Your first cast iron pan should be a 12 inch cast iron skillet.
I’m not the only one who thinks so - I read a lot of essential cookware lists, and they all recommend a cast iron skillet.
The 12 Inch Lodge Skillet
Which pan should I actually get? The Lodge 12 inch Cast Iron Skillet. It is cheap and available everywhere. I like this package at Amazon that comes with a silicone hot handle, but you can find this skillet in almost every store in North America.
Don’t try to save a few bucks buying an off brand; I’ve heard the steel isn't the same quality as Lodge. And, really, you’re only saving a couple of bucks - spring for the classic Lodge and you won’t regret it. (I cover some more expensive cast iron I was asked about further down in the article.)
Why the 12 inch skillet? Versatility. I use it as a fry pan and a roasting pan; cast iron works both on the stovetop and in the oven. (Or both - I start my roast chicken on the stovetop, then move it into the oven). The 12 inch skillet is big enough to roast a chicken, sauté pork chops, sear steaks, brown a pound of sausage, or make a big round of cornbread. I can even use it on my grill!
Lodge skillets come pre-seasoned, but that’s just a good base. 1 It will take a month or two of steady use to get the pan to be truly seasoned. Use it often, with a little bit of oil; keep it clean and add an extra layer of seasoning if it looks a little bare, and it will become a slick, nonstick workhorse in the kitchen. (For more details, stay tuned. My cast iron care post is coming.)
What about the 10 inch skillet
If you know that a 12 inch skillet is just too big for you, get Lodge’s 10.25 inch skillet. (For my family of five, I need the 12 inch skillet.) 2 The 12 inch skillet is heavy enough that I feel it. The 10.25 is much easier to handle one-handed, especially when full of food. But…I need that extra space. The 10.25 is just too small when I’m trying to squeeze in pork chops for dinner.
Now, I know I said you should buy the Lodge and not look back, but some readers have asked about other cast iron brands - not the cheap knockoffs, by any stretch of the imagination - so here are my thoughts.
What about Le Creuset?
If cast iron care scares you, but you still want the advantages of cast iron, an enameled Le Creuset skillet is the way to go. Le Creuset is cast iron coated with a durable layer of enamel - no seasoning necessary.
Enameled cast iron is not as nonstick as a well seasoned cast iron skillet. Enamel is also a lot less durable - no metal utensils in an enameled pan, please! That said, enameled cast iron will not rust, it doesn’t need re-seasoning, and it doesn’t react with tomatoes or other acidic ingredients. I have a Le Creuset skillet, and enjoy using it…but I reach for my 12 inch Lodge much more often. (Dutch ovens are another story. I have a couple of different sizes of Le Creuset french oven, and I use them all the time for braising - but that’s a post for another day.)
What about Finex?
The Finex cast iron skillet is a gorgeous, handcrafted pan from Portland, OR. 3 I love the eight sides - multiple pouring angles - and the gorgeous spring protected handle to dissipate heat.
The most intriguing part of the Finex is the smooth cooking surface. Modern cast iron has a pebbled surface, left over from the sand mold used to cast the pan. In the old days, the manufacturers would machine the surface smooth, but Lodge stopped doing that decades ago. 4 Finex uses computer machining to get the same smooth surface as vintage cast iron. I’ve never used a smooth cast iron surface, but it seems like a smooth surface would be more nonstick.
The Finex is a work of art. I start to drool whenever I go on their website. However…the 12 inch Finex costs $195, or $270 with the matching lid. I’m saving my pennies to get one - I must have it, I must! - but I can’t fool myself into thinking it’s a value purchase. I can buy ten more Lodge skillets for the price of the Finex. Still, I want the Finex. Badly.
What about Borough Furnace?
The Borough Furnace skillet is another handmade pan, this one from Syracuse, NY. Again, it’s a work of art that you can use in your kitchen. Again, I would love to own one. (I love the design of the 9 inch frying skillet - so original.) I’m saving up for the Finex first, though, because I have a slight preference for the straighter sides and wider cooking surface on the Finex. Once I have the Finex, my pennies will go towards Borough.
What about carbon steel?
