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Cast No Aspersions on Cast-Iron Cookware

Of Mice and Mountain MenCast-iron cookware has fallen in and out of favor with the masses over the course of settling and developing the North American continent. Early on, cast iron was one of the few materials practical for cooking implements because of its non-toxicity and durability. But as steel and aluminum were developed the dance began. Today, it seems, cast iron is again enjoying a resurgence of popularity.

History of Cast Iron Cookware

Cast iron was developed during the 5th century B.C. in China. It was originally used to make ploughshares, pots and pagoda parts. Steel was more desirable for some of these uses, but was much more expensive so only the wealthy could afford it. In Europe, cast iron was not in use until the 15th century and its earliest uses were for cannon and shot.

Cast-iron cookware was developed in China during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.). First used for salt evaporation, cast iron cauldrons and cooking pots became favored for their durability and ability to retain heat, which improved the quality of meals cooked in them.

Europeans favored the material as well because they tended to cook in pots hung in a hearth or fireplace. Once wood or coal fired stoves took over, the cookware began to change, but then the stoves were cast iron. These trends were reflected in early American homes as well. Cast-iron pots and pans were durable, easy to use, and heated well. Cooking pots and pans with legless, flat bottoms were designed when cooking stoves became popular; this period of the late 19th century saw the introduction of the flat cast iron skillet.

Cast-iron cookware was especially popular among homemakers and housekeepers during the first half of the 20th century. Most American households had at least one cast-iron cooking pan, and such brands as Griswold and Wagner Ware were especially popular. Although both of these companies folded in the late 1950s and the brands are now owned by the American Culinary Corp., Wagner and Griswold cast-iron pots and pans from this era continue to see daily use among many households in the present day; they are also highly sought after by antique collectors and dealers. The Lodge Manufacturing is currently the only major manufacturer of cast-iron cookware in the United States, as most other cookware suppliers use pots and pans made in Asia or Europe.

Cast iron fell out of favor in the 1960s and 1970s, as teflon-coated aluminum non-stick cookware was introduced and quickly became the item of choice in many kitchens. Today, a large selection of cookware can be purchased from kitchen suppliers, of which cast iron comprises only a small fraction. However, the durability and reliability of cast iron as a cooking tool has ensured its survival, and cast iron cookware is still recommended by most cooks and chefs as an essential part of any kitchen.[1]

Cast Iron Cookware Set

Photo courtesy: Lodge Cast Iron

Strengths of Cast-Iron Cookware

Cast iron’s durability and ability to withstand high temperatures without warping made it popular with cooks throughout history. It is long lasting: some cast iron pans have been circulating for a hundred years. Even rusty models found in thrift stores or garage sales can be restored and made usable again – as long as they aren’t cracked or very badly pitted by rust.

Cast iron’s ability to retain and radiate heat makes it an excellent choice for searing steaks, making long-cooking stews, and baking cornbread and cobblers. Aluminum is highly conductive and heats more evenly, but the surface heat dissipates quickly, so it does not reach as deeply into the food as cast iron.

Steel is more shock resistant but it can warp, especially under high heat conditions. Cast iron does not.

Other materials need a coating of plastic or ceramic to keep food from sticking to them and burning, but a properly treated cast iron pan or pot is nearly as nonstick as some non-stick plastic surfaces.

Weaknesses of Cast Iron Cookware

Cast iron’s main detractor is that it is heavy: much heavier than steel or aluminum pans. While this material is quite durable (in that you are not likely to wear a thin spot no matter how much you use it) and heat resistant, cast iron is brittle. Brittleness comes with being hard but not tempered. If you strike a cast iron pan against something hard, you may crack the pan. Once cracked, cast iron is difficult to repair.

Cast iron does not heat as evenly as other materials, so if you’re using a large pan on a small burner you will want to let the pan heat a while before you start cooking to avoid hot/cool spots.

The most useful cast iron pans have handles of cast iron so they may be used both stove top and in the oven. But these handles will get very hot, so a pot holder or oven mitt is needed to move them about. Wood or plastic handled cookware may not be oven safe.

Detractors like to say that cast iron is difficult to use, difficult to care for, and difficult to store properly, but these claims are myths, and we will look at these in a bit.

To be continued …

In Part 2, we look at:

  • Cast-iron cookware manufacturers and where to find their products

  • The difference between vintage and modern cast iron kitchenware

  • Restoring a cast iron pan

  • Seasoning cast iron cookware