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Where We Live by John Silveira and Richard Blunt. Photos and commentary from Oregon and New England.

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Cast Iron: Is it a Practical Tool for a Modern Kitchen?

Monday, November 30th, 2015

My Cast Iron Collection

The three pieces of cast iron cookware in the middle of the photo below belonged to my mother. These three pans are stamped with the Wagner Stylized Logo, which was etched on pans manufactured at their Sidney, Ohio plant between 1922 and 1959. The two Dutch ovens on the right and left are about 10 years old, and are manufactured by Lodge Manufacturing of South Pittsburg, Tennessee.

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The 10-inch skillet in the photo below is 71 years old. This pan was my mother’s favorite and is the most versatile pan in my collection. Over the years it has become my go-to pan for sauteing steaks, frying chicken, roasting vegetables, and baking many quick breads like corn bread, biscuits, and pancakes. It is also broiler safe for browning casseroles like Shepherd’s Pie.

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Cast Iron in my Mother’s Kitchen

Cast iron cookware held a revered place in my mother’s kitchen. She preferred it to all other types of cookware. During the school year, I often did my daily homework at the kitchen table, while she was preparing dinner. This made it possible for her to cook and keep an eye on my progress with assignments. During the week she worked as an elevator operator at Jordan Marsh, one of Boston’s large downtown department stores. (Jordan Marsh was one of the first department store chains to incorporate elevator service in its stores. The early versions of these elevators were not the automatic leveling type with push button floor selection. These units required trained operators to guide them to the desired floor, and level it with the floor landing before passengers were allowed to get on and off.)

My mother usually got home at about 4 pm, which left her with limited time to prepare dinner, check my homework, and get ready for work the following day. She firmly believed that a wholesome, well-prepared dinner meal was essential  for the unity of our small family. It gave both of us an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company and share our daily experiences.  She also understood that preparing a fresh cooked dinner meal every night was a time-consuming chore that required streamlining in order to make it happen. She did this by using her cast iron cookware to prepare a selection of meals that could be prepared using only one pan, which was the 10-inch skillet in the photo above.

From time to time, as she pulled this favored skillet from the cabinet, she would ask me a familiar question. “Do you know why I chose this skillet to prepare this meal?” Of course, I knew the answer, but I was compelled to set my homework aside for a few minutes and listen to her explanation. One example of her one-pan meal wizardry was a favorite meal prepared every year on my birthday: chicken-fried steak with cream gravy, succotash, and corn bread.  Her routine for preparing this meal was a masterpiece of time management, efficiency, and culinary skill.  She would first assemble the corn bread and put it in the oven set at 400 degrees, for 25 minutes. After removing skillet from the oven and transferring the slightly cooled corn bread to a cooling rack; she wiped the still-warm skillet with a clean, lightly-oiled paper towel, and began preparing the succotash. When finished, the succotash was transferred to a Pyrex casserole, covered, and placed in a 200 degree oven to keep warm. Once again, she would clean the skillet with a clean, lightly-oiled paper towel and prepared the chicken fried steak and cream gravy. The entire meal, from start to finish, took about one hour.  She was a master at preparing meals like this. The long-lasting heat retention and cleaning ease of her seasoned cast iron skillet made it possible for her to prepare a variety of meals.

Few pieces of kitchen gear improve after years of heavy use. Cast iron cookware tops the list of equipment that will. If used correctly and given proper care after each use, it will last forever. My mother’s favorite 71-year-old skillet is a classic example.

Over the years there have been major improvements in kitchen ware, including cast iron. Like my mom, l am committed to the regular use of cast iron in my kitchen, but I also use other utensils, such as Teflon-coated, non-stick skillets and enameled carbon steel and cast iron Dutch ovens. All of these new innovations come with claims of non-stick durability and easy care, and their overall performance is often compared with that of cast iron. Time will tell if these claims are realistic.

Cast Iron Myths and Truths

Let’s talk about some of the myths and conflicting claims that exist about cast iron. Hopefully, I can shine a light of truth on some of them. If you are setting up your kitchen for the first time, or perhaps reevaluating your existing cookware and are considering adding some cast iron as a complement, this information will help you make an informed decision.

