This piece has gone through about ten different iterations since I first started writing it in mid May 2016. Ultimately, it is nothing more that a high school level research article about cast iron cookware. My understanding of cast iron cookware has improved immensely since I first began writing this piece. I must say that without the abundance of information on the Internet regarding cast iron cookware I would not have been able to formulate this piece on the ins and outs of the cast-iron lifestyle.
It is my hope that this piece serves as a well-structured and informative narrative on cast iron that will be regarded as a go to guide regardless of your level of cast iron understanding. It is also my hope for you to find at least some useful bits of information on every phase of cast iron cooking whether it be research, purchase, seasoning, cooking, cleaning or care. As long as you’re able to take away in one hour with what took me almost three years to figure out my objective will have been met.
My Introduction To The Cast Iron Lifestyle:
On a random Tuesday evening almost three years ago I was walking through the beverage / kitchenware aisle at my local Kroger’s. I think my original intentions were to grab a 24-bottle case of water, which I did… but I also found myself amazed at the retail price of a rather large cast iron skillet. I was amazed that Kroger’s would be selling a 12-inch skillet of any sort for $15.99. Though I didn’t have a clue how to use it or what to use it for, I knew I needed it so I went ahead and bought it. It’s hard to label it an impulse buy since the price was far more than reasonable.
After I got the cast iron skillet home the bright yellow Lodge Manufacturing sticker stayed in the middle of the skillet for several months. Shortly before the Seattle Seahawks took on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX I finally came up with a reason to peel off the bright yellow sticker. I wanted to make an enormous batch of smoked mac and cheese. I ran into a slight issue when I realized that I didn’t have enough pan real estate. In a hurry I ran over to my local Kroger’s and I grabbed a 10.25-inch Lodge cast iron skillet. I ended up filling both of the skillets with mac and cheese thus officially kicking off my infatuation with the cast iron lifestyle.
Fast-forward a year and some change later and I cook using exclusively Lodge Cast Iron cookware. Not to mention that my collection has grown to contain each of the following fifteen pieces:
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During my brief time using cast iron cookware I’ve found that the right combination of pieces will often times work better and more efficiently than run of the mill retail grade small appliances. For instance I’ve had much better results cooking rice in my 3.2-quart Lodge Combo Cooker than I have using my electronic rice cooker. For years I searched for the most suitable electronic Panini press only to find myself in love with the Lodge Square Grill Pan along with the ribbed Panini press instead. As far as I can see the results are just as good, if not better using the cast iron cookware as opposed to than small electronic appliances.
Before purchasing your first piece of cast iron cookware it is wise to do a good amount of thorough research on what you’re getting yourself into. While seasoned cast iron users see no other way to cook, newbies tend to endure a lengthy learning curve. The first thing to understand is the numerous brands of cast iron readily available to you. If you’re anything like the cast iron enthusiasts that I know, chances are you will become partial to a specific brand and it’s important to have a thorough understanding of price points, durability and effectiveness before you jump in feet first.
Cast iron brands can pretty much be summed up in about four distinct categories; economy brands, celebrity brands, luxury brands and startup brands. Economy brands such as Lodge Manufacturing, Camp Chef and Wagner are the most reasonably priced and readily available. Don’t let the term “economy” fool you into thinking that these brands are any less quality than luxury. More often than not these are the brands that top chefs and home cooks prefer.
Celebrity brands are characterized as normal cast iron cookware but with the added endorsements of the world’s top chefs. These brands include lines created on behalf of Martha Stewart, Rachael Ray and Mario Batali.
As cast iron cookware has exploded in popularity over the past few years there have been a number of startup companies sprouting up of late. Startups such as Star Gazer Cast Iron and The Field Company have claimed a small stake in the cast iron market thanks to hyper successful crowd funding campaigns.
If you have the desire to spend a bit extra on your cast iron cookware then you’ll want to consider brands such as Finex, Le Creuset, Staub or Element Cookware. The luxury cast iron brands typically boast a more refined seasoning process by way of higher quality oils.
