Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

My picks for best cast-iron skillets

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Cast-iron skillets have some big advantages:

  1. Once seasoned (see below for seasoning and cleaning instructions), a cast-iron skillet with a smooth cooking surface is pretty much non-stick—not to the degree that a Teflon-lined skillet is non-stick, but OTOH cast-iron skillets (a) do not have the insulating layer that Teflon creates, a layer that makes it impossible to do a good sear, and (b) do not emit toxic gases when they get very hot, as Teflon does.
  2. Cast-iron skillets hold an enormous amount of heat (which has a corresponding trade-off: they take a fair amount of time to get hot). Because cast-iron is not so good a heat conductor, it’s best to heat cast-iron skillets in the oven before cooking starts rather than on the burner, where they tend to initially have hot spots and the sides take a long time to heat. Induction burners work well with cast iron, and heat it quickly, but make sure the induction coil is large enough. (See induction burner note below.) If you heat the skillet in the oven, then after you remove the skillet from the oven, put a glove on the handle (like this) both to protect your hand and to remind you the handle’s hot. I recommend not using a silicone handle cover since those are hard to put on (and since I heat the skillet in the oven, I was trying to put the handle onto a hot skillet) and they also don’t insulate all that well when the handle’s not. Moreover, they’re hard to remove and you can’t use them in the oven at high heat. (For example, to cook a steak, I heat the oven with the skillet in it to 500ºF, so no handle cover in the oven for that.)
  3. In addition to conducting heat, cast-iron skillets radiate a lot of heat, very unlike stainless steel. Stainless steel has an emissivity of around 0.07, so that you can put your hand near a hot stainless steel skillet and feel very little heat being radiated. (This also means that an infrared thermometer won’t work with stainless steel skillets: it will show a low temperature even when the skillet surface is quite hot.) Cast iron, in contrast, has an emissivity of 0.64 (nine times as much), so that you can easily feel heat radiating from the cooking surface—and thus a cast-iron skillet cooks foods both by conducted heat (in direct contact with the cooking surface) and by radiated heat (the way foods cook under a broiler, by being close to radiated heat). This is why, even before learning about the difference in emissivity, I had always preferred cast-iron skillets over stainless-steel skillets for cooking certain foods—the food just cooked better in a cast-iron skillet. I didn’t know the reason, but I knew my experience. (This is also why a cast-iron pot filled with hot water cools much faster than a stainless steel pot filled with hot water: the cast-iron pot sheds a lot more heat through radiation than the stainless pot.)

See also this excellent article by Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats. It’s worth noting that cast-iron on an electric burner doesn’t work so well as cast-iron on a gas burner: the electric burner heats only the bottom of the skillet and you depend on conduction to heat the sides, whereas a gas burn has flame licking up around the sides, warming them. I have an electric range—another reason I pre-heat my cast-iron in the oven before starting to cook with it on the burner.

Update: A reader commented (on another site) that he could not believe that cast iron does not conduct heat all that well. This article on the science of cast-iron cooking is excellent, and I highly recommend reading it. Take a look at the article’s photos, which vividly demonstrate the relatively poor heat conductivity of cast iron. /update

I’m basing this post on my own experience in cooking with several brands of cast-iron skillets. (In another post I discuss cast-iron dutch ovens, in particular using them to cook Elizabeth Yarnell’s “Glorious One-Pot Meals,” a complete meal in an hour.)

In alphabetic order these are the skillets I’ll discuss:

  • Field – No. 10 (12″ equivalent) = 6 lbs
  • Finex – 12″ = 8.5 lbs
  • Griswold – No. 10 (12″ equivalent) = 5.4 lbs (vintage skillet)
  • Le Crueset (enameled) – 12″ = 6.5 lbs
  • Lodge – 12″ = 7.7 lbs
  • Stargazer – 12″ = 6.5 lbs

Not included is Smithey Ironware Co., whose skillets look good (though they tend to be heavy). I bought the No. 8. The Smithey No. 8 is $100, Field No. 8 is $125, but the Field No. 8 has a 10.25″ top diameter. The Smithey No. 8 top diameter is 8″. The Smithey No. 8 is pretty clearly an egg skillet (with curved sides to facilitate flipping), whereas the Field is a fairly good sized skillet with straight sides that flare outward at the top. The two are not really comparable.

For cooking eggs, I was accustomed to my carbon-steel Matfer Bourgeat 8 5/8″ pan, which heats much faster than the Smithey No. 8 (because the Smithey cast-iron has greater heat capacity, it takes longer to heat). The carbon steel heats more quickly and is easier to handle because it’s lighter. See this post for more info on carbon-steel skillets.

