When I got my first apartment ages ago, I needed to pick up some pots and pans. Being a poor graduate student (this was way before I started my Denver-area carpentry and tile installation business), my selections were based more on economy than style. Those cheap pots only survived a few years, and some years later I upgraded to some hard anodized Calphalon pieces. I still have those but now I do 90 to 95% of my cooking on old fashioned cast iron. Cast iron cookware is battle tank tough and once well seasoned will perform just as nicely as any non-stick pan I have ever used. If I knew then what I know now, I could have saved some big bucks.
The classics never die
In my kitchen I have 3 main cast iron workhorses. Weighing in at a bit over 18 ½ pounds is my all time favorite, a “coal top” 8 qt Dutch oven. The other two mainstays are a 12” skillet and a 10” skillet. My “Dutchy” has seen more use than any other single pot in my kitchen. I use it for stir-fry, large batches of pasta sauce, stews and slow roasting my dry rub ribs or chicken. I have even used it to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. When we go camping it comes along as well to prepare our favorite desert of cowboy cobbler. Here the coal top is used to its full potential. When breakfast comes around the top doubles as a griddle over the campfire.
The lesser-used cast iron ensemble in my kitchen includes a pair of 6” skillets, a chicken fryer combo (a deep skillet with a skillet lid), and a wedge-shaped cornbread pan.
Seasoning is key
Regular use and proper cleaning techniques will keep them performing well for generations. I remember my grandmother using cast iron pans when I was a youngster, and some of those pans belonged to her grandmother. My brother has a few cast iron pans that date back to the 1800’s, which shows just how long they can last. He got hooked on cast iron after having some of my cowboy cobbler.
A well-seasoned cast iron pan is a breeze to use. The seasoning can come from the factory, like the Lodge brand pre-seasoned pans, or it can be done at home with some oil and the oven.
To keep a cast iron pan performing at its best you need to follow some basic guidelines. The first is to not use soap when cleaning. This may sound weird to some but it is one trick to keep the seasoning intact. I use hot water and a green kitchen scrubby sponge. That’s it. It takes all of 10 seconds or so to clean anything but the worst baked-on mess. For those really hard issues an overnight soak in hot water does the trick.
Once the pan has been cleaned, a few drops of oil wiped inside keep it ready for the next use. Many folks will warm a freshly washed pan on the stovetop to drive off any residual moisture, then apply a few drops of oil.
Depending on what was prepared in the pan, touch up seasoning can be performed on an as needed basis. Acidic foods, like tomato sauces, can dull some of the seasoning, as well as an overly aggressive scrub. Your goal is to maintain a satiny black appearance; when the surface becomes lighter in color or when it approaches a dull gray color a touch up season is needed.
For touch up, a teaspoon of oil and a few minutes on the stove top is all is that is needed to return the satin black. When the seasoning is just right, water will bead up and dance about in the pan.
With health concerns on the use of aluminum cookware and certain non-stick surfaces, cast iron makes perfect sense to me. The pans can last forever and cost far less than “fancy” cookware, so what’s not to love?