It’s a simple metal alloy with a long history. While it has been replaced by steel and other metals in most places, there are a few places at home where it’s impossible to replace.
The pans you know
If you received a gift of pots and pans when you moved out to your first bachelor pad, it was probably a set from a big box store or Amazon. The pans were probably thin stainless steel, maybe with a thicker plate on the bottom to help with heat distribution. Or you got a nice anodized aluminum set.
In either case, the pans are not the type that sell for $100 or more per piece. They probably have problems you got used to, like hot spots, problems with sticking, and general annoyances. In some cases, they might have been such a pain that you gave up all together and ate sandwiches and cheap frozen pizza. And who could blame you? There’s nothing worse than trying cooking a nice meal, maybe for a date, and having something burn or never brown like it was supposed to.
As you got a little (or a lot) older, your tastes changed. You got nice take-out, fancy frozen pizza, or even went out to eat once in a while. But now you’re a father. It’s hard to go out. You want your kids to have better eating habits than you do. And maybe you want to model certain behaviors for your kids. So you decide it’s time to start cooking again. Then you look at your collection of pots and pans and remember the frustration. You go online to find a better set, but are stopped cold by the idea of spending $700 or more on a nice 10-piece set.
Faced with all this, what do you do?
Enter cast iron
Here at The Modern Father, we think the answer to this question is nearly always cast iron. It’s cheap, it’s durable, and it’s versatile. But unlike our children, cast iron isn’t perfect. There are a few things to remember before you go and throw out all your other pans.
Cast iron is heavy
It’s hard to avoid this one. Cast iron cookware, especially modern cast iron, is thick. This is a function of its manufacturing process, though if you find old cast iron, you’ll find it’s thinner and lighter. 19th and early 20th century cast iron was made with a more manual casting process and finished by hand, which is why functional pieces are often more expensive than new pieces.
Compared to other metals, aluminum is around a third of the density of cast iron. Steel is a similar density, but a steel pan can be made much thinner, resulting in lighter cookware.
Cast iron is slow
Cast iron has the ability to store a lot of heat. This can have a dark side (literally). All the heat remains in the pan long after a burner is turned down or off, meaning you don’t have a lot of heat control. So if you have a meal that requires changes in heat, say starting at high and finishing on low, you’ll need to adjust your recipe. Someone who’s worked with cast iron cookware a lot will learn this and make such adjustments automatically, but it can be frustrating.
Also keep in mind that because it’s slow to cool down, it’s slow to heat up. Don’t expect a pan put over a high burner to be hot and ready to go in a couple of minutes. You’ll need to use a cooler burner, and let the pan warm up for 5-10 minutes before attempting to sear something.
Cast iron is reactive
When you read a recipe, you’ll sometimes see a note or instruction that says, “In a non-reactive pan . . .”. What this means is the recipe writer has determined that using a reactive pan can create a less-than-perfect meal. This may not actually be true, but they are covering their bases and telling home cooks to reach for a specific pan. There is a reason for this note, though.
Any kind food that uses tomatoes or other high-acidity foods like citrus can have… unexpected results when cooked in cast iron. Later on we’ll discuss seasoning and cast iron, but it terms of a non-reactive pan, a new cast iron pan or one that was recently refinished won’t have a heavy seasoning, so it can react with the acid in the foods. This can cause a metallic taste in the food and create weird, unappetizing colors.
Now let’s talk about why we love them so much.
Kitchen workhorse – the cast iron skillet
The best place to start is with a 10 inch skillet.
You can go smaller or larger, but the weight goes up quickly. A 10 inch skillet from Lodge is around 5 pounds while the 12 inch is nearly 8.5 pounds. A 10 inch skillet is a pretty useful size and it can easily handle a meal for two adults and a toddler or two. If you’re feeding a couple of teenagers, the 12 inch is probably necessary.
The beauty of a cast iron skillet is that it can work on both the stove top as well as in the oven, and it can move from one to the other for the same recipe. You can also take it outside and throw it on the grill, or bring it out camping and place it on the embers. In all cases, just always remember that it will heat up slowly, and that it will remain very hot for a long time, even after removed from a heat source. If you pull it off the burner with perfectly cooked chicken thighs, don’t just set it down to get the plates ready or something. The heat will keep cooking the food until it’s dry or worse.
There are a number of things you can cook in a single pan. Our favorites include roasted chicken, corned beef hash, or no-knead focaccia bread. In all cases, the cast iron skillet serves as the only cooking vessel. We’ve also cooked more delicate items like fish and eggs, though the latter requires a nice seasoning before it’s non-stick enough to prevent broken yolks.
The wondrous Dutch oven
If you want to move beyond the skillet or have other recipes in mind, we’d like to introduce you to the Dutch oven.
