What You Should Consider Before Buying A Cast Iron Skillet

Cast iron: It seems you either love it or you hate it in the kitchen. Since forever, cooks have chosen the metal for its hardiness and ability to retain heat. Though cast iron cookware has been around for thousands of years (its first known use can be traced to the Chinese Han Dynasty, around 220 A.D., according to Webstaurant Store) it remains a fickle beast for so many of us.

While there are several cast iron kitchen tools at your disposal, the skillet is among the most versatile, whether it's used to prepare tortillas, bake a divine Dutch baby pancake, or sear a steak to perfection. But with other options on the shelf that are lighter and don't require as much maintenance, the pan may not be the right fit for you. From its hefty size to the specialized care required to keep it in tip top shape, these are the main factors that should be consider before buying a cast-iron skillet.

These skillets are very heavy

You're bound to get a workout when you cook with a cast-iron skillet. These bad boys are capital-H Heavy, clocking in at up to 12 pounds for the larger 15-inch skillets (via Prudent Reviews). While this works to the pan's advantage in other ways, its weight may be a con for some.

Some may not be able to comfortably handle cast iron. If you've sustained an injury, surgery, or medical condition to the wrist, elbow, or shoulder that impacts how much weight you can comfortably lift and maneuver, cast iron may not be the right pan for you, unless you regularly have some muscle at home to help.

Give the weight and handling of the skillet plenty of consideration at the store before committing to bringing it home — is it so heavy that you might struggle with transferring the pan from stove to oven or from stove to sink? Does it feel like you could easily fumble it while serving food or washing dishes? In a fight between a cast-iron skillet and your toes or your ceramic tile kitchen floor, the skillet will always win.

Cast iron takes a long time to heat up

The thermal properties of cast iron are fickle. According to Curated Cook, despite the skillet's thickness, it's heat conductivity pales in comparison to similar pans made from aluminum and copper. So if you're used to cooking with those metals, cast iron will seemingly take ages to thoroughly heat up (there's a lot of very dense material to get hot, and it's resistant to get there) which is necessary to prevent hot spots on your cooking surface.

If sourcing heat with an electric stove, consider the challenge to preheat a cast iron even harder. According to The Quick Journey, the coils of the stove take longer to heat up and transfer that heat to the pan than with a gas stove. Here's a secret: Avoid the fuss of stovetop preheating by using the oven. Morgan Bolling, Cook's Country Magazine senior editor, recommends putting the skillet in a cold oven and heating the oven to 450 F (via Eat This, Not That!). When the oven's ready, so is the skillet. 

No one uses cast iron because they are in a hurry, so if you often find yourself racing against the clock in the kitchen, keep this in mind as you shop for a new pan.

Large stove burners are best

If you come home with a 15-inch cast iron skillet and your stove's burners are barely the size of your palm, that could be a problem. Small burners will have a difficult time achieving an even heat on the cast iron. Because iron is a poor heat conductor, the heat from the burner will not spread quickly to the edges of the pan (via Century Life). The center of the skillet will get hotter and hotter as the outer edges stay just warm or even begin to lose heat.

Cooking on a cast iron skillet with hot spots isn't pretty. If you are trying to sear meat, the hot spots may create a beautiful char, while the outer edges barely even crisp up. Dough- or batter-based foods like pancakes or biscuits may overcook or burn on the inside while the edge stays soft.

You can combat this by staying close by while the skillet is heating. Move the pan approximately every five minutes, so that an edge is on the burner and direct heat. Or you can bypass the stovetop and simply pre-heat your cast-iron skillet in the oven.

Be careful cooking acidic foods

Nobody loves simmering Nana's chili recipe on the stove all afternoon more than we do, but this is not the job for your cast-iron pan. America's Test Kitchen notes that this is because acidic ingredients cooked in cast iron for an extended amount of time can loosen metal molecules, causing them to be released into your food. Last we checked, essence of iron is not the best seasoning for your favorite spaghetti sauce. America's Test Kitchen taste-tested tomato sauce after it had simmered in a well-seasoned skillet, and a metallic taste was noticeable after just 30 minutes.

