By Miriam Wolf
My frying pan is as much at home on a campfire grate as on a burner of my glass-top electric stove: I can slide it into the oven to put the finishing touches on a dish, cleaning is easy, and the food always browns evenly because it distributes heat so well. Is it made of some new space-age material? Did it cost half a paycheck? No. My frying pan is made of good old cast iron, a cookware technology that’s been around for hundreds of years.
I was first drawn to cast iron for its vintage look and feel, but soon realized there are many reasons to love it. Most important, if it is seasoned and cared for properly, its surface is relatively nonstick so I don’t have to worry that flecks of Teflon or some other nonstick coating will come off in my food. And I never have to think about what utensils to use in it—metal spoons won't damage cast iron.
Cast iron is also a great nutritional supplement for my family because we follow a vegetarian diet: Iron occurs in lower concentrations in vegetarian foods than in meats. The iron in our bodies is the same as that in a cast iron frying pan, and when I cook acidic ingredients like tomatoes, some of the pan's iron finds its way into the foods—and, eventually, into our bodies.
Choosing Cast Iron
If you didn’t inherit your great-grandmother’s cast iron, you can buy a new skillet, Dutch oven, or griddle from a wide variety of cookware retailers. The dominant manufacturer of cast iron cookware is Lodge, a century-old family-run Tennessee company, all of whose pans come pre-seasoned and ready to go. This wasn’t the case a decade or so ago, when, if you bought a new cast iron frying pan, you were in for a few hours of work to get it into shape for cooking. A 12-inch Lodge frying pan costs between $20 and $30—not much for an object you might end up using daily for 50 years, then handing down to your grandchildren.
“Seasoning” is a natural layer of oil residue that builds up through use, protects the pan, and gives it its non-stick properties.
Cast iron cookware is heavy, so look for skillets that have small handles opposite the main ones so you can use two hands to carry them. And while you’re shopping, stock up on oven mitts—cast iron handles heat up during the cooking process, so be sure to use protection when you lift a hot cast iron skillet.
If you are a haunter of thrift stores, antique stores, or garage sales, you can buy your cast iron pans on the secondhand or vintage market. Connoisseurs say these older pans have a smoother surface than their contemporary cousins. Old pans can be beautiful and functional, but are also likely to be rusty and caked with years of buildup. You’ll have to strip the old seasoning off your pan and start fresh.
How to Season Cast Iron
For an old pan, there are several ways to go about removing old seasoning. If your vintage pan isn't too crusty, you may be able to just use elbow grease, hot water, soap, and a pot scrubber to get it clean. Another technique is to spray the pan with lye-based oven cleaner and seal it in a plastic bag for a couple of days, then wipe off the oven cleaner (be sure to wear gloves) and scrub with hot soapy water. Some people build a fire in a fireplace or fire pit and just shove the crusty old pan into the white-hot ashes, where the seasoning burns up as the fire cools down. Once the pan has cooled, you can scrub it with hot soapy water to remove the last vestiges of old seasoning. There is a danger, however, with this method: The pan could warp or crack if the heat is too high.
Now it’s time to season your pan, which you do by using fat to fill the porous iron and create a slick surface. Heat your oven to 400 degrees. Using a clean cloth or paper towel, wipe a thin layer of unflavored oil, such as flaxseed or shortening, onto the pan and place it upside down on the oven rack. Bake for two hours, then turn off the oven and leave the pan inside until it has cooled completely.
Caring for Cast Iron
Most cast iron aficionados recommend that you never use soap on it. How will it get clean without soap you ask? For most cleanups, just rinse with hot water and give it a swipe with a nylon scrubber or sponge. To soften hardened-on food, fill the pan with water and heat it on the stove; if there's a lot of it, scour the pan's surface first with a couple of tablespoons of coarse salt and a paper towel. When the pan is clean, pop it back on the stove on low heat for a couple of minutes to make sure it's completely dry to avoid rust marks.
If you live in a humid climate, it's prudent to wipe the inside of your clean, dry pans with a very thin film of oil before storing (put sheets of paper towels between pans if you stack them, to avoid an oily mess).
After you season your cast iron piece, it will have the beginnings of a nice patina. But to get the best from cast iron, the key is to use it. When your pan is new, use it to cook high-fat dishes—fry up some bacon, say, or potato latkes. The more you cook with your cookware, the better it will perform.
Because it’s heavier than most other cookware, cast iron does take a little bit more time to warm up on the burner. But when it does, it holds heat beautifully and cooks foods evenly.
My top five dishes to cook in cast iron:
- Cornbread–Southern or northern style, it doesn’t matter: cornbread baked in cast iron comes out with an appealingly crunchy exterior and a soft, crumbly interior.
- Upside-down cake –Whether you’re making traditional pineapple upside-down cake or getting creative with seasonal fruit (like rhubarb), cast iron ensures that the fruit caramelizes to perfection. It’s the perfect vessel for recipes that start on the stovetop and end in the oven.
- Latkes–My deep Dutch oven keeps the inevitable oil spatters to a minimum when I fry latkes.
- A big pot of beans–Nothing says camping like a cast iron Dutch oven full of pinto beans simmering for a few hours over the fire. When they’re tender, smash 'em and scoop them with tortilla chips.
- Caramelized onions–Cast iron is perfect for the kind of long, slow cooking caramelized onions require.
Miriam Wolf is the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine newsletter.