The Dutch oven looks similar to a larger sauce pan, often in the 4-6 quart range. It has a lid that fits snugly, which allows you to cover it in the oven to limit moisture loss during long cooking. This plus the tall sides also means that in the oven there is very even heat from all angles. This shields the food from the up and down nature of all ovens.
On the stove top, the Dutch oven can do two things. It can be used to make a stew, soup, or a braised dish, but there is another form of cooking where it excels: deep frying. Because of its size and resistance to temperature change, a cast iron Dutch oven is ideal for deep frying at home. Precautions need to be taken, of course.
- Only use enough oil to come up just less than halfway up the sides
- Use a thermometer to make sure the oil is where it should be for your recipe
- Start the burner at no higher than medium and only make small adjustments
- Keep a fire extinguisher on hand (which should already be in the kitchen)
To get you started, try out these recipes for crispy fries and coconut shrimp. And the Dutch oven makes a great pan to try out a no-knead bread, which is perfect for hearty sandwiches and with dinner.
Easy to maintain
Now that you’ve read what cast iron can do, we’ll finish up with a section on what you can do for your cast iron.
There are numerous sources on the topic of cleaning, storing, and seasoning, to the point it’s created some humorous takes. The reality is only a few things can truly damage your cast iron beyond repair. If you take an extremely hot pan and try to put it into cold water, you could crack or warp the pan. Dropping it onto a hard surface from a considerable height could also dent or crack the pan. And we suppose there’s always the chance you have a blast furnace somewhere that could actually melt the pan, but that’s an unlikely heat source for cooking.
Help a good pan find a forever home
Obviously, the first thing you need to do is find a pan you want to bring home.
New cast iron
We’ve always had good luck with Lodge Cast Iron for modern cast iron, and it makes up the vast majority of our collections. Because this, it’s our recommended manufacturer. However, there are certainly other makers out there, including some start-ups that are trying to resurrect the old, artisan methods, like hand-poured molds and polishing.
Once you’ve picked the cast iron you want, it’s time to bring it home. Most pans are pre-seasoned before they are shipped, which prevents rust from forming and allows them to be used right away. This means you can bring it home and start cooking that night. But even if pre-seasoned, there is likely a coating put on the pan that needs to be washed away. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for washing.
New-to-you cast iron
Another option is to seek out vintage cookware. It’s become a lot more expensive, but if you want to take the time or feel lucky, flea markets and antique stores can have hidden gems. We won’t go into purchasing vintage cookware, but the folks over at The Cast Iron Collector provide a lot of information on finding, refurbishing, and even selling cast iron cookware.
A couple of things to watch out for: pitting and cracks. Pits aren’t the end of the world, but can make seasoning harder. Cracks make a pan useless for cooking. To check for cracks, visually inspect the pan inside and out. Finding internal cracks just requires a thunk on the bottom. If it’s still solid, it should ring or sound like a bell. A cracked piece will thunk or sound dull. If it’s free, you might still be able to scrap it, but that’s about the only value it has.
If you got a vintage pan from someone who restores cast iron, then you should treat the pan like the new one above. It was probably pre-seasoned so it wouldn’t rust while the restorer had the item, but it’s doubtful it was heavily seasoned. Just be sure to ask how it was seasoned, as some methods may produce visually stunning pieces that tend to flake off during cooking.
If it was a find, you’ll want to check the seasoning (which is probably poor to nearly gone), give it a good cleaning with some steel wool (especially if there are small rust spots), after that, use the steps in the seasoning section below.
Those interested in pan restoration can start with this article at Serious Eats.
After it helps you cook a nice meal
Even with a nice layer of seasoning, cast iron can slowly rust. The seasoning can also be damaged by mishandling, heating and cooling cycles, and water. If you store your cast iron improperly, it might not be ready to use when you pull it out in a few weeks or months. Then there is its weight. At 5 to 13 pounds per piece, you need a sturdy shelf to store it on.
Scrub it out
After every use, wash the cast iron out with water. You can use soap in your cast iron, regardless of what some people say. Unless you use lye to clean the pan, your seasoning will be safe. Just don’t use abrasives like steel wool to wash out the pan, as it will damage the seasoning. A product we’ve used for more stubborn bits of food like stuck egg is a chain mail scrubber. While it is stainless steel, it doesn’t have corners or hard edges that can scratch the seasoning. Used sparingly, it will get the worst of the mess off with a little bit of effort. Other options are to put the pan back over a hot burner, add in some water, bring to a boil, then scrap. It’s just like deglazing a pan to make a sauce. Just don’t soak the pan in water to loosen the gunk. The seasoning isn’t impervious, and the water will eventually start to attack the cast iron underneath.
