The Age-Old, Tried and True, Cast Iron Cookware
Cast iron cookware have been in modern-era kitchens for well over a century. And, in fact, more crude cast iron cooking implements have been in existence as far back as the Han Dynasty in China (206 BC – 220 AD) where they used cast iron pans for salt evaporation.
When new and “improved” kinds of modern cookwares came to be in the mid-20th century, with alloys of copper, aluminum, stainless steel, etc., the cast iron implements took a seat way in the back of the kitchen for several decades. But recently, over the past ten years, they have enjoyed a resurgence of incredible proportions in popularity.
According to the Cookware Manufacturer’s Association, there has been more than a 225% increase in sales during the past decade. The CMA reports that more than 10% of cookware sales are now cast items – an incredible increase from just several years before.
So what’s the buzz all about? Why are international chefs and home amateur gourmet cook enthusiasts trending back to a product that is practically the same as it was over 100 years ago?
Lasting power, durability, and reliability.
Cast iron cookware made 100 years ago, when used today – and many originals are still in use today, that’s just how durable the are – will still cook the same as they always have, producing the same tasty waffles, pancakes, skillet dishes, shortcakes, soups, stews, whatever, as they did back in 1899. Can you think of any product manufactured by human beings that can stand up to that kind of reputation?
Historians generally agree that casting of metal most likely originated all the way back to 4th century, B.C., China.
Those ancient engineers suddenly came across the realization that iron ore could be melted and formed, and used to make weapons. For centuries thereafter, that was really its primary usage, although cast iron pans were used by the ancient Chinese for evaporating salt free from salt water.
Over time, as factories improved their efficiency, and when times of peace allowed, metal engineers began dabbling and experimenting with other uses of iron. And, by the 1800s, the ability to forge with iron was widely available, and the utilization of the technology broadened to include useful tools for use in everyday living, not just during wartime.
Before the invention of the kitchen stove in the middle of the 19th century in Europe, meals were cooked in the fireplace or hearth, and so they fabricated cast iron cauldrons and rustic cooking pots and pans, crafted in such a manner as to be suspended over, or even standing in, a fireplace.
These implements were highly valued for their ability to retain heat and their durability, thus making the quality of their cooking much improved.
In 1619, iron products made their way over to America. Even then, the process of making implements out of iron ore was not yet used to make cookware as we know it today. It would be much later, in the late 19th century, when cast iron cookware made its revolutionary debut in the kitchens of North America, and spread all across the world.
With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution came the invention of the vastly popular then, and still today, Dutch Oven. Also, a lesser known implement today, but common during those times, was introduced a cast iron cooking pan called a spider, that had a handle and three legs, making it useful to stand up in the coals and ashes of a fire.
Cooking pots and pans that we are familiar with in the kitchen today, made with legless, flat bottoms, were designed when, in the late 19th century, cooking stoves became popular, and it was in this period that we saw the arrival of the beloved flat cast iron skillet.
Back to Present Day:
Current methods used to utilize iron material in creating durable iron cooking products are a process of fabricating an alloy of iron, carbon and silicon, heated ferociously until it becomes molten. This molten liquid is then poured into a “cast” (or mold) of the pot or pan desired to make, and then allowed to cool.
The products made with this process are sturdy, heavy, and solid. Usually there are no seams, no joints, no rivets, bolts, adhesives, etc., holding the finished products together. They are comprised of one solid, well-tempered lump of iron alloy metal. And as such, they are virtually indestructible.
Now let’s take a look at the pros and cons of cast iron cookware.
- They are a great choice for cooking stews and braised food which need a long cooking time because of the excellent heat retention quality.
- Unparalleled in durability. Cast iron cookware can last for more than a century.
- Due to its ability to endure and maintain high temperatures, you can fry or brown, sear and grille anything with cast iron cookware.
- Once properly seasoned, cast iron is naturally a ‘non-stick’ just as good as any cookware coated with a chemically engineered non stick surface.
- You can put them on the stovetop, into the oven, back to the stovetop, and back and forth all you want. Cast iron cookware is oven and broiler proof.
- The price! By and large, cast iron cookware is much less expensive than other kinds of cookware.
- Because iron will leach out a little bit during cooking, they are good for people with iron deficiencies.
- Bonus Pro! Unlike any of the other popular kinds of cookwares, cast iron pots and pans can be used over the open fire. So you can pack up your favorite skillets and Dutch oven and take them with you on that rustic camping trip.
- Cast iron is not a good choice for people with iron overload disorder health issues. Iron will leach out in small amounts into the food.
- Cleanup, care, and maintenance will be more of a chore than with other types of cookware.
