What This Cast Iron Skillet Does Differently From Most Modern Pans

Is there a difference in cast iron pan quality? The answer is yes. We share the secret to the best cast iron skillets so you can kiss your sticking woes goodbye!

  • By Brittany Yamamoto-Taylor
  • September 27, 2022

If you’ve ever had a bad experience with a cast iron skillet, raise your hand! [Raises hand.] When it comes to cast iron, we all seem to have a horror story or two. Sticking food, rusting iron, the smell of burnt eggs that doesn’t leave the kitchen for days …

If a cooking mishap has turned you off from cast iron, I get it. The same thing happened to me. After a bad experience with a roommate’s cast iron in college, I never was drawn to buying my own. According to reviews, people seemed to be more pleased with the most expensive cast iron brands, but I was not willing to let my wallet take that plunge without knowing I would get good cooking results.

Luckily, my faith in these age-old pans has recently been restored. All it took was one good, affordable pan — that I *can* cook eggs in.

What the Best Cast Iron Pans Have in Common

The thing about cast iron pans is that when they are good, they are really good. They stand the test of time and allow home cooks to avoid chucking nonstick pan after pan into a landfill when that smooth coating erodes. But with cast iron, as long as you have a smooth surface to work with, it can actually get better with age as your season deepens.

So, if you want a cast iron skillet that doesn’t break the bank but also doesn’t make food stick unless you cook in a deep pool of oil, let me introduce you to Rock Island Cast Iron (and, no — they aren’t paying me to promote them). This one-man business brings the benefit of a smooth vintage surface to an affordable Lodge pan.

You see, it’s less about which brand is best for cast iron cookware, and it’s more about rough versus smooth. The key to vintage pans turning out much better results than most modern pans is actually all about surface texture. Back in the day, vintage pans were made with a smooth surface that would let your season build up beautifully, while conveniently helping you avoid that pesky sticking.

What Christy Olsen at Rock Island does is lightly grind the inside of Lodge pans so they more closely resemble that smooth vintage texture. Now, if you’ve heard that grinding a cast iron pan is a bad idea, it actually isn’t on most modern models. Christy only removes about a millimeter of rough material, which is nowhere near enough to damage the integrity of a thick Lodge skillet. He also takes care never to grind the cast iron too smooth, because a little bit of texture is still needed in order for layers of oil to adhere properly and create a gorgeous season.

Cast Iron Coupon Code!

If all this about a magic cast iron pan has you raising your eyebrows, that’s a good call. But in this case, it’s actually true. You can even read his reviews on Etsy and see all the home cooks who agree.

So, if you want to get the best cast iron skillet of your life, use the code CKSMRTS10 to enjoy 10% off at Rock Island Cast Iron.

Or if you already have a cast iron pan but it was never smooth, you can ship it to Christy to grind smooth! This can give new life to an old pan (or the one that’s in the back of your cupboard because it didn’t work for you, but you didn’t want to get rid of it either).

Interview With Our Favorite Cast Iron Pro

Because we at Cook Smarts are such huge fans of how Rock Island Cast Iron makes affordable and eco-friendly cookware accessible to the masses, we thought a little interview was in order with Christy Olsen, the man behind the business.

So let’s jump in. …

Christy, how did you get into the cast iron skillet business?

I’m certainly not the first one to realize that smooth cast iron pans work far better than rough ones, or that a rough skillet can be made smooth. In fact, I learned about the concept from a YouTube video. After smoothing my own pan and a handful for friends, I wondered if one could simply buy a skillet that was made smooth from the factory. Of course you can, but they are very expensive (IMHO, at least)! 

So then I thought people might be interested in buying a pan that I had smoothed. I tested the waters by listing a pan on Etsy. I didn’t know how much to charge, wasn’t sure how I would ship the pans, and had no idea what people would think. Honestly, I was pretty nervous! Within days I had my first order, and things just kept going from there. 

I’m approaching my 600th pan now, so you can imagine I’ve learned and changed things a bit. And I’m confident now it was a worthwhile endeavor!

What do you love most about cooking on cast iron?

I love cast iron because it’s an incredibly simple product, yet it has so many amazing qualities. There’s no technology or complex production techniques involved at all. Today’s cast iron pans are essentially the same as the first ones ever made over 150 years ago!

Yet this humble cookware can be used on the stove or in the oven to cook nearly any kind of dish, can be seasoned with nothing but cooking oil, thereby continually improving the surface, holds cooking temps very consistently, and will never wear out with even minimal care.

What can cast iron do that other pots and pans can’t?

Cast iron is the ideal material for searing meats. Add oil and heat it slowly until it’s smoking hot. Then place your pork chop or steak carefully in the oil and you’ll see and hear how cast iron excels at this task.

Try that with a nonstick skillet and you risk ruining the coating. In a stainless steel pan, the meat will draw too much heat out of the metal. Cast iron can do so much else, though, too; its versatility is unmatched.

Tell us about your process to smooth cast iron pans.

In summary, I use a sander to remove all the high spots in the cook surface. In practice, there is a bit more to it, but that gives you an idea of what I do.

What are the pros and cons of different sizes of cast iron pans?

Each size of pan has its place, and the best pan for you depends on your situation. You need a pan large enough for the meal you are cooking because direct contact with the cooking surface is important to proper cooking. But the larger the pan, the longer it takes to heat and the heavier it is.

The 10″ is my favorite. It strikes the best balance between heating time, food capacity, and weight. It’s the perfect size for a three-egg omelet. 

If you can afford it, get a few different sizes. But I suggest starting with the 10″.

What do you most love to cook on your cast irons?

Hmm … pork chops finished in the oven. They turn out perfectly, which is tricky with pork chops. Eggs are fun, too, because it’s so satisfying when they leave the pan completely clean.

What would you say to someone who has some trepidation about cooking with a cast iron?

Most people hesitant to try cast iron either had a bad experience in the past, or have been told it’s difficult to use and care for. 

The pan you used to use was almost certainly a rough, poorly seasoned piece. It’s time for a smooth one — it will completely erase your bad memories.

Use and care? It’s not difficult.

  • Heat it slowly.
  • Make sure the pan and oil are hot before adding food.
  • Keep it clean and oiled.

That’s really it. Anything else you’ve heard is either false or likely just someone’s uptight opinion. No, you do not need to season it after every use!

So if you’ve ever had trouble with cast iron or just want that high-end performance without the premium, purchase a pan from this man and don’t forget our CKSMRTS10 code!

Plus, you can learn truly helpful tips for cooking with cast iron skillets from some of our other articles, like Essential Cast Iron Cooking Tips, The Best Cooktops for a Cast Iron Pan, and How to Clean and Season Cast Iron Skillets.

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