Cast iron pans can do it all and last a lifetime—but finding a good one isn't always easy. Here’s how to choose the best one for you.

By Christopher Michel
April 26, 2019
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A solid, dependable cast iron pan is one of those things every serious home cook needs. It's versatile (going from stove top to oven without a hitch), sturdy, and with some care, will last forever. And that last part is the real trick: You don't want to buy one casually, since it's something you could conceivably be giving to your grandkids someday.

In fact, when it comes to cast-iron skillets, newer is actually not necessarily better. That's because the thing that makes cast iron so great—the seasoning—only really starts to get good after a few years of regular use. And you can immediately tell the difference. A newish cast iron pan feels rough to the touch. A well-seasoned one is so slick that eggs will slide around on it just like in a nonstick pan.

Though most new cast iron comes pre-seasoned, there are typically only one or two layers of seasoning on there. It would take too long, and be too expensive, for manufacturers to add more. And that's something that will happen naturally with regular use and proper care.

But what is seasoning? It starts as cooking oil, but it's not that, exactly. As the Field cast-iron manufacturer explains on their site, "When subjected to high heat, long chains of fat molecules break down into short-chain polymers that bond with naturally produced carbon and bare iron, forming a kind of glaze. This is seasoning, and it has smooth, non-stick properties similar to Teflon."

If a new pan takes some time, however, buying a good used cast-iron pan can be a gamble. You can find older pans at antique stores and on Ebay, but they may end up being slightly warped, or have hairline cracks that, over time, end up completely breaking. Or they can need so much work that it negates the point of getting an older pan in the first place. Still, that gamble can sometimes pay off.

Here are four great kinds of pans to get, plus the advantages and drawbacks of each:

A Lodge Pan

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Chances are if you've seen a new cast-iron pan for sale anywhere, it was a Lodge. The company has been making cast-iron kitchen tools of all kinds in South Pittsburg Tennessee since 1896, and they're the last of the "old" American manufacturers still going. One of the biggest advantages are that they are very inexpensive—a standard 10.25” pan runs less than $15 on Amazon.

A drawback, however, is that they tend to be heavy. They're made much thicker than other skillets (which is part of what makes them so inexpensive). However, they recently released a lighter, "chef collection" line, which is a little easier to handle and, at $27 for a 10" skillet, not much more expensive.

The other drawback is that these are among the roughest and least seasoned pans, meaning that it takes a lot of cooking on it before you get a truly smooth, teflon-like base—though it will happen in time.

Buy Now: Lodge 10.25-inch pan, $14.90, Amazon.com

A Used Pan

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If you're willing to hunt around a little and possibly take a gamble, it can be fun to check out antique stores or on Ebay for a good vintage pan. One very popular brand is Griswold, which was founded in 1865 and went out of business in 1957, but whose skillets are still highly valued for their quality.

The advantage of Griswold was that they made skillets much thinner, so they're easy to wield, and they take less time to get fully hot. The drawbacks are, of course, that there are no guarantees or warranties when buying something used. And they tend to be a little more expensive—a quick search shows that basic 10-inch Griswold skillets are going for around $75 or more after shipping, though plenty of people are asking $200 and even $300 or more for the better ones.  

Search Now: Griswold 10-inch cast iron skillet, Ebay.com

A Marquette Castings Pan

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Marquette is a Michigan-based company that has been making cast-iron and steel pans since 2016. Many of their pans are cast in China, though recently they began selling a pan called the 10.5, which is made in Michigan. This pan is much lighter and thinner than Lodge pans, though not quite as light as a Griswold. And while it will still take some time to get fully seasoned, it's also much smoother on the inside, meaning you can start frying eggs in it much more quickly. The drawback is that the work it takes to make the pan means it's much more expensive—a new one runs $195 on Amazon—though it also comes with a lifetime warranty.

Buy Now: Marquette Castings 10.5, $195, Amazon.com

A Field Pan

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Field is another one of the newest and most interesting cast-iron companies. Their pans are made in the USA, and are incredibly light and smooth. What's more, they're relatively well seasoned—and their advice on caring for and seasoning the cookware is impeccable. As with other new American manufacturers, they aren't cheap: A 10" skillet is $125, and is only available on their site or in a couple dozen specialty stores around the country. And their warranty is a little vague—while you're explicitly able to return anything within 45 days, after that, they offer "lifetime guidance" on care and maintenance by phone or email.  

Buy Now: Field #8 10-inch skillet, $125, Fieldcompany.com

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