Always among the gold standards for kitchen equipment, cast-iron cookware is enjoying a surge in popularity. Cast-iron skillets, pans and Dutch ovens are must-have kitchen items for any serious home cook, rare vintage skillets are going for as much as $2,000 on eBay, and the internet is on fire with questions about how to properly use and care for them. Questions like:
Is it better than non-stick? (In some cases, yes.) Should I throw it away if there’s rust on it? (Absolutely not. A vinegar soak, vigorous scrub and 1-hr bake at 500F—first coating the pan in a high-heat cooking oil—will re-season it.)
But not all cast iron is the same, and the surge of availability means it’s time to address another popular question.
Vitreous enamel (which refers to glass particles that are fused to an underlying layer with intense heat) creates a non-porous finish that protects the core material of your pot or pan. It's a great heat conductor, washes easily, won’t rust, can cook anything a standard cast iron pan can and more (ahem, tomato sauce). And its uniform heat conduction is the key to perfectly cooked dishes.
Bonus: It comes in a variety of stylish colours (cult favourite Le Creuset has many, many options).
Regular black cast iron, meanwhile, is porous. This doesn't mean it's entirely coat-free. Instead of enamel, it's seasoned with a non-stick film made of polymerized fats—a coating that gets better and slicker with prolonged use and proper care.
As noted above, it won’t rust, can be washed with as much soap as desired, and won’t retain strong aromas (like garlic or onion) in the seasoning like regular cast iron is known to do.
One caveat to note: it’s not non-stick, like a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet can be.
Another: Enameled cast iron has temperature limitations. It’s not recommended for use over open fire (while standard cast-iron is a campfire classic). Heating one while empty can crack or damage the enamel, and temperature recommendations for oven use are mixed from brand to brand.
Le Creuset Dutch ovens have a recommended 480F maximum in the oven, though removing the knob can eliminate this restriction. But unless you’re regularly making sourdough at 500F like me, this may not affect your day-to-day cooking.
Seasoned cast iron is extraordinarily durable (seasoning is actually fat polymerization, where oils and fats transform at high heat, bonding to the pan as a non-stick film). It doesn’t have the same issues with fire or oven temperature (although prolonged high heat can damage seasoning).
It’s not invincible, however. Rust is common with poor care, and all cast iron is susceptible to breakage when exposed to dramatic temperature changes—so no running cold water over a hot pan or pot.
Enameled cast iron is more expensive than non-enameled, but affordable options are widely available. High-quality enamel Dutch ovens are a great investment piece, but prices often start at a few hundred dollars. Here's a reliable pick that clocks in at a reasonable price.
Seasoned cast iron is significantly cheaper. A good quality, 5-qt cast-iron Dutch oven can be found for under $100. Skillets can be purchased for as little $20. Keep in mind that non-enameled cookware needs seasoning, and you may still find your eggs stuck.
Enameled cast iron pans come in a variety of gorgeous colours and styles to suit any kitchen. If you love colour, they’re beautiful and practical pieces to own.
Non-enameled cast iron is pretty much, well, cast iron. It’s a classic, affordable style that’s similar in design from brand to brand. But there are artisanal cast-iron skillets and lighter-weight, hand-cast versions on the market to invest in (expect quality and gorgeous design, but not bargain prices).
One of each. (Kidding!) A plain, 10-inch cast-iron skillet is classic tool for use in every kitchen. It can do all kinds of jobs, and once seasoned, is pretty easy to work with. Enameled Dutch ovens and fry pans are ideal for many things, including braises, stews and sauces, but not necessary to outfit a beginner kitchen.
Consider whether you'll be cooking lots of sauces and thus require a skillet with a pour spout, or whether you're planning on making corn bread (if so, opt for non-enameled cast iron.). If you love to cook, saving up for a high quality Dutch oven—like I am—that will last forever is a highly endorsable plan.
This article was originally published in 2018; updated in 2023.
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