Why would you buy a cast iron pan when one of those aluminum non-stick jobs are so much cheaper? For a start, a cast iron skillet will last forever, so it’s an investment and they’re in a class of their own.
Plus, they cook like a dream - well, they cook most everything better than alternative cookware. To find out how, it’s important to understand cast iron just a little better before picking out the perfect piece for you.
What is cast iron? How is it different from other cookware?
Cast iron is actually a combination of metals, usually including scrap iron and steel, along with limestone, carbon, and pig iron. Pots and pans are made by melting these ingredients together in a single mold which includes the handle. Although compositions vary, all cast iron cookware shares the same strength: the ability to withstand high heat, both direct and indirect.
Aluminum, stainless steel, and copper are also used to create cookware - and although these may include the handle as a single piece, they’re more often attached separately. The materials used for the handles on un-coated cookware often determine whether or not these items can be placed in the oven or over the campfire as well as on the stove top. Pots and pans coated with Teflon (or a similar non-stick coating) aren’t safe for oven cooking; it’s one of the reasons that oh-so-durable cast iron remains popular in kitchens across the world.
In case you’re wondering, Teflon isn’t a chemical compound, it’s a brand name for the man-made chemical polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). And, although the coating definitely makes it easier to cook and (perhaps more importantly) clean, there are some health risks associated with the compound. Okay, it’s not dangerous to cook your food on it, but if you heat it to excess (which is dependent on the pan and your stovetop), the fumes can give you flu-like symptoms and actually kill pet birds.
Now, we’re not saying you shouldn’t have a good Teflon pan around, but the high heats that cast iron can maintain make it a solid option for every kitchen.
Pros of cast iron pans
The most obvious benefit of cast iron pans is their durability; as witnessed by the number of cast iron pots and pans handed down through generations. These items are built to last forever, and they do. They’re hard-wearing and because the handle isn’t a separate piece, you have even less to worry about.
If you were to ask any serious cook (home or professional), however, they would tell you that the best feature is the ability to move your cast iron from the stove to the oven to the campfire and so on. While it’s tough to think of a recipe that requires so many elements, there are plenty (think frittatas and casseroles) that benefit from both the stove and the oven. And, you can’t do that with any other cookware. And, most pots and pans transfer to the table equally well (with a heat-resistant pad underneath, of course).
Cast iron is superior for searing meat. No really. The high heats you can reach make the Maillard Reaction that much easier. (It’s a French term for the chemical change meat undergoes when caramelized on a hot surface; it’s that amazing savory flavor that makes you crave steaks.)
It’s also safer when compared to Teflon pans (remember that you don’t want to overheat those pans). The only trace element that could be transfered from the pan to your food is iron, which your body needs (as opposed to a man-made chemical which isn’t really supposed to be in your body). Nutritionists actually recommend fortifying food in this way.
Though, you want to watch the consumption of iron in children under the age of three!
And now the cons
Caring for your cast iron pan is a little more intensive than other cookware. But, it’s not as bad as you may think - you just need to follow a few rules. (We’ll get to those… below.)
If your pan isn’t properly seasoned (yes, we’ll get to that too) or you haven’t pre-heated it properly, you’ll find your meal stuck to the bottom of the pan. It’s a bummer, but something you can work around.
Considering the temperatures cast iron can safely reach and maintain - and that it’s solid metal - these pans are crazy hot. You definitely need to be careful, especially with kids in the kitchen.
Oh, depending on the make and size of your cookware, it can be wildly heavy.
There are a few foods that don’t benefit from cast iron cooking. Largely, these are delicate pieces of fish (though larger or firmer pieces will benefit) and acidic dishes (think about anything that needs deglazing or those with tomato bases, such as marinara)
Choosing cast iron pans
You’ll quickly find a variety of sizes in the relatively limited variety of cast iron cookware types. Basically, you’ll get pots (Dutch ovens) and pans (skillets), with a sprinkling of braisers, saucepans, and roasters. And there’s a motley assortment of colors and shapes in the enameled category (think about all those pretty Le Creuset cast iron options).
The most commonly sized skillet is 12” (though you’ll certainly find bigger and smaller sizes). The 10.25” size is also easy to find and both common sizes should run between $15 and $70 for an unseasoned pan or between $40 and $200 for a seasoned, enameled pan.
Dutch ovens with a lid are often sold in 5-quart or 6-quart sizes and are typically more expensive. More than with skillets, high-quality Dutch ovens are worth the splurge; you want the tight-fitting lid and handles that are just large enough to hold (without being too large).
Enameled cast iron pans (both skillets and Dutch ovens) are typically easier to care for as the enamel adds an instant level of non-stick to the iron. Besides the extensive range of colors, you won’t need to season these pans. But, you can’t use these on campfires; you’ll need a non-enameled pan for that. Otherwise, it’s up to you whether you want to pay more for an enameled cast iron pan or you’re happy with the seasoning process. (We’re getting to that still; promise.)
New cast iron pans from companies like Lodge or Le Creuset are readily available, but if you stumble on a used cast iron piece at an auction, garage sale, Craigslist, or your grandmother’s house, there’s no reason not to consider it. These pieces are workaholics and will truly last as long as they’re cared for. Depending on the age and brand, you could pay more or significantly less than a new pan - and, while you may add your own level of seasoning, it’s often not necessary before you begin cooking with them.
So, what’s all this about seasoning?