-Types & Sizes
Once you have narrowed down the brand or brands that you prefer to use then you’ll need to begin the process of figuring out which types of cast iron cookware are most urgent to your needs. For most, the obvious choice is a standard skillet. The most popular sizes of skillets fall between six and fifteen inches in diameter. The size of the skillet you choose will depend mostly on the size of your family or the number of guests you typically serve.
Next to skillets in the cast iron hierarchy of popularity and utility are Dutch Ovens. Dutch Ovens are almost as synonymous to cast iron cooking as skillets are due to the limited availability of Dutch Oven cookers in any other materials. Specialty camp Dutch Ovens are extremely popular for outdoor cooking due to their versatility and the ability to use charcoal briquettes to cook. The flanged tops of camp Dutch Ovens make it possible to place charcoal briquettes on top while legs on the bottom make it possible to use charcoal underneath as well. The natural conductivity of heat within makes camp Dutch Ovens the preferred outdoor portable camp stoves.
Aside from skillets and Dutch Ovens cast iron cookware comes in a variety of choices ranging from griddles, grill pans, woks, Panini presses and bake ware. Once you’ve made your decisions on some of the basic pieces of cast iron cookware it is only natural to be inclined to extend your cookware collection with some or all of the specialty products such as muffin pans or burger presses.
If I had it to do over again I would start with either the Double Dutch Oven or the Combo Cooker by Lodge. This way you can get well acquainted with cast iron cookware while having both a skillet and a Dutch Oven at your disposal.
A great place to see what others have to say about the cast iron cookware that peaks your interests is within the review section of some of the larger online retailers. Walmart.com and Amazon.com both have lengthy reviews on just about every piece of cast iron cookware known to man. Reading through a few reviews will help you better understand some of the things you’ll need to take into consideration before you purchase. Configurations such as weight, handle displacement, performance and durability are all well documented within reviews on top retail sites.
The major search engines are other great places to begin searching for side-by-side comparisons and product tests. This will give you a more thorough understanding of how each piece of cast iron stands up to the next. You’ll also gain great insight into various degrees of usability some pieces will offer over others.
Individual pieces of cast iron cookware can be purchased for under $30 in many cases. Of course the price rises incrementally along with the size of the cast iron piece. The true and sometimes hidden value component of cast iron cookware is the versatility in which you can use it. For instance a $60 Dutch Oven can easily take the place of a crock pot, a rice cooker and a deep fryer. If you were to tally up the cost of these three things you would be at about $200 if you bought middle of the road electronic brands.
Just because cast iron is typically less expensive than other cooking vessels it does not mean that is cheaply manufactured or any less effective than some of its counterparts. Companies are able to pass along the savings since there isn’t a multi-tiered production sequence that must take place in order to manufacture high quality cast iron cookware. Typically molten metal and carbon are combined inside of a mold to produce each piece of cast iron cookware.
Enameled cast iron comes with a slightly higher price tag due to the added coating that makes it ready for use right out of the box. Cooking highly acidic dishes with tomato sauce won’t be a worry if you use enabled cast iron. Due to this luxury expect to pay about a 10 – 20% premium.
Top 10 Reasons To Purchase Cast Iron Cookware:
1. Durability – Cast iron cookware is almost indestructible. More than likely the cast iron you purchase today will last through at least a few generations of your family.
2. High Heat Tolerance – Unless subjected to extreme volcanic like temperatures you will never have to worry about warping or damaging cast iron cookware due to too much heat.
3. Non-Stick – Once you’re able to supplement the factory seasoning with your own, cast iron cookware will likely outperform any cookware with a synthetic non-stick surface.
4. Economical – For less than $500 one can acquire an all encompassing cast iron cookware collection boasting twenty or more unique pieces.
5. Indoor Grilling – Ribbed pans and flat griddles give you the ability to produce grill quality cuisine from within the comforts of your own kitchen.
