While cast iron cookware was as common in kitchens as salt shakers when I was growing up, it fell out of favor with the advent of Tefal and succeeding generations of non-stick cookware beginning in the late 1950s.
Today, most nonstick cookware is called Teflon by the people, though Teflon is just Chemours’ (spun off from DuPont) brand name for its popular nonstick pans, and there are many other manufacturers making nonstick cookware today. The “new” nonstick technology was attractive to cooks then for the same reason it is today: it’s lightweight, cleans easily and food does not stick if the nonstick surface is undamaged.
But nonstick was not without its shortcomings. Chief among those was the fact that the nonstick surface was easily scratched and damaged and there were concerns about what chemicals were leaching out of the pans surfaces, especially after DuPont admitted in 2004 that had hidden information about known health hazards from its Teflon-coated cookware.
Those health concerns about polyfluoroalkyls and perfluoroalklys, also known as PFAS, along with a desire by many millennials inundated with technology to return to the old ways of doing things have led to a resurgence in use of cast iron. And many who have never used it before have questions about how to buy it, what they can and cannot do with it and how to maintain it after use.
The simplest way to try cast iron for the first time is to purchase a new, small to medium Lodge brand preseasoned skillet from your local box store or Amazon. Lodge Cast Iron is America’s largest manufacturer of cast iron cookware, and you can get a skillet from those places for around $16.
Lodge is not the only U.S. manufacturer, but because of their size and longevity – they’ve been in business since 1869 – their pans are usually the least expensive when purchased new. Camp Chef, Coleman, Texasport, Old Mountain, Heuk, Ozark Trail, Benjamin & Medwin and Bayou Classic are other current American makers of cast iron. They come in varying qualities. Several new smaller operations are now making vintage-style cast iron (which differs from new because it has a smooth surface) cookware, but their price point makes them better suited to the serious cast iron cook rather than the novice.
To attain its nonstick quality, cast iron pans must be seasoned, which is a process of polymerizing oil to the cooking surface. Lodge claims its pans come preseasoned, but I have heard complaints that, when new, that food still sticks. Many cast iron veterans buying a new Lodge would remove the company’s seasoning and season it themselves. But for the newbie I would recommend using the factory seasoning and exercising patience. All cast iron cookware – whether old and newly seasoned or new and factory seasoned – gets better with use.
Most cast iron veterans prefer vintage cast iron to new. Vintage cast iron can often be picked up for little or nothing at estate sales, yard sales, flea markets or thrift stores. Sometimes even valuable collector pieces are found at these sales and can be bought for a fraction of their real worth as collector’s pieces. That’s because cast iron can last for decades.
If you purchase or inherit a second- (or third-) hand cast iron piece, you’ll want to strip it and reseason it. The simplest way to clean and prepare it for reseasoning is to soak it in Easy Off Heavy Duty™ oven cleaner, but sites like The Cast Iron Collector go into great detail on a number of cleaning methods. (This is also the go-to sight for learning whether your estate sale find is valuable or not.)
There are number of methods recommended for seasoning your new or newly-cleaned pan. The best one I’ve tried was created after much trial and error by Jeffrey B. Rogers who hosts the Culinary Fanatics Facebook group. Here is how he describes the process:
The following is a seasoning method that works well for both antique cast iron cookware as well as modern cast iron cookware. I currently have about 100 skillets, which is nothing compared to others. But, I have a lot of experience seasoning cast iron and have finally settled on a method that seasons well, plus gives my skillets a beautiful look while being totally dry. You can’t argue with the photos.This method is the culmination of reading and testing so many other methods. I have just taken all of the little things that seem to work and combined them into what I feel is one solid method. To say this is ‘my method’ is true only in the fact that I have personally tested a ton of different methods to do this and have finally settled on a combination that is rock solid. So, thanks to anyone who has ever posted anything about seasoning – good or bad :)There are a ton of other methods you can use to season your cast iron cookware. Most of them are right in a lot of ways. This is just a tried and tested method that has worked extremely well for me.
- Heat oven to 200 degrees
- Put skillet in oven upside down and allow it to heat to 200 degrees. Approximately 20 minutes should be fine.
- Remove skillet from oven. Apply a liberal amount of Crisco shortening. I apply this with lint-free painter’s rags that I get from Home Depot.
- After applying the Crisco shortening, wipe it all off with an absorbent paper towel. I use blue Scott shop paper towels that I get from Home Depot. About $2 per roll.
- Put skillet back in oven upside down. After putting skillet in back in the oven, increase oven temperature to 300 degrees and set timer for 15 minutes.
- After 15 minutes has passed, remove skillet and wipe again – lightly. You will notice that when you remove it this time, any excess oil will have begun to pool. This is good, but the timing here is critical – you don’t want the oil to get cooked on like this.
- Place skillet back in oven upside down. Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees and let it go for two hours.
- Allow to cool completely in oven.
- Repeat if more sheen on your skillet is desired.
Here is why I do it this way – I prefer a very smooth, black patina on my cast iron. Wiping the iron twice keeps it from pooling. Antique cast iron can be hard to season because it is so smooth. A lot of times when I would season at 450-500 degrees, I felt like the shortening was just burning off, and it was. It is so much easier to season a rougher modern Lodge skillet than a really slick Griswold skillet. So, I was looking for a method that worked well for both. I found that 400 degrees was the magic temperature for me. But, with just an hour at 400 degrees, the skillet was still a little tacky. So, I did some testing with two hours at 400. Voila!!! A beautifully seasoned skillet in which the oil adhered nicely and the skillet was not sticky at all. When a lot of people photograph their cast iron cookware, it looks great because they wipe it down with oil first. I do not. Mine have a beautiful sheen but are totally dry and not sticky. And, they all cook beautifully.
When cooking with cast iron you should always preheat your pan before adding oil or food. Failure to do so will result in food sticking to the surface. To preheat, set the pan on the stove eye set to medium for three or four minutes.
There is something of an art to cooking with cast iron, and it takes a little practice and some patience. But once you’ve mastered it you’ll find cast iron far superior to any other cookware and won’t want to use anything else.
One great aspect of cast iron is that you can go from the stovetop to the oven with the same pan, or use it on the grill or over an open flame. You can even use it on glass cooktops as long as you don’t slide it around, which would scratch the cooktop. So get the pan hot, sear that steak and finish it in the oven.
To clean your cast iron after use it’s best to do so while the pan is still warm (not hot). Put it under hot running water and wipe it out with a paper towel or rag. If there are some stubborn spots, use a dishrag with a scouring side or patch, a chainmail cast iron scrubber, or just add salt and use it to scour the stubborn spots. It should come off easily after a couple of minutes. Soap is not necessary and will damage your seasoning, making waste of your previous efforts.
After washing, pour out any excess water and place the pan on a stove eye and set it to medium-high. When the water spots evaporate, rub a little Crisco or lard on the inside of the pan with a paper towel and wait until it begins to smoke. Wipe it again and then turn off the eye and let the pan cool. It’s ready for the next use.
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