I fretted similarly about how I would factor in each pan's weight. Cast iron is heavy, even for me, and I'm far from the weakest person you might find in a kitchen. So is a lighter-weight pan better? On your wrists, sure, but at what cost? The mass of a cast iron pan is, at least in theory, central to its ability to hold lots of heat. If a heavy skillet proves to sear steaks better than a lighter one, how do I decide what the ideal balance is between those potentially opposing qualities?
In the end, my testing solved these conundrums for me: The best cast iron pan is the one that performs its core tasks—searing, baking, and nonstick frying and sautéing—with success. And what my testing revealed is that, for all the nerding out one can do about cast iron, there's practically no difference in performance from one pan to the next. Yes, you read that right: For all their variations in weight, size, smoothness, and form, most cast iron pans perform about the same under the same conditions.
This finding left me with a much easier determination to make, one that mostly took into account cost, brand reliability, as well as ergonomics and other user experience (UX) considerations.
To assess these pans, I focused on tasks that would reveal how well each cast iron skillet performed its most important functions: searing, frying and sautéing, and baking. I also measured heat conduction over time at both the center and edge of each pan, and recorded each one's weight, bottom thickness and diameter, and smoothness, in case any of those attributes might help explain how the pans performed in the more practical tests.
On top of that, I analyzed ergonomic factors like handle comfort and pour-spout efficacy.
Cast iron is not a good heat conductor, but that doesn't mean all the skillets in my test would conduct heat equally poorly. I needed to assess how quickly and evenly each pan heated on the stovetop. (Whether being a better conductor of heat or not is good or bad was a question for the other tests to help me answer.)
To find out, I set a stovetop gas burner to what I would describe as a medium flame, then set each pan on top. From the moment each pan was set down, I used an infrared thermometer to record the temperature every 10 seconds for 20 intervals (totaling 3 minutes 20 seconds). I allowed all the pans to cool back to room temperature and then repeated the test while measuring each skillet at its edge (to keep the "edge" position consistent on pans of slightly different diameters, I used the bars on the stovetop grate underneath to help me set my sights).
The results here were remarkably different: Some of the skillets still hadn't hit 200°F by the end of the heating cycle while others were above 400°F. Now, as I explained above, there's no reason to assume a slower-to-heat cast iron skillet is worse than a faster one, nor vice versa. That's a question the performance tests would have to help answer.
Still, I did see some trends. First, while it doesn't map perfectly to the mass of each skillet, overall the ones that were fastest to heat were also the lighter-weight ones, while the slowest were the heaviest. This makes sense: The more metal there is to heat up, the longer it will take.
One exception to this observation was the Butter Pat skillet, which is one of the newcomers to the cast iron market. It was the second slowest to heat, but solidly middle-of-the-pack in terms of weight. In its case, the distribution of metal may help explain why it heated so much slower than the other pans of similar weight: The Butter Pat has much thinner walls and more of its mass in its base. (This accumulation of mass in the base may also explain why the Butter Pat, unlike almost every other skillet, had such similar degrees of heating at both the edge and center of the base, since there is much less metal in the walls to continuously siphon off heat as it radiates towards them.)
After running through my heat conduction measurements, it was time to take these pans for a real spin. I was curious to find out how well-seasoned each skillet was out of the box (good seasoning = more nonstick). Since cast iron cookware requires ongoing maintenance to build up great seasoning, I didn't necessarily think skillets that underperformed in this test should be disqualified, but I figured it could help as a tie-breaker.
Judging by sight alone, some of the skillets arrived better seasoned than others: Some were a lighter brown color, indicating less build-up of seasoning applied at the factory, while others were jet-black, a sign of much more substantial seasoning accumulation.
To test each one, I first gave each skillet a bonus layer of seasoning (two skillets in the group required a pre-seasoning step before first use, so it only seemed fair to put them all through the same process). Then I preheated all of the skillets in ovens set to 250°F. Working one at a time, I removed a skillet from the oven and set it over a consistent moderate flame. Next I added one tablespoon of oil and let it heat for 30 seconds before cracking two eggs into the pan.
Using this pre-heating process, each egg sizzled gently when it hit the pan, which was just what I wanted to see: any cooler and the egg wouldn't be frying, any hotter and it'd have a much easier time not sticking. This was exactly the heat level I'd use in one of my prized cast iron skillets at home to gently fry an egg without it sticking.
In every single pan (except the Starfrit, but it's an outlier with some kind of coating on it), the eggs fused to the metal. The Butter Pat and Smithey skillets had some of the most severe sticking, and they also had appeared to the eye to be the least seasoned out of the box, but none of the other skillets performed well enough to declare an obvious winner. The clear lesson here is that almost no cast iron pan arrives with its potential nonstick surface fully realized: You will need to build up the seasoning at home no matter what.
The next test was all about high heat: How well could each skillet sear a steak? I used thick slabs of boneless beef short ribs to find out.
