I’m graduating from college and need to buy some skillets/pans. I really like cast-iron and I think you’ve mentioned Lodge as a good brand. But what size do I need? If I were to get one or two pans what is the most useful size?
As far as sizes are concerned, that all depends on what you cook and how many people you’re cooking for—the more people you’re cooking for, the larger of a pan you’ll need. My biggest piece of cast iron is a 15-inch skillet. It spends most of its time hanging out in the basement, too big to be of use, but when my wife and I went to a cabin with three other couples this weekend, it was extremely handy when it came time to make hash browns, pancakes, and fried eggs (three waves of food through the pan). I doubt you’ll need anything that big, though. My guess is that you’d do just fine with an eight-inch and a ten-inch.
Lodge is a good brand, and widely available, but truth be told, you don’t really need to worry too much about brand names when it comes to cast iron. Three of my pans (the first three I bought) are Martha Stewart brand from K-Mart. They’re a bit thicker than my other skillets and heat up a bit more slowly, but they work just fine and will be a permanent part of my collection.
A good source for getting quality cast iron is Cajun Cast Iron, which is currently offering a three-piece starter set (6, 8, and 10-inch skillets) for only $9. That’s a great deal—probably less than I paid at K-Mart (though i didn’t have to pay shipping on that purchase)—especially considering that they’ve got the 10-inch by itself marked at $9. Although, when you follow the link for the 3-piece set, the price mysteriously goes up from $9 to $14.
If I were you, I’d act on it quickly before they discover the bug: call them on the phone and tell them that the front page says $9, so they really ought to be selling it to you for that price according to truth in advertising laws. Even if they adjust the price before you get there, though, the three piece starter set will get you the most commonly needed sizes at a fraction of the price of buying each separately, and the pans will still be useful when your grandchildren are dead.
Some of my favorite pans are of indeterminite brand: purchased from antique stores and flea markets and so old that the brand is obscured (or perhaps not even marked). If you’re buying used, the main thing you want to look for is rust. Superficial rust is okay, and scrapes of quickly with steel wool or a stiff wire brush, but if the rust goes deep, you’d be better off not buying it.
A couple of other favories are my Wagner Square Egg Skillet, which is (to my knowledge) only available used. It’s essential to make the perfect fried egg sandwich (the square egg fits the bread), and my dutch oven, which makes great stews, pulled pork barbecue, and popcorn. My next cast iron purchase will be a griddle that fits over two burners. Before I can get that, though, I have to convince Aurora that getting a fifteenth piece of cast iron isn’t ridiculous overkill (which shouldn’t be tough because she knows it’ll come in handy [don't you, honey?]).
You’re making a good choice getting cast iron. You’re guaranteed to get good, sturdy pans that will serve you well as long as you take care of them correctly.