But then after I cooked with the Smithey No. 8 for a week (making breakfast eggs, scrambled with cheese), I found I grew to like it much better than the Matfer Bourgeat for this job. For one thing, the Smithey’s rounded cooking works better and I can more easily flip the eggs (although it does require more strength, since the Smithey is heavier (4.5 pounds) than the Matfer Bourgeat (2.75 lbs)).

Moreover, though the Smithey does indeed take longer to heat, once it’s hot, it seems to do a better job of cooking—partly because when the cold eggs poured into the hot skillet, the Smithey stays hotter than the Matfer Bourgeat because the Smithey has significantly greater heat capacity. I’ve also found that the eggs and cheese are less apt to stick in the Smithey, probably a combination of extremely smooth finish and the greater heat retention. I have now cook eggs only in the Smithey and am considering getting a Field Company No. 4 to try. Although I took a while to get used to the Smithey, it was a good buy.

I recently learned about Butter Pat cast iron, which seems pricey but looks to be good. I don’t include Butter Pat skillets in the review because I’ve not tried any (and probably won’t, given the prices). If you considering that brand, compare the weight with a Field Company or Stargazer skillet with the same diameter cooking surface.

UPDATE 27 Oct 2019: I just learned about a good-looking cast-iron skillet now up on Kickstarter: Prepd. I discuss it in this post. /update

I’ve also used a variety of cast-iron dutch ovens (as mentioned above), but this post discusses only cast-iron skillets. Taking them in order of my experience and desire to own, low to high:

Le Creuset: Overpriced—heavily overpriced, in my opinion. The enamel cooking surface did not wear well and the enamel chipped over the years. No longer interested. (And for dutch ovens, I prefer Staub, though there are other good makes.) On my Le Creuset cast-iron skillet the enamel wore off, and it was never impressive and chipped constantly. Fate: Absolved of it in a divorce. Note: This was long ago, and Le Creuset has made some changes (the cooking surface is no longer enamelled), but when I looked at them I was not impressed.

Finex: A beautiful example of steam-punk chic, but I found the pan impractical. First, it is extremely heavy—too heavy (8.5 lbs without the lid) for me to use comfortably. (I had the 12″ model; the small pan’s weight might not be such a problem.) The handle looks cool, but functionally it’s mediocre (and that brass finial on the handle gets very hot). Since I pre-heat cast-iron skillets in the oven, the handle will be hot anyway, and that handle is too large for the handle covers I have.

The 12″ pan has a cooking surface that’s only about 9″ in diameter: too small. The cooking surface is polished—a definite plus—but the seasoning used is flaxseed oil (see section below on seasoning). Finex is much too expensive for what it is: a heavy pan (8.5 lbs, though for some reason that’s not shown on their website) that’s awkward to use. Fate: Sold via Craigslist. Some will like it. I was one who didn’t.

Lodge: To keep the price low Lodge doesn’t finish the cooking surface. Cast-iron pieces are created using a sand mold and the Lodge’s cooking surface has the same rough and bumpy texture you’d expect from something cast on sand. In fact, there’s a large YouTube collection of people who bought a Lodge skillet doing their own finishing work: grinding and sanding the cooking surface to make it smooth (not so easy) and then re-seasoning the pan (easy). See this post for more information. This approach is not bad if you have the tools and time. (I have the latter but not the former.) The Lodge 12″ is 7.7 lbs. Fate: Gave away to a casual friend when I upgraded.

And also:

Griswold: This company stopped production the year I was graduated from high school, but so far as I can tell that’s just a coincidence. Griswold made a lot of very fine cast iron, and Griswold pieces sell briskly on eBay. I still have a Griswold No. 7 with lid that I use a lot. Griswold did indeed polish the cooking surface of their skillets, which is one reason they are so desired. But you will probably pay a premium, and I’ve heard people say that used pans that have been mistreated can have a warped bottom, so inspect them carefully. Fate: Kept one and gifted others within family. Precious stuff.

Field (tie with Stargazer): I bought a Field No. 8 a few years ago and I love it. It does not have a lid, but I find I seldom use a lid with my cast-iron skillets (though I do occasionally, and I would bet they will eventually offer lids — and see lid note below). The sides have an elegant flare, and the handle in cross section is like a flattened Gothic arch. The skillets feel skookum but relatively light (for cast iron) and certainly comfortable to use. The cooking surface is very smooth. They season the skillet with grapeseed oil, and they have good advice on their site about how to do it—and when they say “Wipe off all visible oil,” they mean it. You apply the oil, and then try to wipe it all off. You can’t, of course, but the very small amount that remains in the very thin coating is just right for seasoning. (I did try grapeseed oil, but I much prefer an unscented puck of Larbee or Crisbee.)