- Not to be used for boiling water. Boiling water will cause the cookware to rust, as it will remove the seasoned surface of the cookware.
- They are not dishwasher friendly. You will have to take considerable time cleaning and storing cast iron cookware away. So, if you are someone who hates manual cleanup and relies on the dishwasher to do the bulk of the work for you, cast iron cookware is not for you. If you don’t mind some manual work in the kitchen cleanup process, here is how to properly care for and season your cast iron cookware:
- Let the pots and/or pans cool thoroughly. Remember they maintain heat for a long time. Wash by hand with soap and water.
- Never ever cool your cast iron cookware by running cold tap water over it, you could cause it to crack and break!
- Storing food in cast iron cookware is not good, it can create toxicity because the acidic food will turn metallic.
- Do not leave to soak in soapy water. You will ruin the natural patina that comes with aging and usage over time. Some people, myself included, prefer to use only warm water and scrub the pan with a mild abrasive or wash towel, then wipe it dry. This practice will, over time, create a pan that has its own individual patina and “flavor” that gives your cooking your own unique “signature”. Others (most, actually) consider it better to wash with soap, but even then, wash the soap off quickly so it does not work its way into the surface of your pot or pan.
- Once the cast iron pan is cleaned, use a paper towel to dry it, then place it on a burning stove until it is bone dry.
- Finally, and this is where the “seasoning” comes in, pour just a tad of your best, favorite cooking oil onto the surface and work it all around until the implement is thin coated all over. Let it set for a few minutes more on the burner (very low heat), then remove from stove and wipe off any excess oil with a paper towel. To avoid rusting, be sure to store your cast iron cookware in a dry place.
There are two types of cast iron cookware to choose from nowadays, the Bare Cast Iron style, and the Enameled Cast Iron version.
And it can be hard to decide which one is best suited to your style of cooking and kitchen maintenance practices. For this reason, we have assembled this comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of both types. Read on, and decide for yourself which one is best for you.
Bare Cast Iron vs. Enamel
The allure of having a heavy piece of cookware that will last for generations and be handed down as a family heirloom makes cast iron and attractive choice for many cooks. Both versions of cast iron—bare, and enameled—fit this distinctive category.
But then comes the quandary: which is best—bare cast iron, or enameled cast iron?Well, it depends on what you want out of your cookware, and on what type of Chief, Cook and Bottle-washer you are.
Bare, black cast iron has that ‘rustic’, country look that is unparalleled, but it does require seasoning to achieve its non-stick quality, and continuous maintenance to keep it. Some cooks find this an enjoyable process, while others consider it a laborious chore.
Enameled cast iron ware, has the bare metal encased in a coating of powdered glass, using a process of melting the glass and then baking it onto the iron surface. This takes care of the rusting dangers, and makes the need for seasoning obsolete.
Now, the appearance of either type of cast iron cookware has pros and cons, so again, it really comes down to personal preferences when it comes to looks.
Here is a comprehensive comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of both types, so you can decide which is best for you and your kitchen:
- As far as price, bare cast iron much less expensive
- Bare cast iron is dark metal which makes it extra efficient at heating evenly and efficiently
- Bare cast iron is typically thicker; this aids in reducing problems with uneven heating and hot-spots
- While it does not affect the flavor, bare cast iron leaches tiny amounts of iron into the food—which is beneficial for people with anemia and/or iron deficiencies.
- Bare cast iron is going to, usually, last a lot longer. However, properly maintained and cared for, both types will wear well for generations.
- Enamel is not very good for doing a lot of cooking that requires searing foods over high heat—it can damage it, causing crazing. Bare cast iron is the better choice in this instance.
- Cast iron is well known for how well it holds a lot of heat, but it takes a longer time than other cookwares to heat up. But the layers of enamel on enameled cast iron cookware makes them such that they are even slower.
- Enameled cast iron is better for caramelizing foods. The bare cast iron is not good for this, because when you deglaze the pan, you will always get some little bits of carbon breaking off from the seasoning layer, and that will most often turn a sauce an ugly grey color.
- Whereas acidic foods (like citrus based sauces and tomatoes) can damage the integrity of the seasoned surface of a cast iron pan, enameled cast iron isn’t affected by such foods.
- As far as using utensils, you can use metal spatulas, spoons, etc., on both enameled and bare cast iron. However, be aware and use with caution. You can cause damage to the seasoned layers (that you so dutifully built up) on bare cast iron, which can create hot spots and lead to uneven cooking. Aggressive scraping with metal utensils can abrade enameled surfaces, and causes the same ill effects to enameled cast iron as with bare cast. For this reason, it is recommended that wood and/or silicon utensils be used on both types of cast iron cookware.