6. Versatility – All cast iron cookware can be used on the stove, in the oven or on the grill. Some cast iron cookware can even act as stand alone cooking vessels.
7. Easy To Clean – Cleaning cast iron requires very little to no soap. Simple olive oil and kosher salt will typically achieve the clean finish that most associate with cast iron cookware.
8. Vitamin Rich – Cast iron can leach a significant amount of dietary iron into food depending on the length of the cook as well as the acidity and water content.
9. Heat Distribution – Cast iron tends to heat more evenly than other kitchen cookware. While cast iron can have hotspots the conductivity of heat means that just about every square inch of a pan will heat up eventually.
10. Aesthetics – A great deal of food prepared in cast iron can also be served in cast iron. This provides home cooks and chefs the opportunity to create more vivid imagery of sizzling hot food right at the dinner table.
Decide on a rough budget for your cast iron procurement and this will determine the route you take as far as brand, age and whether you’ll shop online versus offline. Decide whether you want bare cast iron or enameled cast iron. Decide whether you want to purchase new or used pieces of cast iron. If your plans are to buy new cast iron then plenty of online research, followed up by an online or in-store purchase makes the most sense. In that case, Walmart.com, Amazon.com, Academy.com, Target.com, BedBathandBeyond.com or Webstaurant.com will offer the most competitive pricing.
Offline pricing tends to be much closer to MSRP while online prices will often times be in the neighborhood of 40% less. If auction sites suite you best then Ebay.com offers another online option if you are looking for a good price and a like new piece of cast iron.
The vintage cast iron market is very liquid and this gives individuals the green light to sell fairly high due to the sustainability of the cookware. If you’ve determined a higher budget then yard sales, thrift stores, peddler’s malls, antique malls and estate sales are going to be the best way to find discontinued Griswold and Wagner cast iron cookware.
Cast iron cookware has seen resurgence of epic proportions within the past 20 years as evidenced by Lodge Manufacturing’s current operations expansion in Pittsburgh, TN. Currently cast iron boasts a 10% overall market share of all cookware sales. Lodge products are readily available at most local department store. In my metro and surrounding areas I’d have to say that between Old Time Pottery and Bass Pro Shop, Old Time Pottery has the largest in store selection that I’ve ever seen. I’ve heard great things about the vast selection as well as the great deals that can be had at any of Lodge’s three outlet stores.
I believe that one of the greatest things about cast iron is that there is no particularly “best” time to purchase. The prices typically stay the same year round. A camp Dutch Oven can be just as useful in the middle of summer for Mediterranean Chicken as it is in late fall for Brisket Chilli.
Just about all commercially available cast iron cookware comes pre-seasoned. While this is marketed as a benefit you will see much greater performance if you’re able to take the time to season your cast iron yourself. Seasoning is not easy but it is also far from difficult. It just takes some time and quite a bit of patience. Many people attempt to rush the process in order to begin cooking right away but from my own personal experiences this approach does not yield optimal results. Ultimately you’ll find yourself re-doing the seasoning that you thought you had achieved if you don’t make the effort to do it correctly the first time. There are many methods and even more opinions in regards to effectively seasoning cast iron cookware.
The accumulation of a thoroughly seasoned piece of cast iron cookware is a two-part process. First, a thin layer of unsaturated oil needs to be applied to the surface of the cast iron. This application is the polymerization process. Second the oil and cast iron must be heated to or slightly above the smoke point of the oil. This step in the two-part process is known as carbonization. A hydrophobic surface is achieved after several thin coats of oil are baked onto the surface of cast iron cookware. At this point your cast iron will perform just as, if not more efficiently than traditional non-stick cookware.
