The cast-iron skillet is the powerhouse of all kitchen equipment. Its non-stick surface is free of synthetic chemicals and will eventually require less oil than aluminum or stainless-steel pans. Cast-iron skillets have low thermal conductivity (meaning they don’t heat evenly), but offer superior heat retention so they’re ideal for high-temperature cooking. It’s also the only cookware you can buy that will improve with use.
Cast-iron skillets can be expensive, and the amount of opinions on how to care for them is sometimes exhausting. Don’t be intimidated by the noise. We had cookbook author David Joachim test a bunch of skillets to help you select the best one for your kitchen, so you can start searing steak and caramelizing veggies like a pro.
Best Cast-Iron Skillets
How We Tested
David Joachim, author of The Food Substitution Bible and The Science of Good Food, designed our protocol to test the conductivity, heat distribution, smoothness, stickiness, and ergonomics of several cast-iron skillets.
We judged factory seasoning by frying an egg with no oil at medium heat. Using paper circles in the pans, we observed burn patterns to evaluate heat distribution. Then, we seared four-ounce boneless strip steaks to monitor speed, evenness, and depth of browning. Finally, we poured one cup of water from each pan to consider the ergonomics of the handle, the helpfulness of the pouring spouts, and the weight of the skillets.
We noted all of these points in different recipes after initial testing to get a fuller picture of how each cast iron skillet performed. For the cast-iron skillets we didn’t include in our rigorous test, we tried them in day-to-day life to see how they fared.
A newer company that takes inspiration from vintage pans, Smithey Ironware polishes the interior of its skillets to create a gorgeous, glassy surface. At eight pounds, the No. 12 cast-iron skillet is the heaviest we tested, but its weight just may have contributed to its excellence in our searing and heat-distribution tests.
Smithey’s cast iron quickly delivered an even, dark sear with no hotspots and very little sticking. A drawback is the small helper handle—the short handle opposite the main skillet handle—as it doesn’t have a loop to assist with the weight.
This Colombia-made skillet is often on sale for $30 or less, yet it outperformed some that cost more than six times its price. It may require some extra seasoning to improve its non-stick surface, since our egg stuck quite a bit with no oil.
Overall, though, it supplied even heat distribution and a great, uniform sear. The long handle is curved for better grasping, though the pan felt slightly front-heavy during our pouring test.
This Japanese-made skillet is thin, lightweight, and particularly responsive. It requires no seasoning because of the enameled inside, and it’s dishwasher-safe (you read that right). Even after searing steak and throwing it in the dishwasher, its enamel coating had our eggs coming off the pan with minimal effort.
It doesn’t have a helper-handle, but the light and well-balanced design makes it easy to maneuver and heat distribution and retention is exceptional. The aluminum handle is oven-safe which is a step-up from the brand’s first iteration that had a wooden handle and could only be used on a stove top.
Lancaster Cast Iron’s Pennsylvania-made No. 10 skillet features a very smooth machined cooking surface that helped release the fried egg with minimal coaxing. The No. 10 heated up quicker than heavier skillets and though the handle is relatively short, we noted the hand position made it easy to handle and pour.
The downside is the handle got hot fairly quickly, and we needed an oven mitt to handle it when searing. (Lancaster Cast Iron offers a leather handle cover for just this reason.)
Compared to the offerings of Smithey and other more expensive brands, Stargazer’s skillet has a good weight, heat conductivity, and heat distribution for its price. Though it doesn’t have any spouts, its pouring was precise thanks to the unique rolled rim.
With a long handle and large helper handle that you can use while wearing an oven mitt, it’s as comfortable as it is functional. The top of the handle dug a bit into our hands, but it’s also designed to stay cooler longer, so it’s worth it if you’re accustomed to pan handles that don’t conduct heat. You can get this skillet unseasoned or pre-seasoned, as well as in a 10.5-inch version.
Camp Chef’s Heritage Dutch Skillet has an unconventional shape with steeper sides than we typically see. This gave us a larger cooking area without increasing the overall diameter of the skillet.
We found the machined cooking surface to be very smooth though it was a bit stickier than we expected, but some extra seasoning will help that. The long, silicone-covered handle was very comfortable and we had no issues with it getting hot—likewise with the small helper handle. Despite having no pour spouts, the Heritage Dutch Skillet poured well for us with minimal dripping.
The cast-iron brand you can find just about anywhere, Lodge has been around for 120 years for a reason. The Classic 12-inch skillet doesn’t necessarily excel at any particular task, but it’s a popular and affordable choice that’ll last decades.
Despite its heft it’s fairly well balanced and even though it heats up slowly, it yielded a nice and even sear on our steak. Be sure to use some extra cooking oil until the seasoning builds up more to prevent sticking.
The high-end French Le Creuset label lives up to its reputation as the maker of the finest enameled cast-iron cookware. The matte black enameled interior is smooth with little sticking and the glossy enamel exterior is resistant to stains.
It’s durable and available in plenty of color options to match any kitchen decor. The skillet heated up relatively quick and browned meat consistently. Along with solid performance, it has steady handling and a wide loop helper handle that’s easy to use with an oven mitt.
Romanticizing the past often risks snubbing modern innovation, but thinking that things were better back in the good ol’ days may be true of the cast-iron skillet. Most cast iron found in your grandmother’s kitchen or antique stores was likely hand-polished to create that coveted smooth surface.
Polishing is time-consuming and expensive so most of today’s manufacturers leave the gritty texture from sand molds. Companies then have to compensate by pre-seasoning their pans to reduce stickiness.
You could search for vintage pans like Griswold and Wagner at antique shops or on eBay, though there’s risk you’ll run into cracks or rust. New cast iron can still provide that excellent nonstick surface that’ll only get better with use as you increase its seasoning over time. With the right skillet and skills, you can build up the seasoning on your new pan to rival those you’d find at the flea market.
Danny Perez is a Commerce Editor for Popular Mechanics with a focus on men’s style, gear, and home goods. Recently, he was coordinator of partnership content at another product journalism outlet. Prior to that, he was a buyer for an independent men’s shop in Houston, Texas, where he learned all about what makes great products great. He enjoys thrifting for 90s Broadway tees and vintage pajama sets. His spare time is occupied by watching movies and running to impress strangers on Strava.
Brad Ford has spent most of his life using tools to fix, build, or make things. Growing up he worked on a farm, where he learned to weld, repair, and paint equipment. From the farm he went to work at a classic car dealer, repairing and servicing Rolls Royces, Bentleys, and Jaguars. Today, when he’s not testing tools or writing for Popular Mechanics, he’s busy keeping up with the projects at his old farmhouse in eastern Pennsylvania.
Paige Szmodis is an editor for Runner’s World, Bicycling, and Popular Mechanics, who researches and writes home, tech, and outdoor product reviews and news.