Acidic foods like tomatoes, citrus, and cooking wines can actually eat away the seasoning of your pan, too, and since a good seasoning is the holy grail of cooking with cast iron, this is something you want to avoid.

This isn't law, however. Contrary to a popular cast-iron pan myth, acidic foods can be cooked in a well-seasoned skillet for a short amount of time with no dire consequence to your food or your pan. But if you're planning on preparing a long-simmering sauce or stew, consider using other cookware.

Cast iron needs to be re-seasoned

What is cast-iron seasoning, anyway? Science of Cooking explains that through the process of polymerization, a coat of carbonized oil and fat bakes onto the pan's surface. This black patina is a telltale of a skillet that's been well used and loved for a long time. Have you ever heard someone complain that using cast iron is a nightmare when it comes to cooking delicate, clingy foods like eggs or fish? It's likely that person wasn't using a well-seasoned pan; the seasoning creates a nonstick cooking surface while preventing rust.

Properly seasoning a cast-iron pan iron, unfortunately, is not a one-and-done chore. With each use of your skillet, that coating will wear down just a little. The best way to keep your skillet seasoned is simply to use it frequently and follow the appropriate care steps; the oils and fats you use will naturally maintain the coat. 

If you do not frequently use your cast iron, or if over time you notice trouble with food sticking to the pan or see its black coating wear off, you may need to season it again. This wear and tear is normal as the pan is exposed to utensils, acidic sauces and foods, and washing. Because of this routine maintenance, a cast-iron skillet may not be ideal for someone looking to keep their time in the kitchen to a minimum.

Consider purchasing vintage cast iron

Ah, vintage. Who doesn't love a classic? Most everyone swears by the older version of something being better than the new, from cars to music to clothes. In the culinary world, cast iron skillets take center stage in this argument.

There's a hot debate in the cooking community that brand-new cast iron is not as good as the heirloom variety. Pans from American foundries in the late 19th through early 20th centuries were made in sand molds then polished to smoothness and sold unseasoned. Modern manufacturers, on the other hand, no longer polish away the coarse, sandy surface and opt to preseason the skillet instead as they've shifted into mass production. Many culinary enthusiasts argue that vintage skillets are superior due to their thinner walls, smoother cooking surface, and individual craftsmanship. Some small-batch modern manufacturers like Butter Pat Industries have even adopted the olden ways today.

Obviously heirloom cast iron isn't an option for everyone; not every great-grandmother has passed down her beloved skillet. But if you're determined to add a vintage pan to your repertoire, you can do so by hunting through thrift stores, marketplaces, and yard sales. Hey, it was somebody's grandma's, right?

Glass stovetop users beware

It's no wonder that glass stovetops are popular alternatives to open electric burners: They're much more visually pleasing and easier to clean. But if you plan on cooking with a cast-iron skillet, you may be in for a rude awakening. Iron is heavy, rough, and abrasive, and glass is susceptible to scratches, chips, or cracks from exactly those sorts of things. If you are concerned about handling something bulky and heavy due to arm injury or weakness and have a glass stove, be careful of the drop risk that comes with cast iron.

It certainly seems like a bad idea to put a heavy metal pan on a sheet of fragile glass, but it can be done carefully. Cast iron should be thoroughly cleaned to eliminate potentially burning stains onto the glass stove. To prevent scratching, never push or pull the skillet along the stove surface; always pick the cast  up and place it down carefully when it needs to be moved.

Also keep in mind that compared to your standard gas stove, glass stoves are relatively slow to spread heat due to poor heat conduction (via Hunker). Considering how long it takes to get a cast-iron skillet to the proper temperature, you may been in for a long night of cooking.  

