Cast iron skillets are one of the most versatile and consistently well-performing pieces of cookware in American kitchens, dating back to the pioneer days and the expansion westward and even before. They are the pinnacle of flexibility, moving seamlessly from the stovetop to the oven to the broiler to the campfire, and then back again before dessert. If you don’t have a piece of cast iron cookware that’s been handed down to you yet, it’s probably just because they don’t want to give it up yet.
Most cast iron pans have their handles embedded and molded into the pan as a single piece. That’s the image most people have in their mind when they picture a cast iron skillet, the round pan with the high sides that can be used for anything from bacon and eggs to sticky cinnamon buns.
But there are some pans on the market that come with a wooden cover over the cast iron handle. Are they functional? How do they differ from the traditional molded handle? Let’s take a closer look at what each option has to offer.
The main benefits of a wooden handle on a pan
Insulates handle and allows easy grasping. One of the biggest downsides to a traditional cast iron pan with a molded handle is that the handle is going to retain heat just as well as that beautiful pan. The wooden handles allow for easier heat dissipation and less reliance on towels, rags, pot holders, and so on.
The aesthetic factor is a big draw. Cast iron cookware is so well-loved and recognizable, that some manufacturers have started using wooden handles as an accent and a visual contrast from the smooth and shiny metal surface.
Weight saving is another benefit of using a wooden handle. As modern metallurgy has improved, cast iron skillets can be made thinner and lighter without sacrificing strength, and so they do not necessarily need the heavy molded handles to support the weight of the pan. Many cast iron pans are used in the kitchen now, not over the open fire, so more sleek and delicate pans are gaining popularity.
Disadvantages of a wooden handle
Wood tends to have a shorter lifespan than metal. It wears quicker and must be replaced sooner. The draw of cast iron is its near invincibility.
Being softer than iron, it can be gouged, scratched, and otherwise damaged more easily. This can make it uncomfortable or difficult to hold firm if the handle begins to splinter.
If used in conjunction with heat that it is not rated for, the handle can darken and even burn. This can happen even with optimal caution and care.
It can crack from a combination of dehydration over cooking cycles and thermal expansion. Wood and iron expand at different rates.
Since wood will compress and deform over time, the handle may loosen. As a result, it might need replacing after a while. With newer pans replacements may be obtained from the manufacturer, while that is not as likely with older or heirloom pans.
Depending on the manufacturer’s guidelines for the use and care of the pan, the handle may not be able to be used in the oven, limiting that pan’s versatility. The ability to go from the stove to the oven is one of cat iron’s most endearing qualities, so this may be a dealbreaker for some.
Some skillets come with removable wooden handles
Manufacturers understand that one of everyone’s favorite features of the cast iron cookware family is the ability to go from the stovetop to the oven. With this in mind, it’s not rare for the wooden handle to be removable. This is an incredibly useful feature that ensures that the pan retains this functionality while also benefitting from the wooden handle.
To accomplish this, the handle can often be removed by either removing a screw and sliding off the wooden portion of the handle. On other models, the entire handle may rotate and unscrew from a lug post of some sort. Still, others only require a friction fit or leverage to attach, and the handle is able to be removed without the use of any attachment hardware.
If you already bought your skillet check to see if the handle can be removed, this will often be an advertised feature or listed in the instruction manual at least. If you haven’t yet bought your skillet, this should be an important factor in your decision-making. With a wooden handle that is non-removable, you will be limited to using the pan with regard to the limitations of the wood, not the iron. A removable wood handle will also make it much easier to season your skillet and keep the non-stick surface mirror-smooth.
Can you season a cast iron pan with a wooden handle?
If the handle is detachable, just remove it and proceed like with a regular cast iron handle. This will require that you do several coats of oil with periods of baking the pan in between to polymerize the oil. This is the process that gives cast iron its well-known non-stick qualities. If the handle is not removable, your options are a bit more limited, but you may still be able to create a solid layer of seasoning on your pan by seasoning it on the stovetop.
Stove Stop Seasoning
If you have come across a piece of cast iron that has a wooden handle, or perhaps you bought one before knowing that a removable handle would be a boon, you can still get a reasonably well-seasoned finish to the pan by seasoning it over the stovetop. This will be much easier to do on a frying pan or a saute pan since you will not be able to get much of an angle on the sides. Here’s a quick rundown of how to season your pan on the stove.
