When people think of cast-iron cookware, it usually brings to mind savory beans, stews, and other foods cooked over an open campfire. There is no doubt that any food cooked outside over the fire tastes so much better. Part of that is due to the fresh air and part is due to being cooked in cast iron. Many folks forget that cast iron can be used in modern kitchens as well.
Cast-iron cookware is made by hand pouring iron into sand molds that have been carefully formed. Although this process has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years, the vintage cast iron is definitely of higher quality than the more modern. In the old days, the cookware was polished until the pebbly surface was satiny smooth. By the 1950s, production was scaled up and streamlined so much so that the final polishing step was dropped from the process. Thus, modern cast iron has a bumpy, pebbly surface, which makes the vintage so much better.
Of all the brands, Griswold and Wagner are considered the gold standards. If you are lucky enough to find one of these brands at a flea market or garage sale, you have the best of both worlds since you can use it and still have it retain its value. Since this was the cookware of choice in olden days, many times cast iron pots, skillets, and other pans are found in old barns, garages, etc. Most of these finds are rusted and look as though they would be worthless. Far from it, they only need cleaned up and seasoned.
First, all rust and old food residue must be removed. There are various ways to accomplish this, depending on the severity. Many times scouring it with steel wool will do the trick. If this doesn’t seem to be removing it, heating may help loosen the residue. This can be done by putting the piece in a 400 degree Fahrenheit oven for an hour or putting it on a gas grill and “cooking” it for an hour. An added benefit of this method is that it also sanitizes the pan.
We were lucky enough to find an old Griswold skillet in our barn that really needed some tender loving care. After “firing” it in the gas grill and rubbing it with steel wool, it still needed some help. We put a solution of half vinegar and half water in the sink and soaked it, which loosened the rest of the grime. Then we poured table salt on it and rubbed some more with steel wool. That really did the trick and got it back to the iron.
After you get to this point, it is so important that you season the cookware with layers of oil. To do this, make sure the pan is dry then put it over heat until it just begins to smoke. Then pour a thin layer of vegetable oil (or oil of your choice) in and rub it over all the surfaces, even the outside. Let it cool and repeat this process a few times. Doing this will create a nonstick surface.
The nonstick property does not come from the layer of oil, but rather from the layer of polymerized oil that is created when oil is rubbed in and heated repeatedly. This process breaks down the oil into a plastic-like substance that bonds to the surface of the metal.
This is the part that causes the big controversy with cast-iron cookware. There are staunch believers that cast iron should never be exposed to dish detergent since it is a known fact that oil and water don’t mix and detergent is known for breaking down grease and oil. Although this is true, the other side of the fence proposes that the polymerized layer is not oil so detergent will not hurt it. I am taking the fifth on this one since neither side will budge on their opinion.
Whichever way you lean on this matter, the key to keeping your cookware shiny and nonstick is to keep it well seasoned, which means repeating the seasoning process whenever it begins to lose its shine and food begins to stick. If done correctly, the seasoning is very resilient because it is chemically bonded to the metal. For this reason, metal utensils will not hurt it. If little pieces of black chip off, it is probably carbonized bits of food rather than the seasoning.
Cast iron is really pretty easy to maintain if a few simple rules are followed. First, always season a new piece, whether it is brand new or an old relic. Some new cast iron is preseasoned but it is not as good as doing this process two or three times on your own. After each use, make sure it is cleaned by scraping all food bits and residue out. Whenever food begins to stick or it lose its shine, re-season it. And the best way to keep it seasoned is to use it. The enemy of cast iron is to let it set because even one drop of water or moisture will let it start to rust. The best rule of thumb is to pamper cast iron when you first get it and be gentle with it when you store it.
Of course, like everything else, there are pros and cons. On the pro side, food served in it will stay hot longer since the iron retains heat. You can enjoy the nonstick quality without nasty chemicals that are present in other nonstick surfaces, some of which emit toxic fumes when overheated and some contain perfluorocarbons, which are associated with various health problems. It can also boost your iron consumption.
On the negative side, it does not heat evenly since it can have hot spots where the direct heat is and the rest of the cooking surface will remain relatively cool. It also tends to chip or crack easily or rust if not kept properly seasoned.
Yes, it does take a little work to keep cast-iron cookware in tip top shape, but it is well worth it. If you have ever had cornbread, fried potatoes, bacon and a host of other foods cooked in the iron, you will never go back to other traditional cookware. Add an open flame to that cooking and it doesn’t get any better than that.