Pots and pans made from aluminum, stainless steel and Teflon-coated non-stick have nearly replaced the cast iron pans of old, but they are no match for them in safety and durability. If you have inherited any rusty old pans from your parents or grandma, hold on to them. If you find them in garage sales, grab them.
People are increasingly welcoming these relics of the past as they learn about the benefits of cooking with them. You can buy new cast iron pans from the shop, but old is gold, right? Here are some very good reasons to start using them.
1. Cast iron pans are safer than many modern pieces of cookware
They have been around for a really long time, for more than 2,000 years, in fact. Historical evidence indicates their use in China as early as 3rd century BC. Since the sand casting process of making cast iron pans did not require much technology, they became popular in many cultures across the world. Most households had cast iron vessels for their main cooking.
While their long history of use is proof of the relative safety of cast iron pans, many modern cookwares have failed in this regard. For instance, aluminum is now considered unsafe for cooking on account of the metal reacting with food and getting absorbed in large amounts. The presence of aluminum deposits in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients has made people wary of using them.
Non-stick pans cannot be used on high heat; they get scratched easily, and it is unsafe to use pans with damaged Teflon coating. Stainless steel cookware is relatively inert, but the downside is uneven heating and formation of hot spots that burn food. A copper base on stainless steel pans reduces this problem to some extent but they are still not suitable for high heat cooking such as searing steaks.
Ceramic coated earthenware is dangerous since it leaches lead into food, especially after the protective glaze wears away. Lead is toxic even at very low levels, causing nervous system damage. Glass is useful in the oven, but not safe to use on direct flame.
Coming to cast iron pans, they are just right for cooking on high heat. Although iron can react with acidic food, the seasoning on the pan acts as a barrier between the food and the metal. Since iron is an essential mineral, some amount of the metal leaching into the food does not pose any health risks.
2. They are tough and durable
Cast iron pans are as tough as they are heavy. Despite their tendency to rust if left unused, they give good service for over a hundred years or more. Many of the old Griswold and Wagner pans you find at garage sales are easily 75 years old since these companies shut shop in the late 1950s. They have passed through the hands of 2-3 generations, probably with periods of neglect in between.
Since most of the old pans are cast in one piece, handle and all, wear and tear does not do much damage. The seasoning that makes these pans nearly non-stick is not any special coat of material like Teflon that would get permanently damaged. If you come across any such old cookware, don’t hesitate to pick them up even if they look too old. If vigorous scrubbing or rust has done any damage, you can smooth out the surface and re-season it with a bit of cooking oil.
3. Cast iron pans require less oil
You will find that you can cut down on cooking oil once you shift from aluminum or stainless steel pans to cast iron pans, but it will not be the same as cooking on Teflon coated non-stick pans.
Cooking with cast iron pans is a bit different. You first heat the pan on high and then add oil and spread it around by moving the pan. A thin layer of oil all over the cooking surface is all you need to cook the food evenly without burning it.
4. They act like non-stick pans when seasoned well
Cast iron cookware needs to be seasoned before use. Seasoning with oil forms a nearly non-stick surface without the use of any synthetic substances like Teflon. You can buy pre-seasoned pans now so that step is taken care of, although they may not exactly measure up to the regular non-stick pans you are used to.
But the good news is that the non-stick property of cast iron cookware improves with age and frequent use, unlike that of chemical-coated cookware, which can only deteriorate as you use it.
5. You can cook on high heat
This is one of the greatest advantages of cast iron pans. You can heat them up as high as you want without any fear. That makes them ideal for deep and shallow frying, searing meat, and quick sautéing of vegetables that leaves a roasted layer on the outside without making them all mushy inside. You don’t get waffles that are as crispy on the outside but soft inside as you would on a cast iron waffle iron.
6. Cast iron pans keep food from burning
If you were to keep a cast iron pan on the stove and start cooking immediately as you would do with an aluminum pan, the food is likely to get burnt in places. That is why they have to be preheated prior to cooking.
The thermal conductivity of cast iron pans is very poor compared to that of copper or aluminum, and they tend to form hot spots as stainless steel utensils do. But once heated on high for a few minutes to make the pan really hot, it stays hot all over and keeps your food from burning in places.
7. Food cooks evenly in cast iron
Put a cast iron pan on high heat for a few minutes. The pan will obviously get very hot. You will feel the heat radiating from the pan even if you don’t keep your hands close to the heated surface. Now do the same with a stainless steel pan. The pan will become super hot, but you can safely take your hand to an inch of the surface without feeling much of the heat. That’s because of the high heat emissivity of cast iron, which is nearly ten times that of stainless steel.
In other words, while only food that comes in direct contact with a heated stainless steel pan gets cooked, a heated cast iron pan can cook several inches of food above its surface. Now you know why chicken, pan roasted in cast iron cookware, gets evenly cooked.
8. They can adapt to different types of cooking
You can use your cast iron pans for roasting, sautéing, grilling, broiling, shallow frying in a small quantity of oil or deep-frying in plenty of oil. They are good for water based cooking like poaching and boiling. The Chinese simply place a bamboo basket over their wok for steaming foods. Cast iron skillets can double up as ovenware for baking too. You will see many old recipes calling for direct transfer of the skillet from the stove to the oven, to finish cooking.
9. Cast iron pans are relatively easy to maintain
They survive rough handling and use of regular cutlery. Metal spatulas and ladles don’t harm the seasoning. Cleaning is pretty easy. Unlike regular non-stick cookware, they don’t get spoiled if you rinse them while still hot.
You can use normal scrubbies and soap to remove food residues. The seasoning on the pan is not oil per se, but a polymerized oil layer that has bonded strongly with the pan’s surface. Soap doesn’t damage it.
10. They are inexpensive and value for money
Even the best quality cast iron pans are cheaper than heavy bottomed stainless steel utensils that offer similar benefits. They are practically indestructible, and only get better with use. That’s why you find old frying pans, griddles, dutch ovens, crepe makers, and panini presses of yesteryears still going strong.
While cooking with cast iron pans has all these benefits to offer, they do have some limitations. They are heavy, they have to be preheated, and they require careful handling when hot as they radiate heat much more than other materials.
Clean the pans thoroughly after cooking
Water is the number one enemy of cast iron pans, so don’t leave them in the sink. Wash them as soon as you finish cooking with them. They don’t usually require much scrubbing since food particles easily come off and any burnt on food can be scraped off with a metal spatula.
Re-season the pan after use
After drying the pan with a dish towel, place it on high heat. Dip a paper towel in coconut oil and rub the hot pan with. When it starts to smoke, rub with the oiled paper towel again and then switch off the stove. Store in a dry place, but there’s no harm in stacking cast iron cookware.
Use the pans frequently
The more you use the cast iron pan for frying, searing and baking, the better the non-stick layer of seasoning would become. You can buy pre-seasoned cast iron pans now, but seasoning them again a few times as explained above would improve their performance.
If you follow these simple steps, you can get lifelong service out of your cast iron pans, and perhaps pass them on to the next generation too.