Carbon steel is similar to cast iron in that it has to be seasoned, but it acts differently from cast iron when cooking. Cast iron heats up slowly, and holds on to that heat; carbon steel heats up quickly, and cools down quickly. I have a carbon steel wok, and I love it for stir frying, but I have only used traditional carbon steel pans a couple of times. Daniel Gritzer over at SeriousEats has a great article if you want to learn more about carbon steel; my takeaway was “carbon steel for sautéing, cast iron for searing.” And that I have another thing to add to my “must try” list.
Buy the Lodge 12 inch Cast Iron Skillet. You won't regret it.
What do you think?
Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.
Cast Iron Cooking series:
- Why Cast Iron?
- The 12 Inch Cast Iron Skillet [ThisPost]
- Seasoning Cast Iron
- Cleaning Cast Iron
- Heating Cast Iron [Coming Soon]
- Cast Iron’s Best Friend - the Flat Edged Metal Spatula [Coming Soon]
- Other Cast Iron Accessories [Coming Soon]
- Stripping Cast Iron [Coming Soon]
- Cast Iron Recipes
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Ditto, Emily! I find old, crusty or rusty Lodge pans in thrift stores...12" ones usually go for under $10, 10" or smaller, even less. I found a beautiful BS&R 2 qt. bean pot with lid for $12, a few days ago...a steal!
Anyhow, an hour or so with a 5"random orbital sander and Diablo sanding discs -- 40, 80, 120 and 150 grit -- smooth entire cooking surface, bottom (to protect smooth top cooktops) and handle (smooth away excess cast iron that can dig in your hands). It's far more efficient to strip off gunk and seasoning by running pans through a self-cleaning cycle in an oven, first!
Then, scrub in hot, soapy water with heavy duty scouring pad, then soft sponge. Rinse and wipe well with sponge in hot, then cold water. Dry thoroughly, place on cold burner and turn it to "LOW" for ten minutes. Coat with oil/fat of choice, wipe, wipe, wipe, then gradually increase temp until it begins to smoke (smoke point). Wipe with oily rag, let burn off. Repeat for 15 minutes, then leave on for additional 10 minutes. Turn off stove, let pan cool for a half hour and wipe with clesn towel. Voila.
Emily L says
I had three cast iron skillets -- two vintage and one new Lodge. Even after seasoning and use, the Lodge gave me fits because of the bumpiness which kept it from being nonstick. I started to read up on cast iron and found what you mentioned -- that the vintage pans were machine polished. I knew my newer pans would never reach the same degree of smoothness that the older ones had unless they were polished. I wanted a larger cast iron pan and found a Lodge at a garage sale that looked as though someone had used once and then given up on. I found this tutorial for sanding a cast iron pan. My dad and I worked on my new one and it made a big difference. If you have the tools to do this, it's worth doing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVmCglTZWT8
David Somerville says
The Lodge 12 inch cast iron pan is awesome. You can also use them to bake Deep Dish Chicago Style pizzas!
Mike V says
I need to try that...
+1 on the vintage cast iron. Much, much better quality. Lodge and all other modern cast iron skillets aren't polished smooth. They have an inside surface that resembles sandpaper, even after a lot of seasoning. The old ones were polished smooth before sale, which when seasoned made for an excellent surface. It's a laborious, time consuming process, too expensive to do today. Look in antique stores for a good skillet. Make sure it's perfectly flat (many were overheated and warped, which is why they aren't in someone's kitchen frying sausage now). There are great deals on vintage cast iron and the
I season all my cast iron pans with flaxseed oil. Here is a link to the instructions. http://www.smokingmeatforums.com/t/137622/the-ultimate-way-to-season-cast-iron-flaxseed-oil It works beautifully!
Mike V says
Flaxseed oil works great, doesn't it? Here's the original post that sent Cooks Illustrated down that road:
Now, that said, I have Opinions on Oil... but those are coming in my seasoning and cast iron care posts. Stay tuned!
Rediscovered an entire set of cast iron skillets inherited from my mother and LOVE them! The patina is so smooth I can fry eggs and they don't stick. The best part is that they will last a lifetime (probably more) with a little TLC. My grill is no match for my cast iron skillet when it comes to frying the perfect filet mignon.
Keep an eye out for vintage cast iron as well, especially if you can get it for a good price. I have an old Griswold 12 inch skillet that I found at a thrift store for $5. I had to strip years of crud off off it and reseason it, but it's the best piece of cast iron I own, hands down.
Mike V says
Excellent advice - I'll keep an eye out!