Cast iron can come off as intimidating — from its price to its weight and maintenance. But there’s a reason why these products are beloved in kitchens across generations despite those perceived drawbacks. The unique process through which they’re created leaves them outstandingly durable, versatile and useful to most home cooks.
“Cast iron products last a lifetime,” says chef Michael Gulotta, co-owner of MOPHO and Maypop in New Orleans, adding they’re “naturally non-stick when properly maintained, and hold their heat evenly no matter what surface you’re cooking on.”
And while they’re commonly associated with searing steaks, they can handle much more. To get an idea of what they can do (and what they can’t), we consulted professional chefs, cooks and cookbook authors on how to best use cast iron cookware, as well as how to shop for the best cast iron for you, be it a dutch oven, skillet, griddle or otherwise.
What is cast iron cookware?
All cast iron cookware products share one significant property: They’re cast from molten steel and iron, in contrast to non-cast iron cookware that’s made of aluminum or stainless steel.
Not only does this process allow them to go straight from the stovetop and into the oven or over a fire but it also turns them virtually indestructible. Bridget Lancaster, host of “American’s Test Kitchen” explains the casting process results in one solid piece of equipment: That means less little pieces that could individually fail or break off. The casting process also allows products to maintain both high and low temperatures evenly for everything from searing to simmering. This combination of durability and versatility has Grace Young, author of “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge,” calling cast iron a “kitchen workhorse.” Cast iron cookware generally falls into two categories:
- The dutch oven, a deep pot with a tight-fitting lid that’s traditionally made of cast iron or enameled cast iron
- And everything else, including pans, skillets, bakeware, and griddles
“It’s one of the best kitchen investments, likely to be handed down through multiple generations,” says Young. “If you use it with care and keep it properly seasoned, it will repay you with decades of delicious meals.”
What to cook with cast iron?
Cast iron cookware is extremely versatile. It has a unique ability to hold onto heat longer than other materials and withstand extended abuse in the kitchen. The consistent heat enhances different flavors, also allowing for better searing and browning. Cast iron’s heat retention is also a plus when you’re trying to hold a low temperature, says Nate Collier, a trained chef and cookware brand Le Creuset’s marketing director. “After you’ve seared something and you want to hold a really slow simmer to get super tender results, you’re also going to hold it better with cast iron,” Collier explains.
The only thing these pans aren’t great for is boiling water or steaming, Gulotta jokes. Other than that, cast iron cookware is ideal for roasting, searing, deep frying, baking, and braising.
Cast iron dutch ovens
Dutch ovens, for example, can be ideal for braising or braving more liquid-based recipes. “Dutch ovens are kind of like the world’s first Instant Pot,” says Gulotta. “It holds heat exceptionally well and the lid locks in the moisture, items heat evenly and the moisture retention protects food from burning.”
Cast iron skillets
Lancaster argues the cast iron skillet isn’t just for searing — it can be perfect for more decadent treats like biscuits, cinnamon buns, quiche, cornbread, deep dish pizza with unbelievable crust, apple pie, upside-down cake and even huge chocolate chip cookies. “So now you’ve got a skillet that can act as a baking pan, a pie plate, a baking dish, a pizza stone. It’s hard to really beat the value of that,” says Lancaster. “But also it’s great for things like grains, rice and beans, it’s one-pot shopping.”
Cast iron woks
Young urges home cooks not to overlook the difference cast iron can make with stir fries, thanks to its ability to evenly distribute and hold onto high heat. “Chinese food connoisseurs insist that a Chinese-made cast-iron wok is the best tool for turning out stir fries that possess the ‘breath of the wok,’” says Young — who wrote a book about the topic, aptly named “The Breath of the Wok.”
Cast iron griddles
Mark Rosati, Shake Shack’s culinary director especially loves cooking his burgers on a cast iron griddle since it guarantees a great sear — he also uses his cast iron for fish and desserts. “It makes for a fun and rustic presentation if you serve the pie or cobbler directly from the pan to the dinner table,” says Rosati.
How to shop for cast iron cookware products
When you’re considering which cast iron to get, the cooks we talked to advised to pay particular attention to its weight, handle structure, temperature limits, lid type and seasoning requirements.
