Thursday, February 6, 2014

Cooking with Cast Iron

Cooking with cast iron may seem old fashioned, but there are many reasons you should consider making it your go to cookware.  You may remember your grandmother or great-grandmother cooking with it.  There's a reason they didn't give up those heavy pans.

Cast iron comes in many shapes and sizes. There's the traditional black cast iron, but there's also the colorful enamel covered cookware. There are benefits to both types.

Traditional cast iron can be used for more than just camping.
If you season the pans properly, it creates a non-stick surface. Most cast iron cookware now comes pre-seasoned, but I still suggest seasoning them prior to using them.  Seasoning is the process of applying oil to create a non-stick surface. Typically they come with instructions on how to season them, but I will teach you how I season and clean my pans after we discuss the benefits and different uses of cast iron cookware.


As I see it, there are two main benefits to cooking with cast iron:

  1. Health - no chemicals are leached or chipped off into your food, and you can cook with less oil. Cookware with non-stick coating has PFC's (perfluorocarbons) a chemical that has been linked to cancer, liver damage, and developmental problems. 
  2. One piece construction - it transfers easily from stove top to oven and cast iron conducts and retains heat very well, which provides even heat when cooking.
It should be important to all of us that we avoid ingesting chemicals that are harmful to us and our family members.  We unknowingly consume harmful chemicals on a daily basis, so if we can knowingly avoid one method of our body absorbing unsafe chemicals, then why not?  

This was important to our family, so we replaced most our non-stick cookware with cast iron (in a later post I will discuss the other types of cookware we switched over to).

As mentioned earlier, there are different sizes and shapes just like any other cookware and they all serve there purposes.  We have three different sized skillets.  The following will give you an idea of what I use each one for.  

  • The smallest one I do not use very often, but when I do use it I fry an egg or make a grilled cheese sandwich. It is typically use when cooking for an individual.  
  • The 10 inch skillet I use for making scrambled eggs for the family or cooking a few steaks.  It's also great for fritattas, because the skillet can endure the heat of the oven.
  • The 12 inch skillet gets used the most.  I cook ground meat, stir fry's, bacon, and anything else that needs the room.
  • The dutch oven is utilized in baking bread and roasting whole chickens.  I have used it for chili and other saucy dishes, but I prefer not to.  
For saucy recipes or soups and stews, I prefer to employ an enamel cast iron dutch oven. The main reason for this is that enamel cast iron is simpler to clean, when sauce is involved.  Would I trade in my traditional cast iron cookware for all enamel?  No, I would not, first off because of the cost difference.  Enamel's price tag is considerably more.  For example, a traditional cast iron dutch oven is around $60, whereas, an enamel dutch oven is $100 for a comparable size.  Second, because of the nostalgia of using time-honored cookware.  When you have traditional cast iron you take pride in caring for it, and when you do, it lasts forever. Lastly, my cast iron can go from the stove-top to the oven to the campfire.  Now, don't get me wrong...would I ask for enamel cookware for my birthday or some other special occasion?  Yes, I would! 


Seasoning cast iron is the process of oil absorbing into the pores of the cookware.  This will create a non-stick surface that will over time improve.  

The following steps can be done before the initial use or whenever you feel your cast iron needs a thorough re-seasoning:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Wash cast iron with a stiff non-metal bristled brush and hot water.  You may use mild soap at this time.
  3. Completely coat the surface, inside and out, with vegetable shortening or oil.
  4. Place the cookware on the middle rack for 30 minutes.  You can protect the oven from drippings by applying some foil to the lower rack.
  5. After 30 minutes, remove cookware and lightly wipe it down to prevent the oil or shortening from pooling.
  6. Place it back in the oven for another 30 minutes.
Maintaining the seasoned surface is simple.  After cleaning (which is discussed next), apply a thin layer of oil or shortening on the inside of the cookware and place it on a warm burner set to simmer.  It only needs a couple minutes to reabsorb.  Turn off the burner and let the cookware cool prior to storing in a cool dry location*.

*When storing cast iron place a sheet of paper towel between the lid and base to allow air circulation.  This should also be done when stacking frying pans.   


The steps involved in cleaning cast iron are different than cleaning other types of cookware (different does not mean more time consuming). Do not use soap! Most of the time it just needs to be wiped out.  That is the benefit of well seasoned cast iron. 

If a simple wipe down is not sufficient then you can lightly scour the surface by either using a stiff brush in a circular motion or by pouring a little kosher salt in the cookware and rubbing it in with a paper towel and oil or shortening. Once the stuck on food has been removed, simply wipe out.

For more difficult jobs like burned on food, pour in enough water to cover the surface and place the cookware on a burner over medium heat.  As the water begins to heat use a stiff brush or a wooden utensil to lift the burned on food.  This is not a tough job, because the oil in the seasoned surface helps release the food.  Normally after this method of cleaning, some of the oil is removed from the seasoned surface.  If this is the case, follow the maintenance method of seasoning cast iron previously mentioned.  You will know when this is necessary, because your cookware will look dry and will not have the nice shiny black surface you are used to seeing.    

As you can see with this frying pan, I have scrambled eggs in it yet the surface is still nice and shiny.  All I need to do to clean it is wipe it out.


In regards to what brand to purchase, I am not loyal to any specific brand...yet! My dutch oven was my first purchase and it is Old Mountain brand.  I didn't know as much then about cast iron, but luckily it turned out to be great.  One of my skillets is by Lodge, which has been around since 1896 and my husband remembers his grandmother having one.  Another one of my skillets is Cabela's brand.  I like it just as much as my lodge skillet.  What you want to look for is a smooth surface. Some lower quality cast iron is not made as well and if it has a rough surface it doesn't matter how much you season it the surface will not truly be non-stick. In the end, you will not be happy and will think that all cast iron is this difficult to work with.

My hope is that this has shed new light on the benefits of cast iron cookware and that I have provided enough positive information to cease any hesitancy you may have had. Now, run out and buy yourself a pan or two. Don't forget to look for the handy grill pans and bakeware AND try my dutch oven bread recipe - it will not disappoint!

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