All across the country, cooks are rekindling a love affair with cast-iron cookware. Sales of newly manufactured cast iron have risen steadily over the last decade, and where once you could find a box of cast-iron cookware at a garage sale or flea market for a quarter, those finds are harder and harder to come by as collectors snap them up. Some collectors will pay hundreds of dollars for a specific vintage piece. Several new manufacturers have started up in recent years, and cast iron seems to be the new chic cookware.
What’s all the buzz about? Is cast iron really all that, and is vintage really better than new? And, if you are on the verge of delving into cast-iron cooking, what are some of the basic pieces you need to start your collection?
Back in the day
Casting iron is one of the oldest skills known to man. As far back as the 5th century B.C., metalsmiths in China were making cast-iron pots, as well as plowshares and other utilitarian items. The skill took some time to travel west, but eventually it reached England, where the craft was used to make cannons and ammunition for them. One of the most common uses of cast iron was the cannonball. Fortunately, people have since decided to cook with it instead.
Cast iron is made by heating pig iron — a derivative of iron ore — to over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and pouring the molten metal into molds made of sand. After the metal cools and hardens, the sand mold is knocked away, and a brand new pot or pan emerges. A little polishing, especially in the case of a new pan, and voilà!
Cast iron came into its own as cookware in the mid-19th century. Every hearth prior to that had a cast-iron cook pot, and most meals were cooked over the hearth fire. But with more modern foundries and techniques, manufacturers began to offer a broader range of items for the home cook. Cast iron was affordable, and nearly everyone could afford to have some type of cast-iron cookware. With the advent of the modern cookstove, a whole range of cast-iron products evolved to cook on it.
The 19th century gave rise to several prominent American manufacturers of cast-iron cookware. The Griswold Company was founded in 1865, originally making hinges and stove parts, and was known around the world for producing high-quality cookware that is still prized by collectors today. Certain pieces can fetch several hundred dollars from the avid collector, and Griswold cookware is highly sought after by cast-iron aficionados, who even today appreciate its quality. The creation of modern hi-tech cookware reduced the popularity of cast iron, and Wagner Manufacturing acquired Griswold in 1957. Founded in 1881, Wagner has a similar history and timeline to Griswold, and both companies ultimately became owned by the American Culinary Corporation.
Lodge Cast Iron was founded in 1896, and still operates the same foundry in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. The company is still owned by members of the founding family. In 2002, Lodge developed their line of pre-seasoned cast-iron cookware, and pre-seasoned has since become the industry standard. Lodge has an almost dizzying array of products available in their catalog, which for a cast-iron lover is pretty much the ultimate wishbook.
Regardless of the era or manufacturer, cast-iron cookware was built to last. Some 50- to 75-year-old pieces are still serviceable today.
In the 1950s, cast iron experienced a dip in popularity. Modern manufacturing techniques gave rise to products like Teflon, which elevated nonstick to a whole new level. Teflon’s nonstick properties immediately appealed to cooks, because cleanup took less time than seasoning a cast-iron skillet after each use.
Unfortunately, Teflon is also easy to chip and scratch, and ultimately the nonstick surface would lose its nonstick quality. Studies have shown that fumes from an overheated Teflon skillet may pose a health hazard to humans.
With Teflon on the outs, cooks of all skill levels have recently begun turning back to the tried and true cast iron. So, if you are ready to join the cast-iron family, what should you look for first?
Skillets. The first must-have piece of cast iron should be a standard skillet. A good 10-inch skillet is the true workhorse of any cast-iron collection. It can be used for frying, browning meat, simmering, roasting, sautéing, and stir-frying. It can go on the stovetop or in the oven. You can use a skillet to make the best pan pizza crust ever, and some purists insist that the only way to make cornbread or pineapple-upside-down cake is in a cast-iron skillet.
Because it is a single molded piece of metal, a cast-iron skillet can go from browning on the stovetop right into the oven. Try that with a plastic-handled skillet, and you will be sorely disappointed with the results. Just be sure to use a good hot pad when handling cast iron, whether in the oven or on the stovetop.
Cast-iron skillets come in a variety of sizes, ranging from 6 inches wide and 1-1/2 inches deep to 15 inches wide and 2-1/2 inches deep. Lodge also makes a beast of a 17-inch skillet, and instead of a single handle, it has two “helper handles” on either side. The average home cook won’t need such a pan, though, unless you are feeding an entire football team. The larger the pan, the larger the burner needs to be to accommodate it. A 10- or 12-inch skillet will do nicely for a family dinner or baking cakes, breads, and pan pizza. The smaller pans work well for side dishes, omelets, and smaller one- to two-person meals.
Dutch ovens. The Dutch oven is another workhorse, and like the skillet, it can be used in the oven or on the stovetop. A Dutch oven is a high-sided cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid. The lid is domed, which helps circulate heat and moisture. Because it has deeper sides than a skillet, it works well as a slow cooker. A Dutch oven can braise, roast, bake, and be used for soups and stews. Just about anything that’s cooked in a casserole dish can be cooked in a Dutch oven. The domed lid makes it useful for making soups and stews on the stovetop, and it’s unparalleled for baking rustic bread. If you can think it up, the Dutch oven can handle it, even deep-frying.
