If you've ever wondered about lighter cast-iron frying pan options, they do exist and they make cooking with the famously weighty material much easier. There probably isn't a cookware surface with a more fervent fanbase than cast iron and I totally get it. Cast iron does something that most other cooking materials can't -- specifically, imparts a firestorm of surface heat to food. This high heat will give an excellent sear to a steak or a crust to cornbread, both of which can be difficult to achieve with stainless steel, nonstick and many of the rest.
But cast iron has flaws. It's heavy: a 10-inch model is generally at least 5 pounds, and while many of us may be looking for integrated exercise shortcuts, when you're hungry and short on time, flinging heavy cast iron around the kitchen is no fun. (Seriously, most people need two hands to lift a medium cast-iron skillet without hurting a wrist.)
This weight also creates challenges for cleaning cast-iron and storing it too. And if that wasn't bad enough, cast-iron pans are mostly forged from one solid piece of metal so their handles get screaming hot. This generally means mandatory oven mitts or a separate handle cover to maneuver cast-iron cookware.
A natural question is whether or not there are lighter cast-iron pans or pans made from cooking materials that function like cast iron but weigh less. The answer is yes. Lighter pans that cook similarly do exist and are worthy of consideration if you're looking to give your arms a break.
I tried two cast-iron alternatives recently: Afrom Japanese crafter Vermicular and -- also billed as a lighter alternative to cast iron but with similar properties
I cooked a bunch of meals with both and then ran two official tests with the lighter pans alongside my cast-iron skillet to see how they compared.
First, I cooked a classic burger on medium-high heat using Alton Brown's cast-iron burger recipe to see the sear each would deliver. To test nonstick properties, I fried a single egg using low heat to see how completely the egg would lift from the surface. While neither one cooks exactly like cast iron, I was rather impressed with both. These days I find myself reaching for these lighter "versions of cast iron" far more often than hot and heavy stuff.
What's so great about cast iron anyway?
The biggest draw for cast-iron cooking is the ability to impart incredible surface heat without the food completely sticking to the pan (as it would with stainless steel). If that happens, most of the beautiful and tasty crust gets left on the pan and not on the burger, steak or chicken skin. Cast iron is also known to develop a seasoned surface with use over time, a flavor that will find its way into the foods you cook in them. And it's affordable -- you can snag a qualityor so -- and very durable; no amount of heat or blunt force is going to do much damage to a well-made cast-iron pan.
Vermicular light cast-iron frying pan
Thisis relatively new to the market but Vermicular has put forth an impressive piece of cookware. Weighing just 2.4 pounds, the fry pan's cooking surface is 1.5 millimeters thick and sports a thin enamel coating that keeps food from sticking. Because of this, you'll need to be gentler with this pan than with traditional cast iron. That means no digging at it with metal utensils or scrubbing with heavy soap to get it clean. The good news? It's still cast iron and so when used properly, you'll get remarkably similar results.
Besides its lighter weight, the Vermicular cast-iron frying pan features a soft and lovely wooden stay-cool handle which makes it a joy to pilot. But it also means this piece of cookware can never be put in the oven. Skillet cornbread aficionados, take note.
Size: 10.2 inches
Weight: 2.4 pounds
How it cooks: The Vermicular does a lot of what a thicker cast-iron pan will do and it heats up much faster due to its thinner base. I've gotten great sears on my cast-iron regulars -- scallops, chicken, potatoes -- and the burger I cooked here was no different (see image below). In the second test, the egg lifted mostly from the pan but there was more stuff stuck here than inside the Made In pan. That's about the same as with my cast-iron skillet.
Needs to be seasoned: No.
Care: Similar to cast-iron, you won't want to scrub this pan with any tough scrubbers or steel wool. Warm water and, when necessary, a little bit of soap will go a long way. I haven't any trouble getting this pan clean, even after a ferocious sear. The pan will change color over time (mine already has) but that shouldn't (and hasn't) affected the pan's cooking ability.
Cost: The vermicular frying pan is $160 and another $40 if you add the lid. There's a deeper version too that's a few centimeters smaller in diameter for $155.
The verdict: I really like this pan. While you must be gentler with it than standard cast iron and it can't go in the oven, it sears food nearly as well, has good release and at 2.4 pounds, is a delight to handle. I love how fast it heats and it's become my new go-to pan for scallops, seafood and boneless chicken breast. It also just looks really slick, especially if you spring for the lid.
Made In Blue carbon steel skillet
This is another cooking material that is often in the cast-iron conversation. It's often dubbed a hybrid of cast-iron and stainless steel and in my experience, that's an accurate description. While the Vermicular pan is treated with an enameled coating,is heat-treated through a process called blue ironing.
The draw with blue carbon is that it's considerably lighter (although not as light as the Vermicular pan) but still imparts ferocious surface heat for searing steak, skin-on chicken and high-heat veggies. Also, like cast-iron, if cared for properly (e.g. no scrubbing or heavy doses of soap), it'll build up a slick patina, giving it a nonstick-like release.
This skillet also has a steel handle that's bolted on so it doesn't heat up with the base. You can grab the handle barehanded no matter how hot the cooking surface gets.
Size: 10 inches
Weight: 3.4 pounds
How it cooks: Of the three pans I tested for this article, the Made In Blue carbon steel got the hottest the fastest. I didn't notice any cold spots and it gave a very pronounced sear to my burger. I used a little bit of cooking oil for my fried egg and a much lower cooking temperature. When finished, the egg came free from the pan almost as completely as it would with Teflon or other nonstick surfaces. This was good. Very good.
Needs to be seasoned: Yes. It's suggested that you season this pan. Seasoning it a couple of times a year will help build the nonstick patina and a flavor base that transfers to food. For $20 extra, Made In will send you one that's already been seasoned once to get you started.
Care: Much like cast iron, you'll want to avoid the use of harsh soaps and chemicals that could affect the seasoning. Simply wipe the surface with a paper towel, rag or the sponge Made In provides with some hot water -- but never let it soak. I haven't had many instances where that method doesn't do the trick but, if needed, a tiny drop of soap and some light sponge work won't completely ruin the pan.
Cost: This Blue Carbon skillet will run you $65 for the 8-inch, $69 for the 10-inch and a big jump up to $89 for the 12-inch pan.
The verdict: Oddly enough, this blue carbon steel number is closer to traditional cast iron than the actual cast-iron Vermicular. This skillet is one to get if you seek true cast-iron style cooking without all the weight. The Vermicular pan is a full pound lighter, but Made In's blue carbon steel pan is noticeably thicker and there's no enamel coating to worry about damaging.
While both pans would be dynamic additions to any cookware collection, blue carbon steel is the best substitute for heavy cast iron.
Other light cast-iron frying pan options:
makes a . It's a bit thicker than the Vermicular and weighs twice as much -- 4.1 lbs. It also costs $250 which is more than I'd ever care to drop on a single pan.
Lodge is probably the best-known cast iron producer in America and they also have a lighter cast-iron collection called Blacklock. The ($60) weighs 3.8 pounds, which is more than both of the pans we tested, but still significantly less than the brand's traditional cast-iron cookware.