Cast Iron Cookware … Learn to Love It
After three years of service, the battery on my rechargeable mower went dead. I dutifully ordered a new one, only grumbling slightly that the replacement cost nearly 50% of what the mower entire cost new. Next, I consulted the operation manual to see how to replace battery. Several frustrating hours later I went to YouTube to see if I could find an instructional video. Yup, there it was, made by an ex-employee of the manufacturer, who started off by saying …
“Don’t try to follow the procedure in the operation manual, here’s how to replace the battery.”
Zip, zip … the battery was replaced, but still no juice was getting to it. I called the customer service department where I was told “It’s probably the charger that’s defective, not the battery. Pause for a deep breath. “OK, how much will one of those set me back?”
“We don’t carry those chargers any more. That’s a battery we no longer support.”
“But you just sold me one.”
“We sell replacements, but we don’t support them.”
And that’s why I love cast iron cookware.
In an age of planned obsolescence, service providers from Mumbai, and iFunction 4.0, cast iron cookware stands as a monument to simplicity and common sense. It performs flawlessly, lasts forever, has no moving parts, technology will never be obsolete, and you can leave it to your children. It’s safe, time-tested, and non-toxic. Throughout human history a variety of materials have been used as cooking vessels, with varying degrees of success.
Cast iron fell into disfavor in the 1950s when Madison Avenue told us that cast iron was too heavy, too ugly, and too much work for the modern American housewife. Aluminum cookware became popular often coated with miracle non-stick coatings such as Teflon®. How’d that work out? Well, it turns out that aluminum can interact chemically with acidic foods. This can be negated by specialized coating or by the process of anodization, but it will be another century before we know if there are negative influences on human health. Coatings chip and have been linked to health issues.
Cast iron, on the other hand, has stood the test of time. While chefs have long touted its cooking virtues, it has fought the bad raps of weight, appearance, and maintenance. The appearance issue was solved by coating cookware with colorful enamel. This process works beautifully, but has the downsides of adding weight, cost, and vulnerability. Despite its virtues, enameling is subject to chipping and cracking. No matter how careful you are in the kitchen, sooner or later that Dutch oven top is going to drop too hard on the thin lip of the kettle, and that handsome piece of cookware will suddenly look like a movie star with a chipped tooth.
Until recently you could find cast iron pans, even antique ones, at your local yard sales for just a couple of bucks. These days, more and more people have discovered that thar’s gold in that iron, so bargains are harder, but now impossible to find. Here are some considerations when you set out to “modernize” your kitchen with durable, beautiful, and ecological cast iron cookware:
Antique or New?
Cast iron reigned as king at the turn of the 19th century with a variety of regional foundries producing product. Birmingham Stove & Range, Favorite Stove & Range, Griswold Manufacturing, Lodge Manufacturing, Martin Stove & Range, Sidney Hollow Ware, Vollrath Manufacturing, Wagner Manufacturing, and Wapak Hollow Ware are a few of the legendary foundries. Many times the manufacturer and the date of the original casting can be found on the bottom of the pan. Making historical research part of the shopping experience is part of the fun.
Is antique superior to new? Opinions vary. Aficionado will say that antique pans were cast and finished by hand, and therefore contain superior craftsmanship. Generally, they have a smoother finish than the machined modern product made by companies like Lodge.
It comes down to personal preference. If you are the more hands-on type who wants to cook in a piece of art, go for an antique pan so long as it hasn’t been abused. For a sampling of pans that have already been painstakingly restore go to eBay or a site like thepan-handler.com. For new, you’ll find a vast array of offering on Amazon.com.
To restore or not to restore?
I was fortunate to take a cast iron primer class offered by our local pop-up university. One of my key takeaways is that there is more than one way to skin this cast iron cat. Sandblasting and electrolysis are processes used by experts with specialized equipment, but wire brushes, steel wool, and drill bits with wire brushes can accomplish the same end, albeit with the addition of more elbow grease.
There are options beyond the aforementioned electrolysis, too. Our class instructor mentioned spraying a pan with Easy-Off oven cleaner, then putting it in a plastic bag as a rust-removal technique. Numerous videos on YouTube.com recommend other techniques, such as baths of white vinegar and even Coca Cola. From the green perspective, the vinegar bath is the winner.
Again, there is no official, documented, industry-approved, FDA regulated way to season cast iron. That’s one of the beauties; you can develop your own proprietary technique. Lodge even sells their cookware pre-seasoned … just rinse, towel dry, and you’re good to go.
Methinks that Lodge (lodgemfg.com), a great company that has single-handedly revived awareness of cast iron, oversells the ease and convenience of their products, but what company doesn’t? The truth is cast iron is more labor intensive than other cookware, but it’s a small trade-off for superior performance, safety, and longevity. “Seasoning,” in terms of cookware, refers to a coating of oil that is a buffer between your food and the metal of the cooking surface. Managing the seasoning is where the magic and artistry enter the picture. You’ll have to decide your own preferred methodology.
Lodge uses soy-vegetable oil. My class instructor recommends Crisco. Others prefer canola oil or organic flax seed oil. Maintenance of the right seasoning is more important than the choice of oil.
Cooking with cast ironically
Here’s where there is more consensus among the experts. Heat your cast iron slowly to desire temperature. Feel free to use any utensils (ever that metal spatula that scratched your Teflon® fry pan), on any stove top, even your outdoor grill. Cook at a slightly lower temperature than with other cookware to prevent sticking.
Cleaning cast iron
Here again, techniques vary. Let your experience be your guide. Lodge recommends washing by hand with a nylon bristle scrub brush. For sticky situations, simmer a little water for one minute, then use a scraper. Then dry quickly with a paper towel and coat lightly with cooking oil. (Lodge and Amazon sell various cast iron accessories such as scrapers, scrub brushes, and seasoning sprays.)
The instructor in my classroom recommended letting the pan fully dry, scraping off any stuck food, coating with Crisco, the inverting the pan over the stove burner to warm for a few minutes, then wiping dry with a paper towel.
My wife says that scouring with table salt is the way to go.
And, in the end …
Your food will taste better when cooked in the pan that you have maintained and seasoned yourself … guaranteed! It will taste better for the same reason food from your garden tastes better, because you have given it life, nurtured it, and maintained it. You’ve taken control of your kitchen and maintained mastery of at least one important part of your life. There are many self-proclaimed experts in the subject of cast iron cookery, but in the end, the only one who matters is you.