For this test, I preheated all of the pans in 500°F ovens. Then, working one at a time, I removed them, added 1 tablespoon of oil, then seared two large short rib slabs in each, turning them every 30 seconds for a total of 3 minutes per side.
Just like in the egg-frying test, all the skillets performed incredibly similarly, except this time they did their job well. Just about every single one produced deeply browned and crusty steak on both sides. If there was a difference, I had a hard time spotting it. The only one that I thought maybe wasn't as good was the Amazon skillet, which I thought possibly put less of a good sear on the second side of the steaks (but, again, I wasn't certain even as I stared and prodded it, so the difference wasn't by any means huge).
My third real-world test was baking cornbread. I hoped to see three things here: First, how deeply and evenly browned each cornbread was on the bottom and sides; second, how much rise did each cornbread experience; and third, how much did any of the cornbreads stick.
What I saw instead were nearly identical loaves of cornbread coming out of every single skillet. Each one browned the bread evenly and deeply on both the bottom and sides, indicating that they all have enough stored heat all over, certainly more than the room-temp batter could counteract when it was ladled in. Each one also rose similarly, indicating they each delivered similar heat into the batter, causing similar levels of oven spring. And, finally, none of them stuck to the metal, indicating that after the first round of pre-seasoning, followed by the egg frying test and the steak-searing test, the seasoning was beginning to build up on all of them. With a few more uses, they'd all be ready to fry some eggs with no trouble.
Comfort and Ergonomics
Given how little light was shed on the skillets based on performance, other characteristics like price, comfort, and some design considerations were going to be the primary deciding factors.
During all of the prior testing, I had been taking UX notes, including which skillets were the most uncomfortable to hold and which were just too dang heavy. I also ran an oil-pouring test, filling each skillet with a half-cup of oil, then pouring it back out into a narrow jar to see which channeled the fluid most effectively.
I learned that the best pour spouts are large and deep, and if you can't have that, you're better off having no pour spout at all: The skillets with shallow and small spouts tended to dribble the most. While good to know, I didn't consider small spouts a dealbreaker if the pan otherwise performed well and is well priced.
How We Chose Our Winners
Given how similarly all of the cast iron pans performed in these tests, the real decision came down to comfort, ergonomics, and price. For that reason, I'm recommending two Lodge skillets, since they're affordable, reliable, and backed up by an established company with a proven track record. That doesn't mean that I wouldn't recommend some of the newer, more expensive skillets I tested, however.
Some of the pricier skillets in this group were a pleasure to use. Several feature a much smoother cooking surface, the result of a sanding or polishing step that removes the casting's naturally rough surface. This is a step that adds labor and cost to the manufacturing process and contributes to a higher price. A smoother surface may not have much impact on performance, but it's without a doubt more pleasurable to run a metal spatula across it.
There are also economies of scale to consider: It's to be expected that smaller manufacturers that are just entering the market won't be able to compete with a large company like Lodge on cost. Competition is still a good thing, and I'm glad it's been reintroduced into the cast iron cookware market; hopefully over time the presence of these new contenders will be a benefit to the consumer overall. Please do read about the other brands below to see if any are of interest to you.
The Best Everyday Cast Iron Skillet: Lodge 10.25-Inch Skillet
Lodge skillets have been a staple in the Serious Eats test kitchen and many of our homes for years. They're affordable and well-made by a company that has a longer track record producing cast iron cookware than any other in the Unites States. Unlike almost every other more affordably priced cast iron brand, Lodge still makes their plain cast iron cookware in the United States (their enameled cast iron, on the other hand, is manufactured abroad).
This skillet does run slightly heavy at about five-and-a-half pounds, which is about one pound heavier than the average for all the skillets in this review. Still, the handle is comfortable to hold both bare-handed and with a towel or oven mitt. And while the basic line from Lodge doesn't have the lighter weight and smooth finish of vintage pieces and more expensive contemporary brands, there's little to no impact on performance as a result of this.
If we have one gripe, it's that Lodge's pour spouts are small and shallow, leading to more frequent dribbles and spills in our tests, but this is hardly a reason not to buy one given the price and overall quality.
The Best Lightweight Cast Iron Skillet: Lodge Blacklock 10.25-Inch Skillet
The new Blacklock line from Lodge is the company's attempt at offering an option for those seeking cast iron forged to meet more heritage specs, which generally means lighter-weight and polished to a smoother finish. That's how many of the new players in the cast iron cookware space are positioning themselves—as a return to those old quality standards—and Lodge is smart not to cede that portion of the market to these new competitors entirely.
These Blacklock skillets deliver on the lighter-weight side of things. The 10.25-inch option weighs 4 pounds 2 ounces, making it the second lightest skillet in our tests and a full 1 pound 6 ounces lighter than the standard Lodge. It's a difference you can immediately feel. And based on our tests, that reduction in mass has no noticeable impact on how the pan is able to perform.
The skillet design is handsome, at least to my eyes, and evokes a certain old-timey aesthetic, particularly in the curving lines of the stay-cool handle (keep in mind, though, that no cast iron pan's handle truly stays cool for long).
