Most great chefs, particularly ones that work in home kitchens, will tell you that cast iron is the cookware of champions. Whether slow-cooking a stew in a Dutch oven or pan-frying some home-fries for breakfast, the flavor and texture out of a cast iron pot or pan are better.
Cast iron cookware has been around for centuries now. In fact, other than rocks, iron implements are one of the first things humans cooked on. And, somehow, we got that right early on. Since then, things have gone downhill a little. Stainless steel has proven ridiculous in terms of food sticking to it, and many non-stick surfaces are a suspected health risk. But, cast iron has stayed steady and true.
Nevertheless, some people have been scared off of the old-school skillets, and it’s time to right that wrong, noting both why cast iron is amazing and why it isn’t so scary.
Go to thrift shops, yard sales, or antique stores and odds are you’ll run across some old cast iron cookware. It’s nothing to find a skillet that’s 50 years old and still going strong. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to stumble on a cast iron piece that dates back to the 1800s. This stuff was built to last as if it is made out of iron…aha!
Because cast iron pots and pans are made out of one solid piece of iron, there are no handles to break or screws to wiggle free. They just are. They can be tossed away and forgotten for decades, and with a little elbow grease (cooking oil to be exact), they’ll spring back to action in no time.
High Emissivity & Heat Retention
While cast iron skillets have the reputation of cooking food evenly, this isn’t always necessarily the case. Cast iron actually has poor thermal conductivity, meaning if heat is in one spot but not another, it doesn’t spread the heat around very well. So, on a stovetop, there can be hot spots and cold spots.
However, cast iron is remarkable for its heat emissivity and heat retention. When hot, it exudes heat beyond just the metal surface, which means it does cook food more evenly from top to bottom. Cast iron cookware also stays hot for longer once it is hot, not dropping the temperature significantly when food is added to the mix.
- Tip: To get an even cook at the sides of the skillet, preheat it in the oven so that the entire pan gets hot. Just remember to use a potholder when handling it afterward.
Truth be told, a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is relatively non-stick. This isn’t to the same degree as Teflon-coated pans are non-stick, but then again, Teflon-coated pans flake plastic off into the food, and there are some health concerns linked to Teflon-coated cookware.
Cast iron cookware becomes non-stick by “seasoning” the metal. This involves rubbing it down in cooking oil with a high smoke point, such as peanut oil, grapeseed oil, or canola oil. The cast iron implement is heated, oiled, and baked with nothing else in it. The baked oil creates a hard, non-stick layer over the metal.
- Tip: Cooking things a little longer will often make them pop off the cast iron surface better. They crisp up in the long run, separating from the hot surface.
Improves with Use
Another plus to the seasoning process with cast iron is that, unlike Teflon-coated stuff, the cast iron non-stick surface improves with use. This improvement is especially the case when roasting or frying things. After all, this just further oils the surface.
Furthermore, properly caring for cast iron cookware involves washing it and towel drying it after every use. Then, to really go the extra mile, the cookware can be further dried on the stovetop, with a layer of oil wiped on after it is completely dried by heat.
Because cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens are 100% metal, they are extremely versatile. Unlike stuff with plastic handles or other questionable parts, cast iron cookware can be used in just about any circumstance: ovens (Cornbread! Biscuits!), stovetops (Gravy! Pan-seared tempeh!), induction cooktops, campfires (Chili!)…
Not only is this versatility handy in that, with cast iron, less cooking equipment is needed, but it also means that food can move between stovetop and oven for browning up, making casseroles, and so on.
- Tip: For things that brown too much or burn, say tofu for tofu scramble or potatoes for hash browns, use steam as an advantage by putting a lid on when cooking them, even adding a touch of water if necessary. Take the lid off shortly before dishing stuff out.
Cast iron cookware is certainly nothing to be afraid of. Despite warnings otherwise, well-seasoned cast iron can be washed with soap and water, it can be scrubbed (though it often isn’t necessary), and it can be used to cook acidic foods (though slow-cooked tomato sauce might be better in something else). And, without a doubt, the payback—a lifetime investment that costs very little—is ten-fold.
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