Dry and oil
Once the pan is clean, dry it well. This doesn’t just mean wiping it with a towel, but actually heating it back up a bit to drive moisture off. Once it’s hot, put a little edible liquid oil in the pan and rub it around. Then polish with a clean paper towel until it doesn’t look oily. Heat the pan until it starts to smoke, remove it from the heat, and let it cool. By heating the oil to its smoke point, you reduce the chance the oil will go rancid in storage, which smells bad as well as makes it really sticky.
Store with care
If you have a lot of cast iron pieces, you can try nesting them together in a stack. Just put paper towels in between pieces to keep the seasoning from being scratched by another pan. This might not really be necessary, but it’s an easy, cheap step to take.
Be careful about where you store the pans. Too many on the same shelf could cause it to collapse at some point. Keep them out of a moist environment (so not above or by the sink), and keep them handy. If they are a pain to get out of storage, you won’t use them.
Seasoning your pan is not the same as seasoning your food
Finally, we get to seasoning after using it above with only a little definition.
Remember, cast iron is reactive. You could cook on bare cast iron, but that would create a number of problems. The biggest problem, and why we season cast iron, is that water reacts with iron to make iron oxide. Iron oxide is just the fancy name for rust.
Unlike aluminum or stainless steel, this oxide doesn’t protect the metal underneath. Instead, it continues to spread and eventually destroys the piece. Seasoning cast iron creates a layer that protects the metal from the food and water. In addition to preventing rust from forming, the seasoning is more slippery than the bare metal, meaning that a well-seasoned pan can be nearly nonstick. Finally, the layer reduces the amount of iron the food picks up while being cooked. Iron can impart a metallic flavor in food if too much is picked up, and it can react with some foods to create unappetizing colors.
Lucky for us, creating this layer is actually pretty easy, and it only requires time, heat, and an extremely thin coating of edible oil.
Ready to season
The biggest thing to know about seasoning a pan is that it takes some time. There isn’t a lot of active time, as most of it is spent waiting. But, it does require an oven to be turned on for a period of time, which means you can’t just start this and leave the house.
Prepping a pan for seasoning is easy: clean it and dry it. That’s it. If any pans have been neglected to the point they have rust showing. a little steel wool can be used to remove the rust.
The other thing you want to do is preheat your oven to 450F.
We’ve used a number of methods over the years, from shortening to flaxseed oil to canola oil, and from 30 minutes to over an hour in a moderate, hot, or really hot oven. For the last year or so, we’ve settled on one that’s based on the Serious Eats method, since it creates a durable seasoning layer within a pretty short period of time. Since the materials are cheap, if you have to repeat it once or twice a year, it’s not going to break the bank.
Grab some paper towels and an edible liquid oil, like vegetable or canola. If you hadn’t already cleaned and dried your cast iron, do it now. To dry completely, place the pan on a low burner for three to five minutes, or toss in the preheating oven for a ten or more minutes.
Pour out a quarter-sized amount of oil onto the cast iron. Spread the oil around the entire surface of the pan using a paper towel. Make sure you do this over the entire pan, inside and out. If the pan is hot, make sure you are using gloves as well.
Now grab a new paper towel. The goal here is to buff the piece until it doesn’t really look oily at all. You only need an extremely thin layer of oil, as too much won’t properly cook off in the oven and leave sticky, raised splotches on your piece. Then wait for the oven to finish preheating.
Once the over has preheated, place the oiled cast iron upside down in the oven. This will ensure sure oil doesn’t pool in the bottom and create those sticky spots. If you want to put a catch tray or aluminum foil on the lowest rack to catch dripping oil, feel free to do so. We’ve never had issues with that, but if you didn’t quite get all the oil out, it could drip down onto the floor of the oven and smoke quite a bit.
Set your timer for 30 minutes, open a window or turn on the exhaust hood, and wait. Once the timer beeps, you have two options. If it’s a new or refinished piece, you can repeat the oiling and heating step a couple more times to get a nice layer of seasoning built up. Just remember that the pans will be extremely hot, so welding gloves or something would be necessary. Otherwise, turn the oven off and let the pieces sit for many hours to cool off slowly.
From here, follow the storage steps and your cast iron will be ready to go.
We hope that you are less leery of cast iron cookware and are willing to give it a shot. It’s not perfect, but there is no such thing as a perfect pan. Each metal has its uses. You don’t want to use a 6 quart Dutch oven as a pasta pot, nor do you want to throw a nonstick skillet in the oven. And aluminum baking sheets have so many uses outside of the oven, there’s plenty of reasons to keep them around. But given that the cast iron talked about in this article are all less than $40 each, you can get a lot of mileage out of them.
- Serious Eats – http://www.seriouseats.com
- The Cast Iron Collector – http://www.castironcollector.com/
- Lodge Manufacturing Company – http://www.lodgemfg.com/
- Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cast-iron_cookware