With cast iron, you definitely don't have to make tradeoffs between price and performance. In fact, the cast-iron pan that earns the best overall reviews from both professionals and home users is the bargain-priced Lodge 12-Inch Skillet (Est. $35). This generously sized cast iron frying pan comes from the factory already seasoned, meaning that vegetable oil has been sprayed onto the pan and baked on at a very high temperature. This eliminates the hassle of having to season the pan before first use; however, many knowledgeable cooks, both expert, and amateur, recommend additional initial seasoning for best performance, and Lodge has detailed instructions for doing so on its website.
In professional tests, Lodge cast iron easily outperforms its rivals, beautifully handling everything from scrambled eggs to cornbread. While, with proper care and ongoing seasoning, this skillet will become increasingly nonstick, it does not perform like a coated, nonstick pan, and is not a great choice for delicate foods where sticking can cause the food to break up, such as fried eggs or fish.
The Lodge 12-inch skillet is a huge hit with owners, who particularly love its ability to withstand high heat for searing and its stovetop-to-oven convenience. It's also extremely versatile and can be used on a grill or over an open fire, making it a hit with campers and tailgaters.
On the downside, at nearly 8 pounds the Lodge 12-inch skillet is heavy. It also gets and stays very, very hot -- including the handle, which is fairly small for such a big pan. Be extremely careful when removing it from a heat source; we recommend two potholders, one for the handle and one for the helper handle. Using both will give you a good, balanced grip on this hefty pan. Unless you have help, or have biceps like Popeye, you may need help to hold the skillet if you need to tip it to spoon out food. Also be careful of where you set the pan to cool, it can destroy trivets made of cloth or cork.
Lodge's cast iron has no competition when it comes to quality and affordability, but if you want the benefits of cast iron without the hassle of maintenance, you'll want to consider enameled cast iron. While Lodge also has a line of enameled cast iron, by far the leader in this category is Le Creuset, and the Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron 11-3/4-Inch Skillet (Est. $190) gets plenty of raves from both experts and owners. The first word in almost every review is "pretty," and it's easy to see why -- this is a very attractive pan; with a color for almost any dŽcor or whimsy. However, reviewers also praise the Le Creuset skillet's solid build, large cooking surface and easy cleanup. This enameled frying pan is Recommended in one professional roundup, with testers saying it's well-proportioned and easy to handle. It also performs very well in a variety of cooking tasks, although some initial sticking has been reported. Still, most owners are so thrilled with their Le Creuset pan that they have bought several in various sizes or configurations, and many say they have changed their cooking style to be able to use it more frequently.
The main downside to the Le Creuset enameled cast iron pans is the price. Le Creuset's line of enameled cast iron is quite a bit pricier than the Lodge brand of enameled cast iron. For example, the Lodge 11-inch Cast Iron Skillet (Est. $50) gets similar reviews to the Le Creuset fry pan for performance and durability. However, the Lodge frying pan gets slightly worse reviews for sticking foods, even after several uses, and we saw some complaints of the colored enamel chipping. Lodge enamel comes in red, green and blue.
All of these cast iron skillets often are "panned" by disappointed users for not being nonstick and for their weight -- all are heavy. However, they are not nonstick frying pans and they're supposed to be heavy. That heft is what contributes to the superior browning properties and versatility of this type of pan. If you need a lighter, nonstick skillet, see our discussion of the best nonstick skillets elsewhere in this report. If cast iron is a bit too cumbersome for your preferences, but you want a pan that's suitable for browning, see our discussion of the best stainless steel skillets.
If, on the other hand, you love how cast iron performs but can't handle the heft, you may want to take a look at carbon steel. Also referred to as "black steel," this is the material that traditional woks are made of. While they're not very common in the average American kitchen, they are very popular in restaurant kitchens -- in part because of their ability to handle very high temperatures. They also heat more evenly than cast iron and, like cast iron, stay very hot. Like cast iron, carbon steel must be seasoned before use, although you can purchase pre-seasoned pans. However, carbon steel has superior nonstick properties compared to cast iron because of its relatively smoother surface. Like cast iron, carbon steel's nonstick performance improves the more often you use it and season it -- always follow manufacturer's instructions for care. Cast iron and carbon steel skillets are both induction friendly, but use care when moving them around on a glass cooktop.
One last advantage of carbon steel: it's much lighter than cast iron. For example, our top choice for anyone who wants to dip their toe into the carbon steel waters, the 11-7/8 Matfer Bourgeat Black Steel Round Frying Pan weighs just 4.7 pounds compared to the 8 pounds of the 12-inch Lodge frying pan. However, in testing, the Matfer Bourgeat earns equally high scores for a wide variety of cooking tasks, as well as for its nonstick properties and ease of use. One professional organization gives it perfect scores across the board for its solid construction, ergonomic styling and performance in all areas, from searing steaks to frying eggs, which they say, "just slipped around in the pan."
Owners also rate the Matfer Bourgeat very highly, although they do warn that you have to follow the manufacturer's instructions for seasoning for the best performance. Once you do that, though, they say this carbon steel frying pan is as good as it gets and many say it has become their go-to skillet for everything. One caveat: this skillet does not come pre-seasoned, but users say that seasoning is relatively simple to do and it's worth the trouble.
If you prefer your pans pre-seasoned, Lodge also makes a line of carbon steel skillets, and the 12-inch Lodge CRS12 Carbon Steel Skillet (Est. $40) gets good feedback from users for its light weight (4.4 pounds), with similar performance to cast iron. It's not as nonstick as the Matfer Bourgeat, but owners say if you care for it properly and use it like you would cast iron, it's an excellent frying pan to keep around if you want the versatility of cast iron without the heft.