Cast-iron skillet costs vary widely

You may be surprised to learn that cast-iron skillets are often less expensive than other cookware. For example, you can currently get a 12-inch skillet from Lodge, a leading American cast iron cookware manufacturer, for around $34. Though a hardy and affordable kitchen utility that we can all appreciate, these pans are mass-produced, which means they're relatively heavy and feature a rough cooking surface.

Other brands such as Butter Pat Industries follow more traditional, hand-crafted cast iron methods. Rather than an assembly line, these pans are often made in limited quantities in a small foundry, and have the sandy layer from the mold polished off for a smoother, mirrored surface. However, that level of craftsmanship doesn't come cheap. A 12-inch skillet from Butter Pat will currently run you $325.

Now, we aren't here to give either brand a hard time, but the reality is that a nearly $300 difference is huge for most folks. Can an expensive pan truly outcook or outlive an affordable one? Some people say, well, iron is iron, and the process by which the metal is shaped into a pan makes a nominal difference (via Insider). Others argue that the production of the skillet actually makes more of a difference than people may realize (via Serious Eats).

Practically speaking, few of us will ever have a budget-friendly and a high-end cast iron skillet side by side to run a real-time cooking comparison. Just keep in mind that, depending on which side of the argument you buy into, the cost may jump by hundreds.

Cast iron needs to be cleaned differently than stainless steel

Rule number two of owning a cast iron pan (behind seasoning) is being mindful of how you're cleaning it. Many people still assume that dish soap should never, ever come into contact with cast iron. Fortunately, that belief has dwindled as people realize that modern soaps are much gentler than they used to be, but there are still a few things you need to do when cleaning a cast-iron skillet.

Cast iron pans should never be tossed in a sudsy sink and left to the infamous post-dinner procrastination soak. Lodge recommends cleaning your skillet by hand with a small amount of mild dish soap. Before washing, carefully check that your pan has cooled and use a cloth or paper towel to wipe out any large food particles. If there is stuck-on food, simmer water in the pan on the stove for a couple minutes. Finally, clean your pan with a nonabrasive scrub brush or chainmail scrubber.

Avoid drip drying cast iron as the moisture could create rust, so immediately dry by hand — and never, ever resort to the dishwasher. Butter Pat recommends drying slowly on the stove over low heat, but if you'd like to hand-dry, simply pat with a paper towel or cloth (avoid rubbing motions so you don't snag any fibers on your pan).

The handle will get hot

Cast irons are beloved for retaining heat so well, and since these pans stay so hot, they need to be handled with care. Slow to heat up means slow to cool down, so even if you think your skillet has cooled enough after cooking to pick it up, you may be in for a painful correction.

The handle of a cast iron pan gets very hot, and because many cast iron recipes call for transferring the pan from the stove to the oven, you should plan to protect your hands. Oven mitts will do but a fast-paced recipe may not allow the time to put them on. A handle cover will help in the inevitable moments when you're frazzled in the kitchen and forget that the handle's hot. Just note that the cover itself may not be oven safe (they are often made of silicone, leather, or the same material as oven mitts), so be sure to take it off after the pan is situated in the oven. 

You may find a brand where the handle isn't cast iron at all, but rather carved wood. Lodge makes a popular stitched leather handle holder with a classic and rustic look, if you want to feel like a bonafide cast-iron-using pioneer.

If taken care of, these skillets will last a lifetime

If you take care of your cast iron pan, you will likely be putting it in your will. Quality cast-iron skillet are designed with longevity in mind. There are even solutions for removing or stopping rust if the situation arises. Southern Cast Iron recommends scrubbing the rust off with steel wool after the pan has soaked in water and vinegar to further prolong the life of your pan. Make sure to only put your cast iron away when it's been fully cleaned and dried, and give it a home in a cool, dry place.

Whether you opted for the 20-buck off-the-shelf pan or the $300 artisan skillet, you've now made a lifelong partner in the kitchen. Consider taking care of it with a cast iron care kit from your pan's manufacturer, and stay diligent in taking all the steps to protect the pan for years of cooking.