You’re either going to season your cast iron indoors or outdoors. Personally, I prefer using my indoor oven as it provides a more controlled environment and an overall even seasoning process. The downfall to seasoning indoors is the amount of heat your oven will generate This can be of great discomfort if you find yourself needing to season cast iron during the summer months. Also, if you make the mistake of using too much oil for seasoning you may end up tripping your fire alarm. For these reason your charcoal grill may be the better option. The main reason I don’t typically go this route is due to the amount of charcoal you’ll have to use in order to season effectively. I just don’t really believe in burning charcoal and not cooking food in the process.
In order to begin the process you’ll want to clean your cast iron thoroughly prior to seasoning for the first time. This will be about the only time that you should use soap on any cast iron cookware. Steel wool works best to remove any uneven surface levels in the cast iron. After using a steel wool pad be sure to rinse the cast iron cookware thoroughly. Place the cookware on the stove for just about three to five minutes in order to dry all of the visible moisture away. Once the cast iron piece is completely dry place it in the oven at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes. Using an oven mitt, remove the cast iron piece from the oven and begin applying the oil of your choice. I prefer using an old cut up t-shirt to apply the oil evenly around the inside and outside of the cast iron.
As noted earlier, be sure to wipe away all of the excess oil before returning the piece to the oven. This will keep the excess oil from dripping and causing high levels of smoke inside of your house. Once you’ve applied a thin layer of oil to the cast iron piece place it back in the oven upside down at 400 degrees Fahrenheit and leave it there for 60 to 90 minutes. Some will suggest a higher temperature and a lower time interval but I’ve noticed the best results with this particular setup. Once the 60 to 90 minutes is up, shut off the oven and leave the cast iron piece inside without opening the door for at least two hours. By this time the piece should be cool enough to touch, at which point you may want to start the process all over again.
The choice of the oil that you use will depend greatly on how scientific you want to get. I’ve tried just about every oil you can think of and I must say that I’ve had the best results using old-fashioned lard up until this point. Just about every cast iron expert will say that the best oils to use for seasoning are solid at room temperature. This holds true for lard and coconut oil, which is another one, I’ve had great results using.
Seasoning Oil Comparison:
Smoke Point: 225 Degrees Fahrenheit
Advantages: Ultimate Results In Non-Stick / Rust Preventive / Best Patina
Disadvantages: Fairly Expensive / Can Be Difficult To Find
Smoke Point: 370 Degrees Fahrenheit
Advantages: Readily Available / Very Inexpensive
Disadvantages: Can Become Rancid If Not Stored Properly
Smoke Point: 350 Degrees Fahrenheit
Advantages: Readily Available / Solid At Room Temperature
Disadvantages: Relatively Low Smoke Point
Smoke Point: 350 Degrees Fahrenheit
Advantages: Readily Available / Leaves A Very Shiny Patina When Applied Correctly
Disadvantages: Too Much Olive Oil Will Make The Surface Sticky
Smoke Point: 360 Degrees Fahrenheit
Advantages: Readily Available / Relatively Inexpensive
Disadvantages: May Cause Spotting If Applied Incorrectly
While cooking with cast iron has a host of advantages the main one without a question is the versatility in which you can cook. Cast Iron offers an endless range of methods in which you can efficiently cook. Whether indoors or outdoors your options are only limited to what your mind can come up with. Time after time the internet proves to be an endless resource for figuring out new ways to use your cast iron cookware. The durability and construction of the cookware makes it impossible to damage regardless of what the elements dictate. Whether it be stove top, oven, grill or campfire cooking you can bet that there are a myriad of options available to you.
Most traditional cast iron cookware can be very effective if used on the stove top. Home chefs have made some of the most influential dishes by searing and sautéing various foods in authentic cast iron skillets. Deeper skillets can be employed to braise or deep-fry a multitude of classic home cooked meals.
Using a piece of cast iron cookware inside of the oven is known to produce magnificent results. You can almost guarantee that anything baked in a piece of cast iron cookware is going to boast a crispy and lightly browned crust unrivaled by anything else you could imagine.
Utilizing your outdoor grill only enhances the versatility of cast iron cooking by offering several ways to braise, sear or sauté any variety of dishes. Whether you’ll be using a cast iron grill grate or using a skillet from your collection you can rest assured that the outcome will be nothing short of amazing.