This is the point where most would-be cast iron cooks walk away. Seasoning is the application of a hardened, non-stick, enamel-like layer through fat-polymerization; it is, as it sounds, a process - not something that just happens.
The science is a little complicated. How does a fat release enough free radicals to create a hardened surface that’s absolutely safe for cooking? Most people are simply content with the fact that it just works, but if you really want to know about the chemistry behind seasoning, blogger Sheryl Canter does an impressive job explaining the basics without getting into crazy chemical formulas.
What you really need to know is that the process of seasoning cast iron is really only as difficult as you want to make it.
First and foremost, you should know that even pre-seasoned, unenameled pans can benefit from seasoning. You may be able to get around it for now, but at some point, your pan is going to need some seasoning. So, you should get to grips with the process sooner rather than later.
Seasoning a cast iron pan
If you’ve purchased your cast iron second hand or you need to restore something that’s rusty and covered with food crud, this post clearly outlines what you’ll need to do (and the photos will give you plenty of hope… and inspiration).
But, assuming you’ve bought a new skillet, you should start with a clean, dry pan. And, we mean really clean and really dry. After hand-washing with dish soap and a towel dry, place your cast iron in an oven that’s been pre-heated to 200°F. Allow the heat to dry the pan for 10 minutes or so before removing - and remember it will be super hot.
When it’s cool enough (but not ice cold), rub flaxseed oil all over your pan - everywhere, including the tiny indents in the handle. (Why flaxseed oil? We’ll get into that in a moment.) Then, use paper towels to remove all the oil. Yes, all of it. You’ll never actually get all of it off, which is the point, but you want the oil film to be as thin as humanly possible. So, keep wiping until your cast iron makes it appear as though there is nothing left on your skillet.
Place your skillet upside down in a cool oven and set the temperature to 500°F (this slow heating is critical, so make sure your oven is cool so your cast iron can warm as the oven does). When the oven hits 500°F (or the hottest temperature yours can reach), let the pan bake for 1 hour, then turn off the oven but wait at least 2 hours to open the door.
Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? And it is. Except (sorry), this is when you learn that you need to repeat this process at least 5 more times for a previously unseasoned (or a reset to zero) skillet. At the point where your pan begins to take on a sheen rather than the matte finish it will have after the first few coats, it’s ready for cooking.
A few extra tips for seasoning your cast iron pan
Seasoning isn’t a process you’ll need to go through very often (well, depending on how addicted you are to collecting and using your cast iron pots and pans). But, you will still be tempted to speed everything up at some point. Right now, stop yourself from thinking that a thicker coat will make it faster. It won’t. Worse, it could force you to restart the process. Thicker oil coats simply lead to a messier oven, uneven cooking surfaces, and ugly, set drips.
You want a super hot oven that exceeds the applied oil’s smoke point as it accelerates the release of free radicals and creates the polymerization that you want. Yes, it will smoke some, but that’s exactly what you want. (May we suggest turning on the exhaust fan or waiting for a warmer day to season your pan?) And, we want to remind you that you don’t want to reach these temperatures and smoke levels when cooking; that’s not healthy.
If your cast iron comes out sticky rather than hardened, you probably left too much oil on the skillet or you cooked at too low of a temperature (possibly for too short a time). Sadly, you’ll probably need to reset your pan and start over.
Choose the right oil. Your grandmother’s grandmother used lard to season her pans, but there’s a good chance that you either don’t have access to it or you’re not willing to pay as much as the butcher wants for it. (Let’s not even mention how vegetarians feel about seasoning their cast iron with animal fats.) The good news is that you don’t need lard. Flaxseed oil has a remarkably low smoking point which is what you want and, while it’s not exactly cheap, it also won’t break the bank.
Flaxseed oil can be found in the health food section (perhaps as an omega-3 supplement) and it should be in the fridge. If you just can’t get your hands on it, look for an organic oil (or fat) with a low smoking point. Stay away from avocado and soybean oils as their smoke points are way too high.
Caring for your cast iron pans
Cast iron, enameled or otherwise, isn’t dishwasher-safe. It’s not that they’ll fall apart, it’s that you don’t want to damage the enamel or seasoning. (How often do you really want to go through that process?)
But, if it’s a well-made, properly seasoned pan, you’ll find it’s as easy to clean by hand with ordinary dish soap as a non-stick pan. If you need to really scrub food grub from your cast iron, use kosher salt. Just sprinkle some into your pan, add a little warm water, and use a dishcloth to work away the grime. Just know that the more often you salt scrub your skillets, the more often you’ll need to season them.
Make sure your cast iron is bone dry before packing it away. Rust is a killer with cast iron pans and you’ll need to reset your cookware through a rather elaborate (and somewhat painful) process if your pan begins to rust. You also need to check that the other pans on top of or underneath are dry (or place towels between each layer).
You can also give your cast iron a little once over with flaxseed oil before storing them - especially if re-seasoning is imminent. Just allow it to dry with the oil on before putting your cast iron skillet away.
Believe it or not, that’s about the extent of it when it comes to caring for your cast iron cookware. Apart from the seasoning, it’s pretty straightforward. Though, you should know that cast iron will absorb some flavor from the food you cook. If you don’t want your chocolate chip cookies to taste like fish (yes, chocolate chip cookies come out perfectly with cast iron cookware), you probably want to use a separate pan.
And, on that note, isn’t it time you picked out the best possible cast iron pan for you?