Stargazer (tie with Field): I bought the Stargazer 12″ and seasoned it myself, and I like it a lot. The handle is longer than the Field’s, but it still fits comfortably in my oven. The cooking surface is extremely smooth, and the large assistance handle works better than the assistance bump on the Field. The price ($120 unseasoned) is less than that of the Field No. 10 ($160). I find the Stargazer much easier to clean than the Field because the interior of the Stargazer is smoother. The difference is quite noticeable.

UPDATE: I noticed that now I seem always to use the Stargazer rather than the Field, except for eggs I use the Smithey No. 8. Eggs aside, I believe after more experience, I would rate Stargazer above Field — a surprise to me.

In my opinion, the Field skillets and/or the Stargazer skillets are the ones to get.  Fate: I now have three Field skillets—the No. 8, the No. 10, and the No. 12—and one Stargazer skillet—the 12″. I use them all, but if you get only one, I recommend getting either the Stargazer 12″ or the Field No. 10. The Field No. 8 is good for a small meal (lunch, for example, cooking just a few things) and the Field No. 12 is good for a large amount—for example, a dinner dish consisting of sautéed veggies and a pound of shrimp: the No. 12 has ample room for that so that things don’t get stacked up but can be spread out. But day-in, day-out either the Stargazer 12″ or the Field No. 10 is the workhorse size. One of those is the one to get if you’re getting only one.

Lid note: The Duxtop Cookware Glass Replacement Lid (11 Inches) fits the Field No. 10 skillet perfectly. It’s worth noting that replacement lids (for other skillets) are a viable option because the Field Company skillets (and the Stargazer) do not have pour spouts, which would require a lid specifically for the skillet. (Finex designed its skillet so only its own lid will work.)

The Field No. 12 skillet’s cooking surface diameter is 11.5″. (The size of the cooking surface is important because uncrowded food sautés better. You’ll note that the typical diner uses a cooking surface the size of a countertop—and that surface is very smooth.) The No. 12 has turned out to be great, and I’m using it much more frequently than I thought I would when I first unboxed it: the uncrowded sautéing of things is very nice, and the heat capacity and heat radiation of cast iron come into fine play.

Still, there are some drawbacks to such a large skillet—for one, the vice of its virtue: it’s big. A cast-iron skillet this size would take a long time to heat on a burner, probably would not heat evenly, and the walls would not get hot for a long time. I always heat this skillet by putting it into a cold oven and then heating the oven to 350ºF. When the oven (and skillet) are hot, I turn a large burner to medium-high. Once the burner’s hot, I turn off the oven and then use an oven mitt to remove the skillet from the oven and place it on the burner. I then slide a handle glove over the handle. I use the No. 12 several times a week so far, most recently in making Salmon Red Chard Surprise. Here’s another recipe I made up using the skillet: Asparagus and Summer Squash Delight.

Columbian cast-iron skillet. I should note that there is an inexpensive cast-iron skillet made in Colombia. I’ve not tried it, so I’m not sure how smooth the cooking surface is. I don’t see that they could do much finish work and sell the skillet at that price. The photo looks good, but I would rely on experience in using the skillet much more than a photo of the skillet. (The photos of the Finex are impressive, for example.) The skillet does have an impressive number of good ratings. However, the first video below raises an interesting point: we don’t really know what metals were smelted to make that cast-iron pan. Iron and carbon, of course, but who knows what else: some countries are less subject to government regulations than others. That seems a valid point. The pan is pre-seasoned—with flaxseed oil, unfortunately, but that’s quite easy to chip off with a scrubber (the very reason it makes rotten seasoning). If this skillet has the slightly roughened surface you find in Lodge skillets, you can do the same sort of polishing of the cooking surface one might do for a Lodge.

Seasoning

You may have to season your cast-iron skillet before using it (for example, I bought my Stargazer “raw”: unseasoned), and if you get a secondhand cast-iron skillet with heavy grease buildup, it’s best to strip the skillet clean and reason it. The easiest way to strip and clean a cast-iron skillet is to run it through a cycle in a self-cleaning oven and then wash off the ashy residue. After you clean the skillet, season it before using it.