Where Lodge seems to have drawn the line on manufacturing costs was on the polishing the surface of the pan. As far as I can tell, the Blacklock skillet has a similar surface texture to Lodge's basic line. If a smooth-as-ice cast iron skillet is what you're after, you'll need to seek a vintage piece or buy one of the pricier skillets from one of the other companies below that do invest in the smoothing step. But given that Lodge has managed to keep the price of this skillet close (at the time of publication) to its basic line, most folks would do well to consider this first.
Below are notes on the other models we tested for this review. In addition to the models listed below, I also included two "chef-style" cast iron skillets in this review, one from Lodge and one from Smithey Ironware. Chef-style cast iron skillets are cast in a more traditional frying pan shape with sloped sides, which allow for tossing ingredients more easily when sautéing. They performed well in all the tests, but baked up slightly wonky looking cornbreads given the different form. I'm on the fence about how I feel about them (they weren't bad by any stretch), but am inclined to suggest slightly lighter-weight carbon steel skillets for sautéing purposes instead.
- Utopia Kitchen's cast iron skillets came as a set of three for just $23 bucks, making it quite the deal, but they arrived with visible flaws in the casting, including deep pinhole pits in one of the skillets, which was sufficient cause to eliminate them from further testing.
- Camp Chef's cast iron skillet arrived from Amazon with the handle cracked off. This doesn't necessarily mean it's a subpar casting job—any cast iron pan can crack and break if dropped or struck with enough force—but since it was the only pan to ship in the larger Amazon box without a protective box of its own, I can't recommend it. Cast iron should be packaged well enough to guarantee delivery in one piece.
- Amazon itself now sells cast iron skillets under the AmazonBasics brand. It performed reasonably well throughout testing, and is certainly inexpensive, but its surface is extra rough and, at least in the hand, doesn't feel like a particularly high-quality piece of cookware.
- Victoria is a Colombian cookware and cast iron manufacturer. It's a fairly well-established brand, but has a rougher finish, similar to Amazon's. Given that Lodge costs more or less the same, appears to be better quality, and is made domestically, I'd recommend it instead.
- I looked at Lancaster, but their skillets won't be available until later this year, so I wasn't able to include it in this round of testing.
- Nest makes pretty looking skillets with handles cast to look like tree-branches, but their biggest size is a 9-inch skillet; without the option of larger sizes that I find more practical, I decided not to include it.
- Starfrit's The Rock bills itself as a cast iron skillet with a specially finished surface, formed through some kind of pellet-impact technology, though it seems to have some kind of nonstick coating applied as well. It was the lightest weight of all the skillets in the review, and has a riveted handle, which is unusual for cast iron. It managed to cook an egg without sticking, but its sloped sides and seeming inability to pick up layers of seasoning due to the nonstick coating left me puzzled about how this skillet relates to more traditional cast iron. It's a little too much of an outlier to recommend for those seeking a true cast iron skillet.
- Hallman Originals only produces larger 12-inch skillets at the moment. I ordered one, since I do find that size useful, but its chunky design makes it awkward to handle.
- Borough Furnace is another small producer of high-end cast iron cookware that caught my eye, but in addition to their cookware frequently being backordered, the $300 price (at the time of publication) for a 10.5-inch skillet was something we just couldn't justify.
- Marquette Castings makes a handsome skillet that's lightweight, smooth, and has a particularly comfortable handle. It's worth considering if you're seeking a smoother finish, but didn't make the top picks due to its higher price relative to performance.
- Finex was, at least for a while, the darling of food stylists and Instagrammers, all thanks to its unique octagonal design and massive coiled handle. Visual appeal, though, doesn't offset the downsides of this pricey skillet. I have no beef with the octagon thing, but this skillet was way too heavy, weighing in at about six pounds. All that mass makes it by far the slowest to heat up, but without enough gains in searing performance to justify it. Add to that its thick handle, which I found difficult to hold securely (I can only imagine how someone with smaller hands would fare), and I can't recommend it.
- Field is another company offering lighter, smoother cast iron skillets, and it does a nice job with this one. Its design is simple and classic, and it performs well. Once again, due to the higher price, my recommendation for most home cooks remains Lodge.
- The skillets from Butter Pat Industries are, to my eye, the handsomest of this new generation of cast iron skillets, and they've done an interesting thing by managing to successfully cast a skillet with thinner walls while allocating more of the mass to the base, where the cooking really happens. This design feature, though, didn't produce noticeable enough performance results to set it apart from the crowd, and, yet again, the high price means it's not the right pick for most folks. I also found the ridges on the underside of the handle to be uncomfortable to hold.
- The Number 10 skillet from Smithey Ironware performed as well as all the rest, but, being the second heaviest of the group at 5 3/4 pounds and among the higher-priced options, I'd be reluctant to recommend it.
- The Skillet from Stargazer arrived too late to be included in the testing, but we hope to update the review soon once we put it through the paces.
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