Cook Better: What to Look for in a Cast Iron Skillet

The right one can stay in your family kitchen for generations.

Cast iron skillet with brussels sprouts.
Cast iron skillets are versatile—they can cook meat, veggies or nearly anything else you can throw at them.Sebastian Coman Photography, Pexels

The sign of a good cast iron skillet is how it holds up with age. Newer isn’t necessarily better. It’s the years of use that then builds up the seasoning to make it so special. It’s why many chefs proudly use cast iron skillets that have been passed down in their family for generations. So if you don’t have an heirloom, here’s what to look for so you’re the one to start a beloved family tradition.

Lodge Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet with Assist Handle Holder, 12", Red Silicone
This pan can be used for a variety of cooking methods: searing, sautéing, baking, broiling, braising, frying or grilling.Lodge

The beauty of buying a pre-seasoned skillet is you’ve been given a head start—but you still must work to get the pan to a truly smooth, teflon-like base. Though it’ll happen in time the more you cook with it, you can help along the process. With a new pan, wash it with warm, soapy water and a sponge or stiff brush. Rinse and thoroughly dry before pouring a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil or melted shortening into it. Use a clean cloth or paper towel to rub around the entire skillet. Then place the skillet upside down on the oven’s center rack and bake for an hour (with foil on the rack below to catch drips). This process, known as seasoning, is what will help your cast iron pan to last for years and impart flavor to your food. Voila—you’re on your way!

Victoria Cast Iron Skillet Large Frying Pan with Helper Handle Seasoned with 100% Kosher Certified Non-GMO Flaxseed Oil, 12 Inch, Black
Features great retention and distribution of heat, keeping your food hot for 15 minutes or longer.Victoria

The best feature of a cast iron skillet is you can take it from the stovetop to the oven without missing a beat. That’s thanks to one of it’s biggest advantages—a high volumetric heat capacity. That means that once your skillet is hot, it stays hot, which is super important when making dishes such as seared meat. A tip? To ensure your cast iron skillet heats evenly, preheat it over a burner for at least 10 minutes. Or for oven use, first heat up in the hot oven for 20 to 30 minutes.

Le Creuset LS2024-2659 Signature Iron Handle Skillet, 10-1/4-Inch, Marseille
This pan requires very little oil, making it great for low-fat cooking.Le Creuset

If you’re a no-fuss kind of cook and ease of cleaning and maintenance are priority when it comes to kitchen tools, then an enamel coated skillet may be the way to go. It’ll still last you for years to come, but can be placed in the dishwasher for easy cleaning. A traditional cast iron pan not only should never see the inside of a dishwasher but also cannot even be cleaned with soap. It must be cleaned with a treatment of hot water and kosher salt, a non abrasive sponge or cloth and a coat of vegetable oil or shortening.