I recommend Larbee or Crisbee, but some like grapeseed oil. Beef fat is also good. Use a cloth to wipe off all the oil you can. What remains will be a very thin layer, ideal for seasoning adherence. If you don’t wipe off every bit you can, what is left becomes sticky. Larbee and Crisbee require that the pan be somewhat hot when you apply them (to melt the puck), and the same is true for beef suet). I seasoned my Stargazer 12″ skillet using Larbee, following their instructions.

I just learned of BuzzyWaxx. It seems to be along the lines of Larbee and Crisbee but is a combination of grapeseed oil and beeswax. I’ve not used it, but it sounds intriguing.

Field Company has a detailed article on seasoning using grapeseed oil. It’s also worth reading. And Stargazer also has good seasoning instructions.

In my experience flaxseed oil produces an inferior seasoning. The seasoning you get with flaxseed oil is brittle so that it chips and flakes away as you use the pan. I recommend against using flaxseed oil for seasoning if you’re actually going to use the pan. (I finally removed all the seasoning that was on my Finex and re-seasoned it using Larbee unscented pucks.) This post strongly advocates flaxseed oil for seasoning and gives a reasoned argument favoring it. However, my experience did not match the promise. YMMV.

Cleaning

I use a coiled nylon scrubber or a Ringer and hot-water to clean my cast-iron skillets after use—no soap or detergent and no steel wool. There are also stiff brushes sold for the purpose, but I’ve found the Ringer works best: because it’s flexible, you can feel any rough spots and then scrub them away.

This article on using chain-mail scrubbers for cast-iron is informative.

After cleaning, I dry the skillet and then put it on a burner and heat it. Once it’s hot, I use Larbee and a paper towel to coat in the inside with a thin layer (trying to rub away all excess). I sometimes put it upside down in the oven and heat it to finish, but sometimes I will just let it cool on the burner before putting it away.

Recipe

Try this New England spider cake: it’s truly excellent.

Carbon-steel skillets

I should note that I also like carbon-steel skillets a lot and have a couple of those. For some things (and in some moods) I prefer one or the other, but I definitely like having both carbon-steel and cast-iron cookware.

Here you can see how Lodge makes its cast-iron cookware. Note the lack of a step in which the cooking surface is made smooth.

A Note on Portable Induction Cooktops

I have used two portable induction cooktops. My first induction burner’s heating coil turned out to be much smaller that the circle drawn on the cooking surface. The Duxtop 9100MC, recommended by Wirecutter, has a coil only 4″ in diameter, so that only the center of a large skillet is heated.

I replaced that with a Max Burton #6600 Digital Induction Cooktop 18XL, which has a 9″ induction coil and various neat features that I find I find more useful than I expected — ability to set burner temperature (225ºF is a good brisk simmer, 200ºF good for slow braising) and a timer (which turns burner off and sounds a loud beep when when time expires — timer max is 3 hours).

Cook’s Illustrated recommended the Max Burton 6450, also 1800 watts, but its induction coil is only 6.3″. Induction burners are faster and more efficient than electric coil burners (since all the energy goes directly into making the skillet hot). See note below.

My induction burner brings the Smithey No. 8 to cooking temperature much more quickly than the electric coil burner — e with an induction burner all the energy goes directly into making the skillet hot, rather than in heating a coil, some of whose heat goes to heat the skillet. The induction burner also works with my All-Clad Stainless cookware and with new All-Clad Copper Core (though not with an older All-Clad Copper Core pan).

For more information on induction burners, see this post.

Update: This video on the characteristics of various sorts of pans illustrates some of the points mentioned above. She doesn’t specifically mention emissivity, but it’s clear when she’s talking about how stainless steel has low emissivity (that holding your hand above the pan to feel the heat doesn’t work well with stainless-steel pans, nor do infrared thermometers — and both work well with cast-iron pans). Her kayak/Titanic comparison is apt.

Written by Leisureguy

7 December 2018 at 9:14 am

2 Responses

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  1. At present, you can buy used cast iron cookware from Cubical Cook Ware, which is an online store selling used cookware at discounted prices. https://cruciblecookware.com/collections/used-discounted-kitchen-products-cast-iron-cookware-skillets-wok-griddle

    Like

    Shawn Smith

    8 April 2019 at 3:56 am

  2. And there is also eBay, of course, which will probably have greater selection but with auction purchase (in general). Also, sometimes you can get lucky at a garage sale or a thrift shop/secondhand store.

    Like

    LeisureGuy

    8 April 2019 at 6:39 am


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