Cast iron pots and pans, demystified
From buying and seasoning to cooking and cleaning, here’s your crash course in cast-iron cookery.
The 1950s brought the denizens of the American kitchen no shortage of newfangled miracles: “high pop-up” toasters! Automatic electric can openers! The world’s “first and only refrigerator that makes ice cubes without trays and puts ‘em in a basket automatically!” Add to the list pots and pans coated with the wonder chemical called polytetrafluoroetheylene (PTFE) also known as Teflon. Now the aproned and heeled housewife could effortlessly flip eggs and swizzle Swedish meatballs with nary a sticky mess thanks to this “amazing new concept in cooking!”
But like many creations of the modern age that turned out to be too good to be true, non-stick cookware comes with a dark side. Namely, harmful chemicals including perfluorocarbons (PFCs) which have been linked to liver damage, cancer, developmental problems and, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, early menopause. As EWG reports, fumes from Teflon released from cookware heated at high temperatures may kill pet birds and cause people to develop flu-like symptoms. In addition, manufacturing PFCs and the products that use them poses risks to the nature and wildlife. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says PFCs present “persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity properties to an extraordinary degree.”
So what to do? Go trendy, be old-school, cook with cast iron! If it was good enough for Laura Ingalls Wilder, it should be good enough for us. And not just good enough; it’s actually great. By skipping non-stick and opting for cast iron, you avoid toxic bird-killing fumes, help wildlife and the environment, and trade in the toxic mess for inexpensive, durable (eternal, practically), easy to use kitchen ware that cooks beautifully, and will even add a little iron to your diet. What’s not to love?
But they do require a little bit of know-how, so with that in mind, here’s the skinny.
What to buyUnlike so many modern products that are built not to last, with cast iron cookware, the older the better. It’s all about the seasoning with cast iron – the process whereby a layer of oil is baked onto the surface, creating a natural non-stick surface. The more you cook with a pan, the better it gets – and an old skillet passed down can be a treasure. Look for cast iron at flea markets and thrift shops; and if it is rusty and sad-looking it can generally be fixed at home (see below). Vintage cast iron that was made in a solid mold demands pretty high prices, but you can definitely find deals. New cast iron is great as well, you’ll just need to season it. The company, Lodge, makes great products that are easily available; and in fact, most brands are going to serve you well, as long as the cookware is thick enough and feels solid.
Also consider a cast iron wok or enameled cast iron like Le Creuset. Enameled cast iron doesn't require seasoning and has a slick surface for cooking, but it can chip.
How to season and/or restoreNew cookware will need to be seasoned before it will exhibit its slick non-stick properties, and old cast iron that is rusty can be restored. The process is easy, don’t be intimidated! See how in this handy-dandy one-minute video below. (Go here for written instructions.)
How to use, what to cookCast iron loves heat, as does raw food; a match made in heaven. Hot cast iron does magic for things that like to be seared, sautéed, baked, or braised – from blackened meat to vegetables to cornbread – you name it. It gets hot enough and retains the heat making it great for searing and creating crispy crusts, as the heat doesn’t drop so quickly when you add food. This is one of cast iron’s beauties. It’s great for stir-fries and deep frying. A well seasoned cast iron skillet can handle fried eggs wonderfully (though scrambled ones can get gummy). It’s not great for delicate fish, but meaty cuts do fine.
Cast iron charms cornbread, cobblers and clafoutis (pictured above) into perfect versions of themselves. (For more on cobblers, clafoutis and their cast-iron loving cousins, see: Crisps, betties, buckles and slumps: The who's who of fruit desserts.) Skillet-baked fruit pies, upside-down cakes, brownies and even cookies all take nicely to cast iron.
A few things to keep in mind. Match pan size to your burner, don’t put in the microwave (but you knew that, right?), and be careful with acidic ingredients like tomato sauce, wine-based sauces, citrus, etcetera. Acids can react with the iron and create off-tastes, and mar the finish of the surface. Cast iron can also hold onto flavors, so if you want to regularly cook meat/fish and sweet desserts, consider having two pans on hand.
How to cleanThis part seems to scare a lot of people, but it’s pretty straightforward. Hand wash, skip metal scouring pads and don’t let you cast iron soak in water.
Once you’re done using the pan, rinse it with hot water and scrub it with a (non-metal) brush or for more aggressive scrubbing you can use kosher salt and a sponge. You can use soap, you don’t have to. Rinse, dry, and place it on the burner to help remaining moisture evaporates. Add a few drops of oil and rub it in, and voila, it’s ready for the cupboard. Another instructional video by Lodge shows you the magic:
For more on cast iron, read about Katherine's favorite pan that her dad found in the woods. Seriously, this stuff is nearly indestructible.