As previously stated, Dutch Oven campfire cooking is synonymous with cast iron cooking. Just the imagery of a shiny black pot cooking chilli over an open campfire legitimizes this method cooking. Open fire cooking isn’t exclusive to Dutch Ovens. Just about any piece of cast iron cookware can be very resourceful in cooking over an open flame. It also doesn’t have to be an open flame. I actually built a brick fire pit for the sole purpose of cast iron cooking outdoors.
Top 10 Foods To Cook In Cast Iron:
1. Steak – Aside from spending hundreds of dollars for the perfect cooking apparatus to make steakhouse grade cuts of beef, cast iron cookware easily takes the cake as it provides several distinct flavor profiles that you simply won’t achieve any other way.
2. Fried Chicken – Deep cast iron skillets and Dutch Ovens work flawlessly as deep fryers. Whether its canola oil or peanut oil you won’t have to wait very long for the oil to reach the appropriate temperature thanks to the incredible heat retention of cast iron.
3. Cornbread – Cast iron cookware and cornbread go hand in hand mainly for the fact that no other cooking apparatus can produce the desirable results on par with cast iron when it comes to cornbread. Often time people start using cast iron cookware for the sole purpose of fixing cornbread just like Grandma used to.
4. Eggs – Eggs fried over easy are the ultimate reward of a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. An adequate amount of seasoning will make for the perfect non-stick surface to cook up some of the best eggs known to man.
5. Bacon – While bacon is great regardless of where or how it is cooked, there is something simply addictive about the crunch that cast iron cookware will impart on a thick cut of bacon.
6. Quesadillas – The heat retention of cast iron makes for the perfect way to whip up cheesy quesadillas. The even heating allows enough time for quesadillas to cook perfectly without over charring the outer shell. All the while the cheese boasts a near perfect melt.
7. Burgers – When it comes to the high level of heat necessary to cook juicy burgers cast iron is far and away the front-runner. Grill marks and optimal flavor retention are the just a few of the perks of cast iron grill grates.
8. Chilli – Cast iron Dutch Ovens and chill go hand-in-hand much like mid-Fall and football season. It’s become more and more common to catch some of the best-flavored chilli getting prepared in cast iron Dutch Ovens.
9. Fish -Much like fried chicken, fish deep-fried in cast iron boast a delectable crunch not available from any other cookware on the market. Again the Dutch Oven and its higher heat retention will result in golden flaky delight.
10. Paninis – Electronic panini presses are often times over priced and rather difficult to clean. Cast iron panini presses are extremely easy to clean, more than fairly priced and get the job done with much better precision.
Once you’ve wrapped up the first cook session in your cast iron you’ll want to start the habit of immediately cleaning things after use. There are a number of methods to cleaning your cast iron and while there may not be any single correct way there are certainly quite a few very wrong ways. While cleaning cast iron the wrong way won’t result in any long-term structural damage, avoiding doing things the wrong way will certainly save you some time and effort. Trust me, I’ve used soap and I’m ashamed to say it but one of my pieces actually ended up in the dishwasher!
The simplest method to cleaning cast iron cookware is to simply wipe it out with a paper towel shortly after use. Most cast iron enthusiasts swear that this simple method is the only way to get things just clean enough for the next cook. This allows more flavors to live within the cast iron further enhancing future cooks. Generally you’ll need to wipe in a small amount of extra virgin olive oil regardless of the method you end up employing to clean things.
The next most efficient way to clean cast iron is with kosher salt and extra virgin olive oil. Simply apply a generous amount of kosher salt with a tablespoon of EVOO. Work the a paper towel in and around the cast iron piece until the surface is completely covered in an oily salty film. Use a few clean paper towels to clean out all of the film. Simply wipe in another teaspoon of EVOO and the cast iron is ready for storage.
