Is there a difference between cheap and expensive cast iron
Cast iron has become trendy topic for amateur chefs recently. It seems that everyone I know suddenly has a cast iron skillet, wok, or dutch oven sitting proudly displayed on their stovetop at all times.
Growing up, my mom and grandmother had cast iron skillets that had been our family for who knows how long, which they used to make things like buttermilk biscuits, cornbread, and fried okra. This heritage cookware -- which has been around for centuries -- has made a comeback.
Cast iron's main benefit is counterintuitive: It's actually a poor conductor of heat. But what this means is that it retains heat well, even at high temperatures, so it heats evenly for searing, braising, campfire cooking, and even baking.
Our director of photography, Amos, owns "nearly 30 cast iron pieces." So he seemed like the perfect person to ask, what's the difference between cheap and expensive cast iron, and what's the deal with common brands like Lodge versus luxury brands like Le Creuset?
Here's what he found: He started with the cheapest possible three-piece set he could find on Amazon -- something like this set from Utopia Kitchen, which includes a 6-, 8-, and 10-inch pan for under $25. The biggest difference between this bargain option and a higher-end, higher-price model is the finish: While the cheaper stuff tends to have a rough, sandpapery surface, the top-quality brands like Finex (whose 12-inch cast iron skillet goes for just under $200) produce glossy, smooth-polished products.
Cheaper brands have a rougher finish because they skip a step in the traditional manufacturing of cast iron cookware: the time-consuming grinding process that produces the ideal polish. While it's possible to eventually achieve a similarly smooth finish through continued use and diligent seasoning, some people prefer not to have to do that work themselves, which is why high-end brands like Finex have a dedicated following.
Legacy vs. luxury
Lodge, a brand that has been a leader in cast-iron products for decades, might not be as recognizable as La Creuset, but it's perfect for those who are "just getting into cast iron." The Lodge 10.25-inch Cast Iron Skillet, which was tested by Amos, is almost always on sale at Amazon for under $15. While this is a mass-produced line of cookware, it is U.S.-made and takes to seasoning well, meaning a dedicated owner could eventually own a glossy Lodge that might (emphasis on might) rival a Finex.
As for Le Creuset, it turns out that this colorful status cookware is not actually cast iron. It's enamel. While enamel still makes a solid skillet -- and Le Creuset in particular makes a great stovetop accent -- it's important to know that it won't behave the same as cast iron. It's suitable for cooking acidic foods, like tomato-based sauces, which will pit cast iron and create undesirable reactions. But you definitely can't throw a Le Creuset dutch oven on a campfire like you would a Lodge cast iron model.
What's the deal with seasoning the pan?
You'll notice that most cast iron comes "pre-seasoned." All cast iron requires an ongoing seasoning process that tends to be a bit more involved at the beginning, but buying pre-seasoned cookware makes things easier.
Says Amos, "Seasoning is a rite of passage for cast-iron owners, and it's the reason why cast iron gets better with age." The idea is that fats bond with the metal to fill the micropores and create the desired smooth finish, meaning that, eventually (or immediately, if you invest in the top-of-the-line cast iron) you'll be able to cook with less oil.
To season, add a high-smoke point oil -- most people recommend avocado oil (if you don't mind the strong taste) or special cast iron oil -- and heat the skillet on the stovetop to distribute the oil over the surface. Next, put it in the oven at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour. Then continue to re-oil and repeat the process, leaving yourself with a seasoned cast iron.
Can you wash a cast iron skillet?
However, it's critical to dry your cast iron completely -- really, totally dry. Take a kitchen towel and get it as dry as possible, then, for good measure, set it over a lit stove eye for a minute or two just to make sure. Leave it with a light layer of any type of oil for storage between uses.
Shopping list for beginners
7-Piece Seasoned Cast Iron Cookware Set: Best cast iron set for beginners who are just starting their collections. Includes the basics: a skillet, pan, griddle, mitt, potholder, and two scrapers.
Caron & Doucet Cast Iron Seasoning & Cleaning Oil: Best oil for seasoning your cast iron as well as for coating it between uses.
Finex 5 Qt. Cast Iron Dutch Oven with Lid: Best cast iron for people who only want the best. This is an heirloom-quality dutch oven with a smooth-as-glass surface. The brand also makes a skillet and a grill pan, among other things.
Camp Chef National Parks Cast Iron Set: Best cast iron for campers. This skillet and dutch oven are durable enough to be put directly on campfire coals.
The New Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook: 150 Fresh Ideas for America's Favorite Pan: Best cookbook for people looking to get into cast iron. It includes traditional as well as new recipes to prepare in a cast iron pan.
Sarah Pitts is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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