Everything You Need to Know About Cast Iron Skillets — All in One Place

updated Jun 28, 2021
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

It’s no secret how much we love a cast iron skillet here at Kitchn. You can get a good one (read: the best one!) for a very little amount of money, pass it on for generations, use it as a nonstick pan — the list goes on! A cast iron skillet can be the hardest-working piece of cookware you own … as long as you know how to care for it. Of course, that’s where things go off the rails a little. There are a lot of misconceptions, myths, and strong opinions surrounding cast iron skillets. And so, as great as they are, they can be equally as intimidating.

That’s why we’ve decided to round up everything a home cook could possibly need to know about cast iron skillets. Consider this a comprehensive guide for both beginners and long-time cast iron fanatics.

Credit: Erika Tracy

How are cast iron skillets made? What are cast iron skillets used for?

A cast iron skillet is made by pouring an alloy of molten iron into a sand mold and then allowing it to cool before breaking away the sand. For the most part, a cast iron skillet is incredibly durable and should last many lifetimes. In fact, there are many stories of skillets being passed down from generation to generation and even bequeathed in wills.

Read more: How Lodge Cast Iron Skillets Are Made in Tennessee

Cast iron is heavy and can be used over high heat on the stovetop (on gas, electric, glass, and induction burners!), in the oven, or even on the grill or over a campfire. It excels at holding in heat, which makes it the go-to pan for searing a burger or simmering a mess of beans, but not so great for, say, pancakes. We strongly believe that every home cook should have at least one cast iron skillet in their arsenal for searing a steak. There’s simply no other way to get a ribeye with a crusty exterior and a rosy interior like the one you get from cooking it in cast iron. Don’t eat meat? We still love cast iron for things like biscuits, eggs, and even sweet treats.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What should you look for when buying a cast iron skillet?

How does it feel in your hand? Make sure that the skillet you’re considering isn’t so heavy that you have trouble lifting it. Can you get a good grip on the handle with a pot holder or mitt? Cast iron skillet handles get too hot to grab onto without protection. 

Is there a helper handle? A small grip on the opposite side of the handle makes it easier to lift the pan. Remember a cast iron skillet is heavy to begin with and it’s going to be even heavier when it’s loaded with hash browns.  

One last thing to consider: shape. Most cast irons skillets have high, straight sides. That makes them very versatile, as you can use them for frying chicken or simmering chili, but means they’re less convenient for stirring veggies or turning out an omelet. Before you buy, think about what you plan to cook in your skillet. If you plan on using it for beef with broccoli or frittatas, look for one with sloped sides. 

What’s the best cast iron skillet?

No contest: a Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet. Lodge is a family-owned company that’s been manufacturing cast iron cookware in Tennessee for more than 100 years. Their skillets come in sizes ranging from just 3.5 to 15 inches for only $5 to $60. When you picture an iconic cast iron skillet, Lodge is probably what comes to mind. Lodge Classic skillets come preseasoned (more on that below), have straight sides, and short handles as well as helper handles on the other side. 

Read more: Finally Ready to Get a Cast Iron Skillet? Here’s the Best One to Buy.

Which size is best, though? Start with the 10.25-incher. It’s the right size for a couple of strip steaks, four burgers, a frittata, or simmered beans. The 12-inch skillet is our pick for someone who’s looking to get a second pan.

In recent years, a new crop of cast iron skillets, made by small companies, has popped up. These new skillets are often lighter in weight and more highly polished, which makes them easier to handle and is supposed to make them more stick-resistant from the start (but testing doesn’t necessarily confirm that). Most are premium priced. While you can get a 10-inch Lodge skillet for around $20 or so, 10-inchers from this new generation range in price from $115 to $195.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Here’s how to season a cast iron skillet.

It used to be that you had to season a cast iron skillet before you could even think about using it, but these days, most come pre-seasoned so they’re ready to be cooked in as soon as you get them out of the box. (Just be sure to clean them first, though!)

Related: What Is Factory-Seasoned Cast Iron?

Wondering what seasoning is? It’s oil that’s baked onto the cast iron pan, forming a stick-resistant surface that helps prevent rusting. Over time, the seasoning will build up until your skillet develops a slick patina. (Just keep in mind that a cast iron skillet will never be as slippery or as easy to clean as a nonstick fry pan.)

More on Seasoning Cast Iron

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Can you use soap to clean a cast iron skillet?

There’s a lot of debate over whether or not its okay to use soap when cleaning cast iron skillets. We firmly believe that it’s totally fine if you want or need to use soap. That precious patina that you’ve built up has bonded with the pan, if you will, so it would take a lot more than soap to remove it. Of course, you don’t have to use soap.

Read more: Can You Really Not Wash Your Cast Iron with Soap?

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What’s the best way to clean a cast iron skillet?

Many cast iron purists cooks just wipe their pan clean after a cooking session. Those of us who’d prefer a cleaner cast iron skillet use kosher salt, water, and a scrub brush. For really stubborn stuck-on bits, try boiling some water in the pan and using a wooden spoon to dislodge them. After cleaning, dry your skillet thoroughly. You may even want to heat it over low heat for a minute to make sure there’s no moisture lingering on the surface. Rub a very thin layer of oil into the cast iron, using a paper towel to remove any excess. It’s best to skip the soaking, and never (ever!) run it through the dishwasher! 

More on Cleaning Cast Iron Skillets

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What’s the best cast iron scrub brush to use?

Great question! There are two winners that Kitchn editors come back to again and again: The Lodge Scrub Brush, which has nylon bristles, and the Tenacious C Cast Iron Brush and Scraper, which has slightly stiffer bristles. You can’t go wrong with either of these.

Buy: The Best Tools for Cleaning Cast Iron Cookware

Credit: Erika Tracy

Can a rusty cast iron skillet be saved?

Absolutely. In fact, it’s really hard to ruin a cast iron skillet forever. (We’ve even seen these things survive enormous house fires.) If you have a rusted-out pan, you’ll need to use steel wool to get rid of the rust and then reseason the pan. It will take some work, but it can be done!

Read more: How To Restore a Rusty Cast Iron Skillet

Credit: Joe Lingeman

The best way to store your cast iron skillet

If you’re nesting two cast iron skillets together (or storing anything inside another cast iron skillet), put a paper towel between the pieces. This will prevent scratches or damage to the inside of your cookware — and can absorb any moisture that might lead to rusting.

Read moreStore Your Cast Iron with This One Thing to Make It Last Longer

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What should you make in your cast iron skillet?

So many things! You may have heard that it’s best to avoid cooking acidic foods in your cast iron skillet (tomatoes, for example), but the truth is that, as long as your pan is well-seasoned, a tomato-y recipe will be just fine. Here are some of our favorite recipes to make in a cast iron skillet.

Some of Kitchn’s Best Recipes for Your Cast Iron Skillet

Do you have any other cast iron skillet questions? Leave them in the comments below and we’ll try to answer them!