- Enameled cast iron is much easier to clean and maintain, because it doesn’t need seasoning.
- Food flavors, like onion, garlic, fish, etc., will be retained in a seasoned bare cast iron pot or pan, whereas enameled cast iron will not hold such flavors. Note, however, the more “well-seasoned” your bare cast iron is, the less it will also retain newly introduced flavors. This is because its aged, seasoned patina is now holding its own unique signature flavor—a complex medley of aromas and piquancy developed as the result of hundreds and hundreds of delicious dishes cooked in it over a very long time.
- Both bare cast and enameled cast iron cookwares are wonderful for using, from the oven or the stovetop and onto the table. It really depends on what kind of visual you prefer in your kitchen and dining areas.
So which one is the winner?
Clearly, it is not clear at all which one “wins“.
It boils down to a matter of tastes and personal preferences with regard to your own style of cooking, presenting, and cleaning.
Because cast iron is usually the least expensive of all the cookware choices, we are going to present only the top-rated, best brands, in both the Bare Cast and Enameled Cast Iron cookware sets, which we recommend as the most valuable choice in terms of quality and price, here at Ethnic Foods R Us.
For the bare cast cookwares, the three top manufacturers are Lodge (made in the USA), and the European made brands, Wagner, and Griswold.
Since the technology is so simple, easily manufactured and pretty much always producing the same or very similar finished products, and because pricings are very uniform across the board and, also, because it is hard to find full sets of Wagner and Griswold cast iron cookware, they mostly sell individual pieces, we are here going to recommend the Lodge line.
And here it is, the hands-down favorite, and absolute best, top rated cast iron cookware made in the USA:
Lodge L5HS3 5-Piece Pre-Seasoned Cast-Iron Cookware Set
What is especially nice about this set is, it comes already “pre-seasoned”! Yep, you don’t have to spend the long hours working your pots and pans to season them until they have the non-stick quality that cast iron is so well known for and appreciated.
This set you can take straight out of the box and plop on the stove and start cooking with ease and enjoyment immediately. All you will need to do is properly care for them, and maintain their seasoned surfaces.
And the price? Are you ready for this?What would you suppose it costs to own a set of appealing, rustic looking, solid and heavy pots and pans that will, if properly cared for, last for a century and beyond, becoming a family heirloom to be passed down to and appreciated by generations to come?
Costs you a whopping one hundred twenty-two dollars.
Yes, you read that right. Just $122.00 plus shipping and handling, and this set is yours.
Here are some additional spec’s:
- Set includes: 10.5-inch round griddle, 8-inch skillet, 10.25-inch skillet, 5-Qt. Dutch oven and 10.25-inch iron cover
- Pre-Seasoned and ready-to-use
- Superior heat retention and even cooking
- Use on all cooking surfaces, grills, campfires and oven safe
- Made in the USA
For a full selection of cast-iron cookware sets, CLICK HERE.
Now let’s move on to our two favorite, most highly recommended lines of Enameled Cast Iron Cookware. First, the top line:
Le Creuset Signature 5-Piece Cast Iron Cookware Set
This set is finely crafted, with firm, tight fitting lids. It is a bit pricy, at $424.95, but well worth the investment if you think long term – as in many generations to come, when properly cared for and maintained. This is enameled cast iron cookware at its finest, so if you want the best, go for it.Additional spec’s:
- Colorful, long-lasting exterior enamel resists chipping and cracking; interior enamel is engineered to resist staining and dulling
- Sand-colored interior enamel in round oven and saucepan makes it easy to monitor food as it cooks, preventing burning and sticking
- Ergonomic composite knobs are heat resistant to 500 Degree F
- Built-in lid stabilizers provide a secure, no-slide fit
- Set includes: 3 1/2 qt. round French oven (same as a Dutch Oven), 1 3/4 qt. saucepan, 9″ round Skillet
And next, the more moderately priced:
Le Chef 6 Piece Enameled Cast Iron Red Cookware Set.
At less than half the price of the Le Creuset Signature line, and offering even more pieces, this set of cookware is still very highly rated by customer reviews and consumer reports. And at the price of just $189.99, (normally $259.99, it is on holiday sale right now!) you simply cannot go wrong with this purchase.Additional spec’s:
- Material: All Enameled Cast Iron
- Exterior: Enameled Cherry Red.
- Interior: Enameled Beige
- Set includes: 6-qt Round Dutch Oven, 1 3/4-qt Round Dutch Oven, 10″ Round Deep Skillet, 11″Rectangular Roasting Dish.
- Limited-Time Offer, Holiday Super Sale!
For a full selection of Enameled Cast-Iron Cookware sets, CLICK HERE.
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