After a thorough wash to remove any oils or materials left over from manufacturing, you will want to begin gently heating your pan on the stove. Use a thin oil, like flaxseed oil, and a clean paper towel and evenly coat the pan with a thin coating. Thin enough that there are no runs or drips. Then return the pan to the stove at high heat, until the oil hits the smoke point. One of the signs of this stage is that the pan will darken a bit if the metal started as a brighter or lighter colored iron. Now let the pan fully cool. Then repeat the process from start to finish.
This process will be much more pleasant to do in your own kitchen if you have a strong overhead exhaust fan. Each time you bring the pan and the new oil coating to the smoke point, the pan is going to, you guessed it, smoke! This will happen several times during the seasoning process, so having a good fan to remove that smoke is going to make your life much easier.
One of the downsides to seasoning the pan like this is that if you use a deep skillet style pan, the sides will be hard to season correctly. While in most cases this can be overlooked as a compromise, if you plan on doing any baking in your skillet, like cornbread, rolls, or biscuits, they may stick to the sides if not well-seasoned.
Another point of note is to match your burner size to the size of the pan you are going to season. You do not want to use a burner that is too large or too small in relation to the pan. Too large of a burner is you will get a “halo” effect where the middle of the pan doesn’t season but the outside does. If the burner is too small, you will have a noticeable hot spot in the middle of the pan where the oil burns before simmering at the smoke point.
Alternate Seasoning Methods
There is an alternate method to seasoning a pan with a non-removable wooden handle. It requires wrapping the handle with a damp cotton cloth, then wrapping that securely in aluminum foil. This is purported to keep the wood from drying out and becoming kindling in the oven while the smoke point is reached.
While some have reported success with this method, it is not widely used or highly recommended, since a small misstep in wrapping the handle or baking times can cause the handle to darken and become brittle, breaking completely in some cases. If the cloth is not damp enough then you are merely turning your wooden handle into a baked potato.
One other caveat with this is to make absolutely sure you are using a natural fiber like cotton or linen when wrapping the wooden handle. Using anything with a synthetic component will result if you having a layer of baked-on plastic on your handle and the inside of your oven. Beware the blends, full cotton or linen only.
Is it safe to cook with a skillet that has a wooden handle?
When it comes to cooking with a wood-handled skillet, the safety isn’t black and white. Essentially, these skillets are safe to use on a stovetop, provided the temperatures do not reach or exceed 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Once you exceed this limit, the wood can catch fire at any time.
If you have a cast-iron skillet with a wooden handle that is removable, you should have no problem using your pan on the stove, in the oven, or over a campfire. Whether you are making dessert for a birthday or you want to bake up a tasty frittata, removable wooden handles are the way to go.
For anyone that has a skillet with a wooden handle that does not come off, then your options are significantly lower. Generally speaking, a wooden-handled skillet should only be used on the cooktop. If you plan on cooking over a fire or in the oven, your best bet would be to consider a pan with a handle that is metal like the rest of the cookware or find a skillet with a removable wooden handle.
Replacement wooden handles for cast iron skillets
It might be possible that you’ll need to replace your wooden handle at some point. Ideally, you’ll find a new handle from the company that produced the pan. Sometimes you can find aftermarket replacements with a little internet research, frequently in the form of a small business that makes them an artisan business.
With the loss of a handle on an older piece, you are not likely to find a suitable replacement unless it is handmade. In this scenario, you may be able to contact a local craftsman or carpenter and have a bespoke handle created for your skillet. With the skill and labor that would go into the creation of a replacement handle, you would want to be sure it was for a pan that you plan on keeping for some time since it would likely not be cheap.
Alternatively, you can also DIY
Depending on the way your handle was built, you may need to have a different approach. However, in all cases, you’ll need the proper tools. The complexity and expense of the tools will increase in accordance with how complex you want to make your potential replacement handle.
With a generic replacement handle and some basic hand tools, you can likely craft a relatively stable replacement. To make one out of raw materials, however, would require a more significant investment in tooling, like a lathe, drill press, and more.
The DIY route does offer lots of room for customization and personalization. You can use any type of local or exotic wood, and it can be stained or treated any way you wish. You can have it coordinate with your kitchen theme or have it stand out as a focal point. If you DIY, the only limit is your imagination and your budget.