Cast iron dutch oven with coals

A cast-iron Dutch oven used for baking with hot coals piled atop.

Historical cooking introduced me to cast-iron cookware. It is almost impossible to replicate a Colonial Era kitchen without a cast-iron cauldron hanging over the fire or a Dutch oven sitting on coals with more coals piled on its cast-iron lid. I was used to cast-aluminum cookware at home; cast iron seemed almost primordial. Twenty years later, I still use aluminum, but not as frequently as my expanding collection of cast iron.

According to America’s Test Kitchen, cast-iron cookware “improves with use… maintains the heat… is virtually indestructible… can develop a nonstick coating.” It also requires more maintenance and attention than stainless steel or aluminum. However, aficionados claim the pros far outweigh the cons.

The Chinese developed the cast-iron process some 2,600 years ago, and it has barely changed since. A cast-iron pan begins as metal with a carbon content higher than 2 percent, melted at 2,500 degrees, poured into a sand mold, and allowed to cool. The pan and its handle emerge as a single unit, solid, durable, and economical.

Cast iron came to America with the earliest Europeans and was the material of choice for cookware until the early 20th century. By that century’s end, nonstick cookware had become more common than cast iron. However, reports about the health and environmental effects of chemical nonstick coatings have led more people to rediscover cast iron.

Enjoying the Benefits

Many of us re-discoverers have recognized cast iron’s many other benefits. I like the way that cast iron feels in my hand. I like the heft and the balance and the one-piece casting. I like the way it cooks, particularly how I can pan-sear a pork chop or chicken breast and then slide the whole pan into the oven to complete the cooking. My cast-iron muffin tray perfectly bakes moist corn muffins; my flatiron griddles are ideal for tossing buckwheat cakes; and my double-handle deep dish neatly finishes all kinds of pies, puddings, and quiches.

Among non-stick cookware’s attractions is its ease of use. While cast iron does need more attention, that can actually be another advantage. Cast iron can withstand and maintain very high cooking temperatures, making it a good choice for searing or frying. Excellent heat retention makes it good for long-cooking stews or braised dishes. 

Cast-iron skillets can also develop a "non-stick" surface created by applying a layer of animal fat or vegetable oil and cooking it onto the pan’s surface. This “seasoning” protects the cookware from rusting, provides a non-stick cooking surface, and reduces food interaction with the iron of the pan.

Caring for Your Cast Iron

Cleaning cast-iron cookware also requires attention. Scrubbing a used pan with gobs of soap, abrasives like steel wool, or harsh cleansers can destroy the seasoning. Letting a dirty pan soak can also damage the non-stick surface. 

To properly clean cast iron, America’s Test Kitchen found that “it’s OK to use a few drops of dish soap if you need to clean up a particularly greasy pan… Just make sure you rinse the pan clean and wipe it dry when you’re finished.”

If you feel that your cast iron needs a more thorough cleaning, wipe it out with paper towels before using a plastic mesh produce bag (the kind that holds lemons or onions) to scrub the pan clean. The mesh bag won’t damage the seasoning like steel wool. A wad of heavy-duty aluminum foil also makes a good cast-iron skillet cleaner.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of cast-iron cookware is that a well-used pan can noticeably improve through years of heavy use. According to America’s Test Kitchen, “A well-seasoned cast-iron skillet can become just as non-stick as an aluminum or stainless-steel pan and will definitely outlast them.” 

Where to Buy Cast-Iron Cookware

Finding good cast-iron cookware can be difficult. As stainless steel and aluminum pans became more popular, many cast-iron manufacturers left the business. Today, Lodge is the largest American manufacturer. But smaller, artisanal companies are joining the market. 

To build your collection of cast iron, I recommend visiting Kitchen & Company (kitchenandcompany.com) in Lewes, Delaware. Thrift shops and secondhand stores can also be good sources of quality cast iron. 

Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Maryland. Email your questions and comments to RHWay2Go@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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