For cast iron cookware to have lifelong performance and heat retention, it needs some weight behind it — a much lighter product likely won’t offer the same quality and durability. “I would recommend going to a store and feeling the pan before you buy,” says Gulotta. “It needs to have a good weight and be made of thick, even metal.”
- “A nice-sized dutch oven — the kind that will make enough gumbo for a party — is about two gallons, Gullota notes, “and should weigh around 18 pounds.”
- “For a large skillet, you’re looking for something that weighs around 14 pounds,” he says, adding that “enameled cast iron will be a bit heavier.”
Make sure to look for skillets with a second handle on the side in addition to the long main one — especially when you’re buying a larger skillet. ”That helper handle just makes it so much easier, especially if you’re doing something like shallow frying and really want lots of stability,” says Lancaster.
Temperature limits and capacity
Depending on the knob of a covered vessel, a Le Creuset cast iron product, for example, should be able to withstand up to 500 degrees in the oven and be broiler-safe. But that’s not true for all brands so make sure to check the manufacturer’s specifications. If you’re investing in cast iron, try to find one without strict or low limitations in that regard. “I think it’s really odd to buy a cast iron pan that has a limit of 400 degrees,” says Lancaster.
Any piece that comes with a tight sealing cover is a plus but Staub’s lids offer a unique feature. “Spikes on the underside of Staub lids create a self-basting system, where the lid’s spikes, flatness, weight and tight fit create a perfect environment for steam to rise, condense, and evenly drip back onto the food for more tenderness and flavor,” says Joanna Rosenberg, the chief marketing officer for Zwilling J.A. Henckels. Lids from Lodge also feature this type of helpful little nubs or stalactites inside the lid that trap condensation and recirculate moisture.
Raw cast iron skillets are typically sold either seasoned, meaning they are ready for cooking out of the box, or unseasoned, meaning they require some prep work first. Many brands are selling raw cast iron products pre-seasoned to help their accessibility and allow you start cooking as soon as you unbox it.
Best cast iron cookware products and accessories to shop
Now that you know the basic tenets of buying cast iron in its many types and forms — and keeping in mind their features and properties — here are some great options to get started with.
This 10 ¼ skillet won in America’s Test Kitchen’s favorite enameled cast iron skillet category. Equipped with a helper handle and its sleek, black enamel interior, it makes for safe cooking and easier cleanup afterward.
Another America’s Test Kitchen Favorite, this skillet won in the traditional cast iron category. Its heat retention and even cooking helped it score well, one of the reasons Gulotta describes Lodge as the industry standard for bare cast iron.
The workhorse of dutch ovens, a Staub round cocotte delivers incredible results. In addition to its thicker gauge, the lids actively lock in moisture with small nubs on the inside, Gulotta says. This traps condensation and drips it back down onto whatever is braising for a superior meal.
With the black matte enamel, this Lodge product doesn’t need to be seasoned and isn’t as big of a financial investment for those new to enameled cast iron. But it’s still oven safe up to 500 degrees and offers up superior heat distribution.
This ultimate dutch oven is an investment piece that should survive getting passed down across generations. You can also choose to get it in more than a dozen striking colors.
This deep skillet with angled wall pulls inspiration from vintage cast iron and performs well both indoors and outdoors. Plus, it comes with a leather skillet sleeve that is both functional and adds a touch of style to the otherwise minimalist design.
With the lower walls of this griddle comes increased cooking space, whether for eggs or burgers, which Shake Shack’s Rosati prefers searing in a griddle given its low profile.
Remember, cast iron not only reaches very hot temperatures — it also maintains them thanks to its heat retention. So prevent any accidents from someone grabbing that unexpectedly burning handle long after cooking is over with a silicone grip for the handles, or even a silicone pot holder.
Aside from grips, a solid scrubber can make cleaning up a cast iron much easier, especially if it’s been left out overnight or has accumulated burnt and greasy food residue. “One of my favorite things is the scrubber that’s made out of chainmail like armor,” Lancaster says. “It will take off any food that is in any pan but it’s really made for cast iron because it really is very thorough.”
A cast iron wok is even more versatile than a skillet or dutch oven because its bowl-like shape makes it great for stir-frying, braising, deep-fat frying, pan-frying, oven roasting and even smoking foods, says Young. But since you tend to lift a wok more while cooking, she also advises to check out her favorite lighter cast iron wok from China in addition to the heavier, American-made counterparts.
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