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 fry 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.
In professional tests, Lodge cast iron easily outperforms unseasoned pans, 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.
Cast iron needs a bit more care than other materials, including regular seasoning. It should also be hand washed with hot water and little or no soap, then dried promptly. Rubbing a small amount of oil into the cooking surface will help maintain its seasoning between uses.
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 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. $155) gets 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 décor or whimsy. However, reviewers also praise the Le Creuset skillet's solid build, large cooking surface and easy cleanup. It's 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 for performance and durability from reviewers. However, the Lodge fry 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 skillets are "panned" by disappointed users for not being nonstick and for their weight -- all are heavy. However, they are not nonstick fry 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 hefty for your preferences, but you want a pan that's suitable for browning, see our discussion of the best stainless steel skillets.
Elsewhere in this Report:
Best Reviewed Skillets: Every kitchen needs a great 12-inch skillet -- maybe even more than one. We recommend the best cast iron, enameled cast iron, stainless steel, nonstick, and ceramic skillets.
Best Stainless Steel Skillets: Stainless steel is the material of choice for both professional chefs and passionate amateurs. While it can be pricey, there are great choices for any budget.
Best Nonstick Skillets: Nothing performs as well as a nonstick skillet for cooking eggs, delicate foods like fish, and stir frying. Ceramic performs better than ever, and we recommend some top ceramic skillets as well.
Buying Guide: You need the right skillet for the right cooking task. Our buying guide will help you make the best choice for your culinary needs.
Our Sources: These are the expert and user tests, comparisons and reviews we used to determine the best skillets. They are ranked in order of their credibility and usefulness.