The cast iron skillet may be the most iconic cooking vessel in the American kitchen, with some pieces passed from generation to generation. In fact, my Memaw has her grandmother’s cast iron skillets, and I have already staked a claim on those. I love the cast iron pots and pans I have and rarely cook a meal without at least one on the stove.
What Makes Cast Iron So Great?
Cast iron pots are extremely versatile, and they possess some distinct advantages:
- They are nearly indestructible.
- They become more user friendly as they are used.
- They retain heat and allow for even heating and cooking.
- Uncoated cast iron is often much cheaper than other types of cookware.
- They are compatible with almost any type of cook top.
Just how many types of cast iron pans are there?
While the cast iron skillet is the most recognizable piece of cast iron in most kitchens, cast iron comes in a cornucopia of shapes and sizes. In my kitchen, I routinely use my skillets, Dutch ovens, braisers, and au gratin dishes. You can also find grill pans, roasting pans, griddles, and even sauciers and sauce pans. Virtually any piece of cookware can be made of cast iron.
In addition to all the different types of cookware you can find, they will usually be offered in two main varieties: enameled and uncoated cast iron. Enameled cast iron is iron that is coated in an durable, glassy finish, giving it an almost nonstick surface. This makes it very easy to use, and removes any need to season your cookware, though it reduces the overall durability of your cookware.
Uncoated cast iron is just iron cookware that has not been coated in an enamel finish. While plain cast iron pans require more careful maintenance than enameled ones, it does have some unique strengths. It is more durable that enameled cast iron (not being vulnerable to crazing), is safer to use at extremely high temperatures, and there is some clinical evidence it can help treat anemia by releasing iron into the food. I am not a medical professional, so please don’t make medical decisions based on the things I write.
Why would we cook on anything else?
Cast iron has a ton of strengths and is incredibly versatile, but it is not a kitchen panacea. These beautiful and incredibly useful pans do have a few drawbacks:
- They can be quite heavy, especially when filled with food.
- They require some maintenance that other types of cookware don’t need.
- If using uncoated cast iron, particularly acidic sauces (like a tomato sauce) can strip the seasoning off your pan and give the sauce a metallic taste.
- Due to is capacity for heat retention, it is not ideal for cooking delicate dishes that require precise temperature control.
What’s Deal with the Maintenance?
This section is mainly for uncoated cast iron, since enameled pieces are relatively low-maintenance — many varieties are even dishwasher safe. The most important aspect of cast iron maintenance is developing the seasoning. These days, most manufacturers season their cookware before it leaves the factory, giving the consumer a head start on that nonstick patina that makes it such a kitchen mainstay.
The seasoning is just a thin coating created by treating the metal with a small amount of oil and exposing it to moderate heat to help the oil molecules bond with the pan. This protects the iron and gives it a virtually nonstick finish. I will show you my technique for seasoning cast iron cookware next week.
In addition to getting a quality seasoning, you need to take special care when cleaning these pieces. People have a lot of different ideas about the best method (you could write a whole book devoted to the various techniques for cleaning your uncoated cast iron). However, most people agree that you should avoid soap, wash with only warm water and a sponge, and then dry immediately. Depending on how well seasoned your pan is, you may also want to rub a small amount of oil onto the surface of your pan.
Conventional wisdom decrees that you should avoid soap when cleaning your cast iron, but I have known people who have been doing so for decades on the same pans and have even used it myself when I was dealing with stubborn grease. The most important thing is that you should clean your cast iron as quickly as possible, and you should never let it air dry.
What do you think?
Do you have a favorite piece of cast iron cookware? What do you think of enameled vs. uncoated cast iron?