5 Things I’ve Learned About Cast Iron During My 30+ Years as a Professional Gear Tester

published Feb 9, 2022
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four pieces of chicken over curried cabbage and chickpeas
Credit: Photo: Jason Rampe; Food Styling: Amelia Rampe

When I first started cooking, there wasn’t a single cast iron pan to be found in my kitchen. It just wasn’t something I thought I needed. But that was more than 30 years ago, and I was proven very wrong. As a professional equipment tester, I was tasked with testing cast iron skillets early on in my career. Once I tried them out, I was on board. Since then, I’ve used cast iron on a regular (if not daily) basis in my own kitchen at home. Here’s what I’ve learned about cast iron skillets over the years.

1. Cast iron is really not that hard to take care of. 

If you wash and dry your skillet after every use, as you do with just about every pan, it’s really no big deal. Yes, you may have to scrub a little with a pad (I like a Dobie!), but not as much as you sometimes have to scour a stainless steel pan. And even with a nonstick frypan, you sometimes need to put in a little scrubbing action to get it clean.

You can’t be lazy and let cast iron air dry — but how hard is it to towel off a skillet or heat it over a burner? While you hear a lot about oiling or seasoning a skillet after every use, truthfully, I never bother. Because using it regularly is pretty much enough to keep up the seasoning. Which brings me to this next point.

2. You should use your cast iron for deep-frying, at least once.

To break in a new skillet, I’ve found that it really helps to make a batch of good old-fashioned fried chicken that’s bobbed in a deep layer of oil. I’ve found it gives the oil a chance to really penetrate the pores and create a seasoned finish. Even if you don’t end up frying food on a regular basis, do it once and you’ll be so glad you did.

3. When it’s well-seasoned, cast iron really is nonstick. 

I was a skeptic about this one. But now, I scramble up eggs and can just wipe the pan clean afterwards. It’s seriously that simple. (Of course, I’m not afraid to use soap and water for bigger cleanup jobs if need be). Although I do grease the pan when I bake in my skillet, a cornbread literally falls right out of the pan. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman / Food Stylist: Anna Stockwell

4. There’s nothing like cast iron when it comes to getting a good crust.

You may have heard that cast iron is best for browning a steak or burgers, but it’s also great for giving any food a crunchy crust. When I cook salmon, I cook it skin-side down so that it comes out delectably crispy on the bottom — sometimes it even separates from the flesh and we roll it and eat it on its own. If you’re one of those people who likes the crispy corners on a mac and cheese casserole or brownies, try baking them up in a cast iron skillet.  

5. It’s not worth paying a bundle for an expensive new-fangled cast iron pan. 

I’ve tried them all. And while I have nothing bad to say about the new generation of artisanal skillets, I can’t say they’re worth 10 times as much as Lodge. They may be bronze colored and prettier when you buy them, but they’re going to turn black as you use them. And although they feel very feel very smooth to the touch, in my testing, they didn’t release a cornbread or delicate scallops any better than the least expensive, roughest-feeling cast iron skillets. Some of these new-generation pans are lighter in weight, but if you’re looking for one that’s still easy to lift, I recommend the Lodge Chef Collection 12-Inch Chef-Style Skillet.  

Do you use cast iron skillets? What have you learned about them over time? Tell us in the comments below!