A Little Bit of History
There is absolutely nothing new about cast iron – in fact, the Chinese are credited with the first cast iron creations all the way back in the 5th Century BC. The first cast iron cookware has been dated back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Making cast iron is one of the simplest forms of smelting and molding molten iron. It’s made with something called “pig” iron which is a relatively impure variety of iron and what emerges from a super-hot blast furnace when iron ore is reduced. In order to make a piece of cast iron cookware a mold is made from a mixture of sand and clay and left to dry and harden. Once that’s set, molten iron is poured into the hollow mold and allowed to cool. After breaking off the mold and removing any irregularities the pan is now ready to be boxed, shipped and sold. It’s a pretty straightforward and simple process which makes cast iron cookware so dang affordable.
Cast iron is extremely dense (read: heavy) which makes it retain heat extraordinarily well. In addition, since the melting point of cast iron is 2,800°F it can go from stovetop to oven without a problem. Due to its ability to retain heat, anytime I need to sear or brown food I immediately reach for my cast iron skillet. Cast iron also works well for frying and braising – making it a jack-of-all-trades. What this means is you can cook anything from steaks to french fries to stews to cornbread and just about anything else in between. Another great aspect of cast iron cookware is that if properly cleaned and cared for it can last for many generations.
Types & Varieties of Cast Iron Cookware
Due to the fact that cast iron cookware is made from molds, there is a wide range of cast iron cookware available to you. You can find sizes ranging from a small skillet only big enough to hold one egg to a 7+ quart dutch oven to a 20″ x 10″ griddle for your stove top. In fact, I own four different pieces of cookware made from cast iron.
Before I recommend a few items to get you started, let’s take a look at the difference between bare cast iron and enameled cast iron. Bare cast iron is the cheaper form and what was described up above in our walk through history. Enameled cast iron is a bit different in that it has a porcelain enamel glaze applied during the finishing process. This prevents the iron from being able to rust and eliminates the need for seasoning the pan (we’ll talk about this in the next section). In addition, pigments can be added to the enamel to produce a wide variety of colors with the Le Creuset brand being the most popular. The drawback to these benefits is that the cost is much higher (10x) and it doesn’t have the same ability to withstand searing heat and resist sticking as bare cast iron.
Now that we have a good understanding of where cast iron came from, what makes it an awesome choice for cooking and the different varieties, let me give you a few recommendations for starting out with cast iron cookware:
- The Everyday Option – I use my 10″ cast iron skillet more often than anything else I own. It’s great for browning meats for tacos, searing steak and everything else that appreciates a nice, high heat.
- Grilling Indoors – Since I live in a city apartment without any outdoor space, I have to make grilling work on a stovetop. I attempted to curb my grilling appetite by purchasing a grill pan with ridges that mimic a grill so that you can get those nice grill marks. However, after using it I wish I had went with the option that didn’t have sidewalls since it is extremely hard to get a spatula in there to flip your food. So, take it from me and go with this sideless option instead, you’ll be much happier, I promise.
- Stews, Braising & Frying – When you need a deeper dish than what a standard skillet provides, go with the dutch oven style of cast iron cookware. These come in sizes ranging from as small as 1-quart all the way up to 8+ quarts. You will also see a proliferation of enameled cast iron in this category, specifically the Le Creuset brand. I went all-out last year and purchased a 5.5-quart Le Creuset Dutch Oven, while it was expensive, it’s an absolute joy to use and looks great while not in use. If you are looking for a cheaper, non-enameled option, Lodge makes a great one. Finally, if you do any sort of car-camping or enjoy cooking over a roaring fire, take a look at this camp option that has legs that allow you to set it on top of coals – I’ve had some awesome biscuits and cobblers made over a campfire with this model.
- Accessory – Since I like to cook burgers, pork chops, steaks, etc. on my cast iron skillet, I like a grill press to ensure the whole surface of the food touches the cast iron pan for a great sear. This simple grill press does a great job of applying pressure and ensuring all the entire food surface is in contact with the pan. Do yourself a favor and grab one of these if you cook anything in your cast iron skillet.
Like I said above, I own four pieces of cast iron cookware: a 10″ skillet, a grill pan, the 5.5-quart Dutch Oven and a grill press. This would pretty much complete a well-rounded cast iron cookware collection. The only other thing to add is a large griddle for cooking lots of burgers, pancakes, eggs, bacon and sausages. Since I typically only cook for one or two, I haven’t had the need to purchase this option. If I were going to buy one, I would look at the reversible option that has a flat surface on one side and ridges on the other, like this one.
Care & Cleaning
Caring for your cast iron is extremely simple and straightforward. Since it’s basically just iron you don’t have to worry about overheating or chipping the surface of it. You can go from using it to ward off burglars to cooking in five seconds flat! The only thing you need to do for the long-term care of your cast iron is to season it once a year or so. What’s seasoning you ask? Well, this time it has nothing to do with salt or pepper. Seasoning means to add a layer of fat to your pan and roast it in an oven to add a protective coating/layer to your cookware which also protects from rust. The process is dead simple:
- Make sure your pan is completely clean and dry, if it’s not, take a few minutes and give it a good scrubbing and either let it air dry or dry it off with a few paper towels.
- Take any fat, this can be bacon grease, lard, peanut oil, shortening – you get the picture, and spread a thin layer across the entire surface of the cast iron (handles, the bottom, sides, EVERYTHING).
- Heat your oven to 350°.
- Place your cast iron upside down (this prevents the fat from pooling) in your oven. I also take a sheet pan or some aluminum foil and lay it underneath the cookware to catch any drips or drops.
- Leave it in there for an hour, untouched.
- Once an hour goes by, take it out of the oven and let it cool down to room temperature.
- Put it in storage or cook something
As for daily cleaning, you have a couple of different options at your disposal. All three of these methods work well, it is really just personal preference on what method you want to use. One word of warning: cleaning your cast iron is akin to religion or politics to some people and many heated debates are known to have taken place over which method is the best, but never fear, all three are perfectly acceptable options.
- Soap & Water – With this method, you wash your cast iron like you would any other piece of cookware; however, when you are finished dry the cookware immediately and coat with a thin layer of oil. This is the method I use and it works well without removing any of the seasoning or coating on the pan. I dry the pan by putting it on the stovetop over low-to-medium heat for a few minutes to let all the water evaporate off and then I use a paper towel to apply a thin layer to the cooking surface.
- Salt, Oil & Paper Towels – Another method is to pour some salt and oil onto the cooking surface and taking a paper towel or two to scour the pan. This option works well, but it can take some elbow grease to remove everything. This is the method recommended by Alton Brown and I used to use this method before switching to soap and water.
- Wipe and Walk Away – The last option is to just take a paper towel and wipe up any remnants that remain after cooking. This is what I’ll call the purists option.
If you’ve never cooked using cast iron cookware, you owe it to yourself (and your guests) to grab at least a skillet and go to town. I promise you won’t be disappointed with the results. The best part about cast iron is you can get the entire starter set I explained below for right around $100 – try doing that with stainless steel or Teflon! Happy cooking!
Wikipedia Cast Iron – A history of all things cast iron
Wikipedia Cast Iron Cookware – Similiar to the above link but with a focus only on cookware made from cast iron
Lodge – An overview of the #1 US maker of cast iron cookware’s recommended cleaning process with further links to a variety of cast iron products that they manufacture