Cast Iron Cookware
If you are like me, you’ve spent hundreds of dollars replacing skillets as they warp, fighting food stuck in non-stick skillets. Even the thriftiest among us can see that the cheap $20 or $30 pan that has to be replaced yearly is going to cost a lot more in the long run than one or two quality pans, even if those pans cost three times as much to purchase.
And so we arrive at cast iron. In my family, there are pans still floating around that were owned by my grandmother (possibly even my great grandmother, but no one kept track of the pans that closely). Those pans are not coated in Teflon, but they never stick. They haven’t warped, their handles don’t break. Not only that, they lack the nooks and crannies, all those fancy design flaws of modern pans that trap water and food where you can never hope to get a cleaning implement.
Cast iron may be more expensive than you’re used to paying, but the pan will last for decades, long enough to be passed down through your own family. Those years will be ones of durable, trustworthy function. That’s why most companies include a generous warranty and stand behind their creations. They know the pans are worthy and they take great pride in their product.
Cast iron may be seasoned or unseasoned when you buy it. A cast-iron pan will move from grey to brownish, to a deep black as the seasoning deepens. Seasoning is built up and added to overtime, protecting the pan from rust and making your pan virtually nonstick.
Enameled cast iron does not require seasoning.
I was afraid of cast iron for a long time. Seasoning seemed like a chore I was doomed to ruin. In hindsight, I can see that was completely silly. Seasoning is a simple process. This is what you do with a new (unseasoned) pan or a pan that is starting to stick:
Wash the pan in soapy water. Rinse and dry (do not air dry; the pan may rust). Apply a light coating of oil to the inside and the outside surfaces of the pan. Place the cookware into a preheated oven (set to 375 degrees) for about an hour. Let the pan cool, then store it with the lid askew (propped off the surface) so moisture won’t become sealed inside to rust the inner surface.
Cooking with Cast Iron
The trick to cooking with cast iron? Use a three-part process. First: apply heat slowly. Second: add vegetable oil to the pan. Third: use food which has been allowed to warm slightly. Cold food may stick to the pan.
Generally, cast iron can be used on any surface, including on the grill and over an open flame. Enameled cast iron can be used on gas or electric ranges, ceramic and induction cooktops and in the oven. It is not suggested for use over an open flame or on grills.
Enameled Cast Iron
The benefits of enameled cast iron: the surface won’t hold odors or transfer flavors to your other dishes. If you make a heavily spiced meal, your family won’t taste the ghost of that meal in your next dish.
You can cook items in enameled cast iron that regular cast iron does not handle as well (regular cast iron can be used for acidic foods, but it is not advised that the food be stored in the pan for any length of time). The enameled coating won’t react with food. The pans resist scratching, staining and chipping.
Enameled versions have a glossy finish and come in a range of vibrant colors. They make an attractive display in the kitchen or during service at the table. They are oven-, refrigerator- and freezer-safe.
The benefits of cast iron: cast iron will add small amounts of iron to your food. This is good for anyone with an iron deficiency.
Cast iron has efficient heat distribution and incredible temperature retention. That means it holds a chill as well as it does heat, so you can use your pans for cold service.
Enameled cast iron can be used to store cold or hot food. You can serve right from the pan and your food will remain hot. Ideal for when guests return for seconds.
A tight-fitting lid will hold in steam, returning nutrients and moisture to your food instead of allowing that liquid to be lost to the cooking process. The result is a sort of natural basting process during which flavors grow more intense. When performing this kind of slow cooking, go easy on seasoning your ingredients (at first) until you become familiar with the power of the flavors produced.
Cast Iron Cookware Care
The care of cast iron is equally simple. Never place your cast iron pan in the dishwasher. Even for enameled pans, the recommendation is to hand wash them. To remove tough food debris, boil a little water in the pan or use a nylon scrub brush to loosen it. Rinse and dry the pan and apply a fresh, thin coating of oil.
Some people say that initial seasoning or re-seasoning is the only time you use soap to your pan. But a light wash with soap, an immediate dry and coating of oil should not hurt a thing and is more hygenic. Just do not leave the pan to sit filled with soapy water–plain water is fine, but not soapy water for soaking.
Enamel can stain or discolor. A bleach water soak, non-abrasive cleaner or baking soda scrub removes most stains. Special cast iron cookware cleaners are available and enzyme detergents may help in cleaning, but in most cases, a simple soak and hand wash will suffice.
Warp – Scratch – Chip
Enameled cast iron can warp if consistently heated over a burner that is either too large or small for the pan. Use a burner that fits the bottom of your pan. Most pans are formed with easy pour lips to resist drips and spills.
Cast iron pans of all types can scratch glass or ceramic stovetops. Do not slide them across. Instead, pick up the pan. Some companies offer pans with non-abrasive bottoms to help prevent damage to countertops.
Enamel can chip, so make sure to care for them well when moving or washing these pots. It usually takes a tough impact to cause a chip, such as dropping the pan into the sink.
Cast Iron Wok
Cast iron wok cooking requires a few guidelines to achieve the best quality. Use an oil that can withstand a high temperature without smoking. Typically, people use peanut oil, but corn oil or soybean oil can work just as well.
Cook your items in small batches. Food will cook quickly and small batches assure that the ingredients will all be ready when you remove them from the pan. Because the cooking is fast, conduct all of your prep work ahead of time. Food should be ready for addition to the pan before you begin cooking the first piece. Cut all of your ingredients into uniform pieces. These will cook at a similar rate, so you aren’t waiting for one thick piece while overcooking a thin one.
The pan design requires less oil than a regular pan. The shape of the pan lets you keep food moving over the heat and the pan material demands that you do so, as food will quickly overcook if left to sit. The high sides let you work without worry of losing any ingredients over the edge. They also allow you to pull items up high on the side to keep warm as you finish.
Other Care Tips
Avoid metal utensils or metal scouring pads. However, do use heat-resistant utensils. Especially if you are using a pan hot from the oven or over a fire, the stored heat in the pan may be too much for plastic serving utensils.
Do not heat empty or dry pans and always begin cooking over low heat. Avoid the use of high heat altogether. High heat can burn or otherwise ruin your food because the heat gets into the metal and remains there. Cast iron does not rapidly respond to temperature change, so once it is too hot, it is almost too late to do anything about it.
High heat can also discolor the pan. If low heat is too low, proceed through to a medium temperature and give the pan time to respond.
Avoid placing hot cast iron directly on a table or surface that may melt. Remember, the pan holds in heat. Placed over a delicate surface, damage may occur.
With cast iron, the weight actually makes the pan more effective. Weight is an all-around benefit, helping to seat the pan, prevent warp and hold the heat in your dishes.
You can usually cook, serve and store leftovers in the same pan, cutting down on kitchen chores, dishes, and waste. Can you imagine using any other single pan to make all of the components of a meal? And with only one pan to clean from all that use, you won’t mind washing it by hand.
You can use cast iron to create fantastic slow-roasted meals or thick, hearty stews. The pans can be deglazed to create gravies, sauces. Roast, simmer or braise. Fry, bake or make deep dish foods. Saute or boil in your pan. Enameled pans are great for preparing marinades. Cast iron saucepans are exceptional for melting ingredients, preparing sauces and any small chore requiring long, slow heat.
A cast-iron selection is a workhorse of a pot. Truly, this form of cooking is the only real ‘set it and forget it’ option.