Why Use Cast Iron?
“Never trust a pan you can lift.” – Chef Tom Johnson
Cooking with cast iron is a high maintenance relationship – one that it took me a long time to understand. Cast iron has so many drawbacks. It must be carefully seasoned – cast iron that is exposed to air will rust. But, not too much seasoning, or it will get sticky and come off in flakes. Don’t leave it wet – that’s another invitation to rust. Wash it in the dishwasher? Never! One wash cycle will strip off the seasoning AND start the rust. Wash it with a scrub brush and hot water, using nothing but elbow grease. And, be careful what you cook in cast iron. Don’t boil water, or there goes the seasoning. And, watch out for acidic ingredients; acid reacts with the iron, giving a metallic taste to the food. On top of all that, cast iron weighs a ton, and it does not conduct heat well. We’re in the 21st century; why does anyone bother with these 18th century pans?
This is the litany that ran through my head every time I neglected my cast iron. Pans had sticky seasoning in some spots, flaky seasoning in others; grill grates had rust creeping up the sides. I didn’t get it. Why did people love black iron again? I gave up on cast iron pans and went with aluminum, clad in stainless or nonstick coatings. 1
A few years ago, I decided to try cast iron again. Too many cooks were singing its praises, cooks that I trusted absolutely on other topics. Why were they so enthusiastic about cast iron? What was I missing? I bought one pan, a twelve-inch skillet, and it turned my relationship with cast iron around. I’m a cast iron convert – for a specific set of applications, cast iron is the best tool for the job.
Over the next few months, I’m going to write a series of posts on cast iron. There is a lot of contradictory advice on the internet, old wives’ tales mixed in with nuggets of gold. I hope I don’t add to the old wives’ tales – I’m writing these posts in an attempt to figure out what I did right. So, without further preamble…2
Why Cast Iron
1. Cast iron hangs on to heat
Cast iron weighs a ton, and is a terrible conductor. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? It is…if you want a pan that reacts quickly to changes in heat. Instead, think of cast iron as a thermal battery. It takes a long time to heat up, but once it gets there, it hangs on to heat. I love searing on cast iron; even my expensive clad aluminum pans don’t do as good of a job of browning as an inexpensive cast iron skillet. This is also useful for baking; cornbread is cooked in cast iron to give it a crisp crust. 3
Sous vide made me appreciate cast iron. That’s right, the modernist technique, cooking in a precisely temperature controlled water bath. Once my steak is cooked sous vide, perfectly medium-rare, I need it seared as quickly as possible. The longer the steak is on the heat, getting a browned and crackling crust, the more it cooks on the inside. Ripping hot cast iron to the rescue. A quick sear on a preheated pan, and my steak is charred on the outside, but still medium-rare all the way through.
2. Cast iron can take the heat
Yes, cast iron is high maintenance – in some ways. But it is also incredibly durable. Read the “use and care” guide that came with a set of regular pans. What happens if you leave one empty on a lit burner? Most manufacturers warn you never to do that, or allow a couple of minutes to heat up the pan – no more. Cast iron? It’s just getting started. It needs at least five minutes of heating to be ready to cook, and ten would be better. Go for fifteen minutes if you’re distracted, or want a ripping hot pan.
Then we move to the oven. Oven safe temperature? Cast iron laughs at your oven safe temperature. 400°F, 500°F, whatever it takes. Just don’t get the oven to self cleaning temperatures – about 900°F – because it will turn the seasoning on the cast iron to ash, and you’ll have to re-season the pan. 4
3. Seasoned cast iron is nonstick
A properly seasoned cast iron pan is the closest you can get to nonstick without coating a pan in Teflon. The seasoning – a layer of polymerised, carbonized oil – acts as a nonstick coating. 5 As I mentioned above, cast iron is tough. You can use cast iron with metal utensils and with high heat. Keep it clean, keep it dry, and keep it seasoned, and a cast iron pan will last forever. Nonstick? If I treated a nonstick pan the way I treat cast iron, the nonstick pan wouldn’t last a week. 6
Cast iron just wants to be useful
Earlier, I compared cast iron to a high maintenance relationship. That’s a bad analogy. It’s more like owning an animal bred to work. If you neglect it, and don’t use on a regular basis, it’s not happy. But if you use it often, and work it hard, it gets better and better.
Have I convinced you? Itching to try cast iron? Get one pan – just one – and use it until you’re comfortable with cast iron. I recommend a 12 inch cast iron skillet to start, because it’s the most versatile – but I’ll talk about that more in my next cast iron cooking post.
What do you think?
Cast iron questions? Any other cast iron topics I should cover? Anything I left out? Talk about it in the comments section, below.
Cast Iron Cooking series:
- Why Cast Iron? [ThisPost]
- The 12 Inch Cast Iron Skillet
- Seasoning Cast Iron
- Cleaning Cast Iron
- Heating Cast Iron [Coming Soon]
- Cast Iron’s Best Friend – the Flat Edged Metal Spatula [Coming Soon]
- Other Cast Iron Accessories [Coming Soon]
- Stripping Cast Iron [Coming Soon]
- Cast Iron Recipes
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Except for a few enameled cast iron pots I kept on hand – Le Creuset was my one cast iron holdout.↩
Get on with it!↩
My favorite part of cornbread is the crispy edges. I’ll eat around the edge, leaving the tender center for those that prefer it.↩
This is a trick we’ll discuss in the cast iron seasoning post – the self cleaning cycle is how you strip the seasoning off of a pan you want to re-season.↩
Nonstick enough to cook eggs without sticking – but don’t try that until the pan has been in use for a while, and has a nice, slick layer of seasoning.↩
I’m not against nonstick cookware in general, especially for cooking eggs. Eggs stick to just about everything. But, overheating nonstick cookware is dangerous – nonstick coatings give off poisonous fumes starting at about 500°F. If you do cook with nonstick cookware, don’t EVER leave an empty pan on a lit burner. Put some oil in there; most cooking oils start to smoke at 400°F, and that’s plenty hot enough for whatever you want to cook.↩