Average Customer Review:
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. $20). This generously sized cast iron frying pan comes from the factory already seasoned, which 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 beautifully handles everything from scrambled eggs to cornbread. At Wirecutter, Lesley Stockton finds the Lodge 12-inch skillet to be surprisingly nonstick in her first test -- making cornbread -- which released almost completely intact. It was also a superior performer in the fried egg and steak searing tests as well. With proper care and ongoing seasoning, this skillet will become increasingly nonstick. Cooks at another professional test kitchen find that this 12-inch cast iron frying pan browned foods evenly, concluding that it's, "An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you'll never have to replace."
For the first time in this category, Lodge has some competition. Thanks to the resurgent popularity of cast iron, more expert sites are testing cast iron skillets, and a couple of different brands do well in those tests.
To start, Lodge's closest challenger in both performance and value is the Victoria 12-inch Cast Iron Skillet (Est. $25). Interestingly, it's the top pick at Epicurious because it was the most nonstick straight out of the box, but it's a runner up (if the Lodge is sold out) at Wirecutter partly because it was NOT as nonstick straight out of the box. So, in our opinion, that's a wash, don't buy it for its initial non-stickiness, buy it because nonstick skillets are handy to have around, and then plan to season it just as you would the Lodge.
Beyond the stickiness factor, however, there are a few differences between the Victoria and the Lodge, mainly in the handle. The Lodge has a fairly small handle for such a big pan, although Stockton at Wirecutter likes that, saying, "The design of the small stick handle allows you to naturally grasp it at the position where you have the most control, choked up at the base."
The Victoria's handle, on the other hand, is longer, thinner, and curves upward a bit. Emily Johnson at Epicurious likes it, saying, "I found that this made for easier maneuverability." Testers at Gear Patrol also like it (although they tested the 10-inch version). Wirecutter disagrees, saying it seemed as if it "throws off the weight distribution." And, although the Victoria is lighter at 7 pounds to Lodge's 8 pounds, Stockton says the thin handle makes it seem heavier than it is.
Still, the Victoria beats out the Lodge in some areas, it has a cooking surface that's about 1/4 inches larger than the Lodge skillet, and its deeper pour spouts make it easier to pour out gravies or sauces. Otherwise, in testing, both pans performed almost identically.
Neither one of these cast iron skillets are very pricey, but if you want to pay even less, perhaps because you won't be using it as often or just want cast iron for camping, we recommend checking out the Camp Chef 12-inch Cast Iron Skillet (Est. $16). It's a runner up pick at Wirecutter, Epicurious and Cook's Illustrated. It has a rougher surface than either the Lodge or the Victoria, so it's stickier than either out of the box, but it seasons up just as well as any other cast iron skillet. In fact, it seasoned up better than the Lodge in Epicurious' tests, with Johnson noting that, "after just one round of seasoning, the surface became very nonstick."
Wirecutter had similar experiences with seasoning the Camp Chef frying pan, saying it took a couple of tries, but they were able to flip fried eggs. They do note its small cooking surface -- 9 inches -- and small, difficult to grasp helper handle.
Owners love all three of these pans. The Lodge gets higher ratings in many more reviews -- thousands of them -- but the Victoria and Camp Chef skillets aren't far behind, ratings-wise. Users praise the ability of cast iron 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.
Lodge pans are made in the U.S. Victoria cast iron is made in Columbia, South America. Camp Chef is made in China.
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. $200) 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, so if Le Creuset is out of your budget, we suggest trying the Lodge Enameled Cast Iron 11-inch Skillet (Est. $50). It gets similar reviews to the Le Creuset fry pan for performance and durability. However, the Lodge enameled 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 and blue.
All of these cast iron skillets often are "panned" by disappointed users for not being nonstick and for their weight -- as we've noted 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.