My first cast-iron skillets were family hand-me-downs—big, nondescript pans with smooth interiors. When I ordered a small griddle from Lodge last year, I was surprised to find the cooking surface had more texture. The first time I used the griddle, I was afraid my pancakes would stick, but they flipped cleanly. I figured that the texture was less important than the pan’s seasoning; if that was good, then the pan would be nonstick.
I didn’t realize this was a point of contention, if not confusion, among cast iron users until I read an article a couple weeks ago by a collector. The author talked at length about her opinion that smooth skillets are more nonstick than textured pans. She even referenced methods to polish textured pans to make them smooth. After a quick search online, I found many similar articles, all espousing the benefits of polished skillets. I decided I needed to dig into this smooth vs. textured issue, so I reached out to my contact at Lodge, the oldest cast-iron cookware manufacturer in the U.S. Here’s what I learned.
The Reason for Texture
Cast iron manufacturers can produce pans with smooth or textured interiors. Lodge skillets are textured on purpose. The company states the texture allows the oils to adhere to the skillet’s cooking surface during the foundry seasoning and later, when the user cooks on it and maintains it at home. While Lodge did produce polished skillets for many years, they were discontinued due to poor sales in 1998. Polished skillets were never a major part of the company’s business, representing less than 2% of sales when they were discontinued.
A Polished Trend
Why do people prefer smooth pans? It seems nostalgia is to blame. Those of us who love cast-iron cookware have our favorites, and those tend to be the pieces our grandparents and parents used the most. If your favorite pan is smooth, it may have been polished by the manufacturer or it could have lost its texture over time due to regular use, especially if metal utensils were used in it. If the pan was ever refurbished to remove rust, that process would also have smoothed out any of its original texture.
While a smooth texture may make the pan a little harder to season, the nonstick coating is reinforced with regular use and proper maintenance. That means the pan you use every day probably cooks just as well today as it did when your grandmother first started using it—if not better.
The Fried Egg Challenge
In the cast-iron community, there is something called the Fried Egg Challenge. It’s simple: if you want to know how well a cast-iron skillet is seasoned, you fry an egg on it. Ideally, the egg should flip easily and slide right off the pan. If the egg sticks anywhere in the pan, you know you need to perform some kind of maintenance, such as a light seasoning.
In the following video, a member of the Wagner and Griswold Society (a group devoted to cast-iron and aluminum cookware) conducted the Fried Egg Challenge on a very rough Griswold skillet. To his surprise, the rough surface didn’t have a negative effect. In fact, he states the textured pan works better than polished skillets. (Interestingly, he seems to believe the rough texture is a result of disuse. Although he refurbished the pan himself, he didn’t go so far as to polish out the texture.)
Planning to Polish?
If you plan to polish your own pan, beware—you could end up removing too much of the cast iron. This would make the pan too thin or uneven, which would negatively affect its cooking ability. Since cast iron is a hard but brittle substance, you could even break the pan. If you’re still bent on polishing your textured pan, contact a member of the Wagner and Griswold Society or someone knowledgeable in your area.
It’s All About the Seasoning
In the end, a well-seasoned pan has more nonstickability (my new term) than a poorly-seasoned pan, regardless of texture. If you’re using your grandmother’s smooth pan, then keep using it and take great care of it. If you buy a new pan, don’t be afraid of the texture or of using metal utensils in it.
Now get out your pan and keep on cookin’ in cast iron!
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Want to know more about cast-iron cookware and how to care for it? I provide all the details you need in my book, Modern Cast Iron: The Complete Guide to Selecting, Seasoning, Cooking, & More (August 2020). You can also sign up for my monthly newsletter for cast-iron tips, tricks, and recipes.
Thank you for a really interesting blog.
Thanks for following, Jann!
I think you could make any subject interesting! Thanks, Ashley.
That’s high praise! Thanks, Jo Anne! 🙂
I don’t think that video proves anything about the pan’s non-stick properties.
It just proves that using oil prevents food from sticking.
I have a Lodge crepes pan and it is non stick as long as I have oil on it. After about 3 crepes, it starts to stick unless I put little more oil onto it.
The food is simply floating on top of the oil when cooking.
Thanks for your comment, Mark. It’s true that oil or fat is necessary when cooking food, but the same can be said about chemical nonstick pans or ceramic-coated pans, too. (I had a ceramic one I could never fry an egg on, no matter how much butter I used, because it always stuck!) If a cast-iron pan isn’t properly seasoned, though, food will begin to stick, so the seasoning is important, as well. I think the maker of this video was showing that the texture in the pan doesn’t get in the way of the pan’s nonstick properties–which is what some people seem to believe. I have textured and smooth pans, and I like both for different reasons. But I can tell you it’s harder to keep the seasoning on the smooth ones!