If you have any amount of stuck on food you’ll want to start by adding a small amount of water to the pan. Depending on how much is stuck on and how difficult the leftover food is to remove will determine the amount of water you will end up using. If there happens to be a significant amount of leftover food stuck on you will want to return the cast iron pan to the stove and set over medium heat for a few minutes. This will allow the boiling water to penetrate the leftover food and it will pull apart from the pan.
If any combination of oil, salt, water and the scrub brush don’t work well enough then you will want to use plain steel wool. Steel wool works great for cleaning as it certainly will remove just about anything from a cast iron pan. Using steel wool should only be considered as a last ditch effort to clean your cast iron cookware. Due to the abrasive nature of steel wool using it is likely break away some of the seasoning that you’ve managed to build up over time. If by chance using steel wool does remove a fair amount of seasoning then just follow the initial steps one time and the cast iron piece will come away even better.
If you end up using water to clean your cast iron then you’ll certainly want to use the stovetop for drying. Allow the pan sit over medium heat for about five minutes or until all of the moisture has evaporated. Make certain not to set the temperature too high or leave the pan on the stove for too long as this will cause the seasoning to flake and potentially flash rust. Once the moisture has completely evaporated wipe in a teaspoon of EVOO and prepare for storage.
There are pretty much just two methods to completely avoid when cleaning your cast iron cookware. 97% of the time you will want to avoid using any type of dish soap to clean your cast iron cookware. Dish soap will immediately break down and degrease the seasoning that the cookware has accumulated. Though I’ve admittedly done it in the past, never under any circumstance place a piece of cast iron in the dishwasher. Other than that, your cast iron should work flawlessly for you as long as the few steps outlined above are adhered to.
When it comes to taking care of your cast iron cookware there are a few simple details that should be considered when mapping out your pre and post cook routines. Critics of cast iron will quickly point to the higher level of difficulty in caring for the cookware as well as the additional time investment. Once you’ve experienced a few delectable meals prepared in cast iron cookware you will not share the same sentiments as those who incorrectly assume the care aspects to be too much additional labor.
-Abuse + Neglect
There are a few things that you certainly want to avoid at all costs when it comes to preserving the integrity of your cast iron cookware. For starters, don’t leave food stuck to cast iron cookware, as this will certainly force you to take extreme measures to get it cleaned correctly. Be sure to never store food of any type in cast iron cookware. Though it is not necessarily the worst thing to do, avoid cooking highly acidic foods in cast iron cookware. As tempting as it may be try to avoid boiling water in cast iron cookware. Most importantly do not subject cast iron to extreme temperature changes.
Another great characteristic of cast iron is the fact that if you happen to do any of the aforementioned no-no’s you can always restart the seasoning process. Even better, nothing changes except for your understanding of the process. If you ever find that you need to re-season your cast iron cookware simply follow the aforementioned steps on cleaning, then go back and start the seasoning process again. Cast iron cookware is virtually indestructible so re-seasoning is about as bad as it can possibly get.
As for storing your cast iron cookware you’ll want to utilize a relatively cool and dry location. A pantry works very well amongst a myriad of storage options. Remember to always use a paper towel to wipe in oil after cleaning and before storing. If by chance you find yourself going longer periods of time between using specific pieces then you will want to be sure to store anything with a lid with the lid off.
Cast iron cooking imparts an almost euphoric experience on the soul for those who partake in the journey. While there are several extra nuances that must be respected, the result of cast iron cooking is where all of the reward lies. From food with an added element of flavor to the ability to collect rare and vintage pieces, cast iron cooking offers a multitude of ways to bring about more enthusiasm from your everyday cook.
With some time invested, cast iron cooking turns into a high reward endeavor, especially if approached with an open mind as well as an eagerness to learn. It seems like no matter how long it takes, for just about everyone that joins in on the phenomenon it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a full-fledged addiction. If you had to take a break between reading this article to purchase your first piece of cast iron then it’s most likely too late… you are the latest addict of the cast iron cooking craze!