Cooking with Cast Iron

The hottest trend in cookware goes back thousands of years.

Skillet stir fry

The cast-iron skillet is one of the most popular cookware items on the market.

iStockphoto.com/Elke Dennis

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When Food Network stars Mario Batali and Paula Deen, genius Mexican restaurateur Rick Bayless and domestic diva Martha Stewart are all pitching lines of cast iron, you know it has to be scorching.

When French stalwart Le Creuset, longtime makers of Dutch ovens for the gourmet class, serves up its old faithful designs in colors like Kiwi and Caribbean Blue, there’s got to be some serious luring of youthful tastes going on.

If you talk to kitchen connoisseurs – from cowboy cook-off champs to trendy chefs – one pan rules them all. There’s one pan you want if you were stranded on a desert island, or had to move into a new home with hungry mouths to feed and no luggage but what you can fit in the trunk of a Prius.

That pan would be the cast-iron skillet.

The conductive quality of cast iron smoothes out the uneven heat of the crankiest electric burners, gently sweats onions, brings frying oil to just the right temperature and keeps it there. The skillet leaps into service to flatten a chicken breast, crush cookie crumbs or, in a pinch, hammer a nail or clobber a mouse. Iron puts the perfect crust on corn bread, releases frittatas without regrets. You can sear a sesame-crusted salmon fillet one moment, rinse the pan, wipe it clean with a paper towel and then poach pears for dessert. Fire it up dry to toast nuts or spices. Plop it on a wooden cutting board at the table to keep a gratin warm. Exploit its willingness to go from stovetop to oven to table. Use it. Use it again.

Cast iron sees frequent use as proof of your love.

Perry and Rosalind Wells of Loveland, Colorado, surely love theirs. They do most of their everyday cooking in pans that bear on their bottoms the mark of Griswold, a foundry in Erie, Pennsylvania, that began operating in 1865 and sold its operations to Wagner in 1952. Griswold and Wagner pans are collectibles that can sell for hundreds of dollars, especially the rarer sizes and cast-iron muffin, or “gem,” pans.

But the Wellses found most of theirs at relatives’ estate sales or at flea markets for as little as $30. They’re especially fond of a pan they call their “chicken cooker” – a deep, Griswold skillet that came with a second, shallower skillet that fits onto it and can be used as a lid. “The versatility of that set is just wonderful,” says Perry Wells, who believes the pan belonged to his father’s second wife.

His advice to pan scavengers? “If you’re looking at a pan to cook with, the finish is all-important. Rosalind’s mom’s pan has no name on it, and it has a beautiful finish.”

They also own a Griswold waffle maker, which they’ve tried to adapt to home use, but gave up on. “It’s a gorgeous little tool,” says Wells, a passionate collector of old tools – “but the waffles still stick to it.”

The smooth-as-glass finish inside the Wellses’ skillets makes them virtually nonstick when kept properly seasoned. That willingness to let go is one of the sterling qualities of cast iron, and it’s supremely important for releasing eggs, the universal measure of a pan’s seasoning. In fact, when Cooks Illustrated magazine tested cast-iron skillets in 2007, the ability to release scrambled eggs was one of the first tests – and one of the last.

Cooks found most of the skillets held on to way too much egg until the second egg test, which came at the end of a barrage of other cooking hurdles. In just those few uses, the releasing ability of most of the pans had markedly improved.

But most of those tests were done on new pans. Is buying old any better?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no, says David G. Smith, “The Pan Man,” who has spent decades cooking in, collecting and writing about cast-iron cookware and collectibles. With partner Chuck Wafford, he authored “The Book of Griswold & Wagner” and “The Book of Wagner & Griswold,” known to collectors as the “blue book” and the “red book” respectively.

Though it was collectors who first got him interested in antique cast-iron cookware, 75 percent of his sales is now of items that’ll be put to the ultimate tests – eggs, bacon, grilled cheese sandwiches and whatever else home cooks have a yen for.

“People are paying collector prices for pieces for home use,” he says.

Smith has been tracking the trend for years on his Web site, www.PanMan.com, and says interest has been on the upswing for at least 20 years and began with fears that aluminum cookware contributed to Alzheimer’s disease, he says. Plus, “the Teflon issue has come and gone several times.”

But still you want the nonstick, you say? Would you settle for the next best thing? Go for enameled cast iron. It’s available in almost any price range, at stores from Kmart to Williams-Sonoma and everything in between. You can get just about any shape, size and color.

And a whole realm of recipes opens up when you consider the enameled cast-iron covered oven. Braising. Searing and then braising. Stews. Chowders. Roasts. Ragouts. At The Cupboard, an independent kitchen store in Fort Collins, Colorado, cookware buyer Polly Erickson carries multiple lines of enameled cast iron and preseasoned, unfinished cast iron.

“Everybody is on the cast-iron bandwagon because it’s such great stuff,” she says. She steers most buyers toward enameled pans for their ease of cleanup. “Even with burned-on food, you just soak it in warm water, and you can take everything off with your finger.”

But that ease inflicts premium costs. Le Creuset, made in France, can run around $200 for a medium-sized Dutch oven. Batali’s 5-quarts cost about $100. Plain, pre-seasoned cast-iron pans are significantly cheaper. Another distinguishing characteristic: country of origin. Le Creuset is made in France; most other less-expensive enameled cast-iron cookware is made in China.

If customers can only buy one piece of enameled cast iron, Erickson steers them toward a 5-quart oval covered oven.  

“It’s very versatile; you can do a bird, a roast, a casserole, a gratin. … Any smaller, and you won’t get several meals out of it, and you’re not getting your money’s worth. I like to have leftovers, and I like to make enough to last more than one meal.”

Bumps are there for a reason

The lids of some enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens have bumps, or spikes that return moisture to all areas of whatever you’re cooking, effectively continually basting them. Ovens without the bumps – or the concentric rings some older Dutch oven-lids have – can only send condensing moisture down the sides of the pan. Le Creuset’s covered ovens come sans bumps; ovens by Batali and Staub (a lesser-known brand from France) have them. Some older ovens have raised rings that serve the same function.

The dimples are important for a cooking method that requires moisture to be retained in the pot, such as the dishes in Elizabeth Yarnell’s Glorious One-Pot Meals. Layered ingredients, especially in recipes that contain rice or other grains, need the returning moisture to be evenly distributed.

Susan Clotfelter writes about food and gardening for The Denver Post and blogs at  Digging In . She has two no-name cast-iron skillets and recently scored her mother's 7-quart, flame-orange Le Creuset Dutch oven.