A Dutch oven can handle outdoor cooking over an open fire, but for cooking over coals, most prefer the Dutch oven’s cousin, the camp or cowboy Dutch oven. The shape is similar, and both have a handle for suspending over a fire, but the cowboy oven will have a flat lid with lipped sides and usually three short legs on the bottom. (The lid can also be flipped and used as a griddle.) The legs keep the bottom of the pot from resting directly on the coals, and coals can be placed on the flat lid. This allows for even heating, and food inside won’t overcook on the bottom while the top is still baking. With the legs on the bottom, it would be difficult to use on the stove, although, in a pinch it could work in the oven.
Griddles. Another piece that deserves a place in the kitchen is a griddle pan. While you can make a grilled cheese or pancakes in your skillet, these pans make grilling easy, as the low sides allow food to be turned with ease. Lodge makes a couple different sizes and shapes of griddle pans, and they are often easy to find at flea markets and garage sales. Ribbed grill pans are also available, but these are not quite as versatile, as the ribs make the pan suitable for grilling and not much else.
Lodge makes a two-sided griddle that fits over two burners, one side flat for pancakes and similar items and the other ribbed for grilling. I’ve had one of these for a number of years, and find it quite useful. Using the ribbed side for grilling works better outside than inside, but you can get pretty decent results by using the stovetop to get a good sear and grill marks on the meat, then finishing it in the oven. Otherwise, foods tend to smoke and splatter a little more than you might like to deal with in the kitchen. I use the flat side for making quesadillas, and only turning on one burner, I can keep the quesadilla ingredients warm on the back, while cooking on the front burner.
Baking pans. A pizza pan, or large baking pan, is another must-have if you are a pizza and cookie lover like I am. This large round pan measures a substantial 14 inches in diameter, and because it is a bit heavy, it’s nice that it comes with two handles. It’s a very versatile pan that is suited for just about any baking application. This pan makes a great crispy pizza crust, and you may find your high-maintenance pizza stone relegated to the cobwebs.
Fry pans. A fry pan can be another welcome addition to the cast-iron collection. Deeper than a skillet, fry pans allow for deep-frying without as much splattering. With a handle, and slightly shallower than a Dutch oven, they’re also great for simmering soups and stews. You can easily find combo fry pan and skillet, and the lid is designed to double as a skillet.
Vintage vs. modern
Now that you have a wish list for cast iron, should you start scouring yard sales, or stick with a new pre-seasoned model?
There is very little difference in the casting process between the old skillets and the modern creations. The new ones may be a little thicker, but not enough to make a difference to the average cook. In the old casting process, pans were usually polished, giving them a smoother surface than modern ones. But with enough use, the new pans will become just as nonstick, although maybe not quite as smooth and shiny as your grandmother’s vintage cast-iron skillet. Many aficionados claim that vintage cast iron works better, but the older pieces often just have the advantage of decades of use and seasoning, especially if they were well cared for.
Newer pre-seasoned cast iron can be used right away, without going through the whole seasoning process, although until it’s good and broken in, cook with plenty of fat, or cook foods with higher fat content. Avoid acidic foods like tomatoes or citrus, as acidic foods are hard on the seasoning. You’ll want to keep it seasoned after each use.
Vintage flea market finds may require quite a bit of restoration before they are useable. If you are new to cast iron, and unless you inherit your grandmother’s collection, you may be better off sticking with a new piece until you get the hang of cooking with cast iron. After that, the sky’s the limit!
Whether you’re dusting off that cast-iron skillet that’s been languishing in the cupboard, you’ve inherited a family heirloom, or you’re just starting to get your feet wet in the world of cast iron, it won’t be long before you experience what all the fuss is about.
Quick Tips for Cooking with Cast Iron
Get it hot. Contrary to popular myth, cast iron doesn’t heat more evenly, but it retains heat brilliantly. You can get it screaming hot to get a wonderful sear on steaks and other meats. Let it get good and hot before putting anything in it.
Saturated fats are better for seasoning cast iron. Lard, bacon grease, and such will contribute to attaining that wonderful nonstick patina. While a new piece may not have that whisper-smooth finish that a vintage piece does, with time and lots of use, it will be nearly as nonstick as anything modern.
Lodge has remained, until recently, the only American manufacturer of cast iron. A new company, The Field Company, began a Kickstarter campaign to build a foundry and start producing cast-iron ware, and the Portland-based Finex began production in 2012. Wagner cast iron is available for purchase, and as of January 1, 2017, Griswold cast iron will reportedly be back in production by American Culinary. Both can be found at www.WagnerWare.com.
Several European manufacturers make enamel-clad pieces. These pans get rave reviews, but can be a little on the pricey side. Camp Chef also has an extensive line of products, but they are manufactured overseas.
Enamel can be chipped if not careful (generally not covered under warranty), and care has to be taken when storing it, but enamel can handle acidic foods. For my money, a basic high-quality American-made cast-iron skillet can’t be beat.
Create delicious dinners with your new or restored cast iron.