Here is a video of an egg being cooked non stick on a dry, no oil added, textured lodge pan. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbJry2Q3KBA
That’s a great video, Matthew! Thanks for sharing. Proof that seasoning matters. 🙂
This isn’t the kind of ‘texture’ that my cast iron is. This skillet still had shine to it so it had to have some non-stick properties to it. Mine on the other hand looks and feels like black concrete. I’ve seasoned multiple times, and used different oils to try and get a smoother more ‘used’ performing skillet and nooo bueno! This thing sucks. Is there such a thing as just a crappy version of a cast iron skillets?
Yes there is! Is it new? If so, it may have been made with a poor mixture of iron and steel or it could have impurities. If it’s old, it may have been really rusted and then reseasoned but not well. You’re welcome to submit a pic if you’d like, and I’ll try to be more helpful: email@example.com. You may also just want to get a new pan. You can pick up a good one for about $25 in most retail stores now.
The actual reason for the texture is the modern simplifying and shortening the production process. Smooth cast iron pans take a much longer time to produce and at a greater cost. While yes, the oil does produce most of the nonstick function, a smoother surface requires less of it, and is much less likely to trap small food particles during the cooking. Having used a textured surface skillet, I find a much larger amount of food left than with my traditional smooth surface cast iron. The nostalgia argument is the one created by Lodge and other modern cast iron producers to push away from the fact that they skip the traditional finishing steps of cast iron cookware.
Thanks for your comment, Kevin! I haven’t had the same experience as you with textured vs. smooth pans, but there are many variables in cooking with cast iron, including the specific pan, the heat used, and even the food itself. The good news is that there are plenty of options out there, including modern pans from up-and-coming companies that do polish the surface. I hope to feature some of them in upcoming posts. Thanks again!
Here is a video of an egg being cooked non stick on a dry, no oil added, textured lodge pan. Seasoning matters, texture is irrelevant. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbJry2Q3KBA
Your science is incorrect. textured surface allows for variation of pressure and reduces adhesion. If you have two wet flat objects they will stick. Try that with glass. Also, try sticking a sticker onto a textured wall. it won’t stick for long because air fills the textured depressions. Oil and liquid to varying depths do that with a textured surface allowing it to ‘unstick’. textured knives work great for preventing veggies from sticking to the knife. Same science.
You might consider the source of the information you reference. Lodge has quite an interest in convincing you that unfinished cast iron is as good as the old milled and finished stuff. (Hey look over here! Pay no mind that skipping the milling and polishing step saves us a ton of money!) My own experiments have proven to me very conclusively that smooth is better. Heck, I made one of my least favorite pans into my go-to workhorse by spending some time polishing. This result concurs with the experiences of many many others too. I think Lodge is pulling one over on you.
Thanks for your comment Brent, and for sharing your experience. Interestingly, Cook’s Country’s Test Kitchen continues to list Lodge pans as the best cast iron, and that’s after comparing them to other brands in a one-to-one cookoff. However, like you, I also have some milled pans–probably due to the way they were restored more than the way they were originally manufactured–and I really enjoy them. The nice thing about cast iron these days is that we have tons of options and can pick what works best for us. I plan to experiment with more brands and styles in the near future and to revisit this topic when I have even more personal experience. So we’ll see… 🙂 Please check back here for more on cast iron as I continue to research everything related to this kitchen workhorse.
I have both smooth and pebbly cast iron pans, and when it comes to being non-stick, the smooth ones always beat the pebbly ones’ hands down. Some people say that extra seasoning should be used as a leveling agent, but in so doing they create a thicker layer of seasoning that will flake off, which (if you believe the hype) is what pebbly surfaces are supposed to prevent. The trick is not to season the old-smoother pans to a complete blackness. Instead, you should season smooth pans to an amber brown. I have done this during my 40+ years of cooking and have never had seasoning flake off my smoother pans. However, the seasoning on my pebbly pans flakes off whenever it gets too thick. That being said, I do love my Lodge pans for their heftiness and excellent heat retention. Even so, I would not even think about using a Lodge pan without first sanding down the cooking surface.
textured surface actually reduces surface adhesion. Try sticking a sticker onto a textured wall. texture allows oil to pool up into little pools and reduces the flat surface adhesion. I have both flat and textured surface. Textured works better for eggs, pancakes and steaks or anything with a larger flat surface. There’s a lot of physics supporting superiority of textured surfaces.