Cast Iron Myth #1

Cast iron, especially new cast iron, can be difficult to maintain. It must be babied when you first start using it, because until the pan is properly seasoned, it can rust, and the seasoning can chip and wear away if not handled gently.

The Truth

Cast iron has been in use for centuries. The advent of industrial factory production in the 1800s allowed cast iron to become a widely-available, low-cost kitchen utensil that was nearly indestructible. For this reason, the cast iron skillet quickly became an icon of American cooking. This is why you can find very old and often rusted cast iron pans at yard sales and antique shops. With very few exceptions, these neglected pieces can be restored using very simple techniques. I have used cast iron in professional kitchens where they got a rough workout and continued to perform. Most modern cast iron pans come pre-seasoned, ready for use. This factory seasoning is designed to be scratch- and chip-resistant. With routine maintenance these new pans continue to improve with time.

Myth #2

Metal utensils will damage the seasoning of the pan.

The Truth

The seasoning on a cast iron pan is chemically bonded to the pan, and is remarkably resilient. Unless you actually gouge out the surface of the metal, the pan will continue to perform. I have listened to folks complain about black flakes chipping off the pan. Most often this is the result of storing a pan without using it for long periods of time without regular use and maintenance.  Applying too much oil to the surface during maintenance or not cleaning the pan properly after use can also cause this problem. After using any of my skillets, I apply a thin coat of vegetable oil with a paper towel, and wipe the pan again with another towel until the oil sheen is no longer visible. You can’t see the oil, but it is there. Lodge Manufacturing also makes a plastic scraper that is designed to remove food particles that stick to the cooking surface. Remember, cast iron is not totally non-stick.

Myth #3

Using dish soap to clean cast iron after use will damage the seasoned surface.

The Truth

When you season a cast iron pan you are doing more than applying a thin coat of oil. When you apply a controlled heat to the pan, after adding the oil, you polymerize that oil. When fat is heated to high temperatures, especially in the presence of a good catalyst like iron, it is broken down and oxidized, after which it polymerizes (joins into larger mega molecules the same way plastics do) and mixes with bits of carbon and other impurities. This tough, impermeable surface adheres to the pores and crevices in the cast iron as it is forming. This creates a hydrophobic (water repellent) environment on the pan’s surface. Moisture is what makes food stick. Once again, regular use and simple maintenance will preserve this surface. After every use I wash my cast iron with warm water and dish soap, and a soft sponge. I then rinse the pan and dry it on a stove burner set to medium-low heat, and apply a thin coat of oil as described above. My mother taught me to do this, and it works. However, prolonged soaking of a cast iron pan in soapy water will damage the seasoning. If this happens, the pan must be seasoned again.

Myth #4

A well-seasoned cast iron pan is as non-stick as any modern Teflon-coated or diamond-infused pan on the market.

The Truth

Nope! This sounds good, but it just isn’t true. A properly seasoned cast iron pan is non-stick enough to fry an egg or cook an omelet with predictable non-stick results. You can’t expect this type of result with most food that you cook in a cast iron pan. There are  a few exceptions.  However, cast iron is not nearly as non-stick as a pan coated with Teflon, a material that is so non-stick that it requires a special bonding to get it to stick to the bottom of the pan. You can cook a batch of cold eggs on low heat, in a Teflon coated pan without any oil, and slide them out of the pan when done without any sticking. Not so with a cast iron pan.

Stir frying is one of my favorite stove-top cooking techniques. This type of cooking often calls for marinating meats in sugar-based sauces. Most often I can count on these marinated meats to stick, to some degree, in a cast iron skillet while being cooked. Attempting to cook fresh noodles when a stir fry requires them is always a disaster. The pan is not the problem. Some foods are not compatible with cast iron. Expecting a cast iron pan to cook everything with perfect non-stick results is not realistic. For stir frying I use a quality Teflon 12-inch skillet.

More to Come

In my next post on cast iron, I will shine a little light on other myths and untrue claims about the use of cast iron. I will also share some useful suggestions on using, maintaining, and restoring your pans.

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