An old used frying pan as a wedding gift? Seems beyond cheap, doesn't it? Yet, an old piece of cast iron used to be considered a cherished wedding gift--much more valuable than a new cast iron pan or pot.
Why? An old piece of cast iron has already been well-seasoned with years of use. Giving such a gift to a bride and groom was more than a wedding present: it meant that the giver was presenting a valuable family heirloom.
WHY SHOULD I USE CAST IRON?
Even expensive cookware cannot compete with the even heating, heat retention, and heat diffusion of cast iron. Non-stick cookware before such was even invented, cast iron rivals coated non-stick pans, and its coating will not come off, as it has none — just the seasoning that comes with use. It can withstand extremely high temperatures and is strong and durable.
Cookware made of cast iron can go from the oven to the stovetop and straight to the table, all while retaining heat better than virtually any other cookware. This ability to withstand and maintain very high cooking temperatures makes it excellent for searing and frying, and its heat diffusion properties makes it a good choice for long-cooked dishes, such as stewed or braised meats. Dishes that need to go from stove to oven need not be moved to another pan if cooked in cast iron, saving time and effort as food can be browned stovetop, and then moved directly into the oven.
Cookware comes and goes with the current fads and sales pitches. Though there is a very good reason why cast iron cookware is still around today--it has always been reliable. While it is not immune from foods sticking to it, if used and cleaned properly it is a preferred choice for everything from scrambled eggs to delicate sauces.
Besides the heat control it offers, it is heavy enough not to be jostled and spill its contents when accidentally moved or bumped.
Furthermore, cast iron is not one of the toxic metals. Acidic foods such as tomatoes will darken if left too long in the pan, due to the iron seeping out. If you need extra iron, cooking with cast iron is one way to get it. I was told by an elderly clerk at a hardware store, when I was a new bride, that cooking in cast iron was the way people used to get their daily supply of iron.
HOW TO CARE FOR CAST IRON COOKWARE
Seasoning Cast Iron
Caring for cast iron is simple, and instructions come with the cookware. If cared for properly cast iron will last for generations, but in case you find some at a garage sale or thrift store, instructions for seasoning and care are as follows:
Wash any protective coating off all pieces with warm water and a bit of gentle soap (a harsh soap will remove the seasoning). To season it, warm the item in a 225° F oven--the warmth opens the pores. Remove it and wipe a thin coating of solid vegetable shortening or lard over all surfaces (even over the outside the first few times you season it). Place it back in the still-heated oven for 1 hour, and then wipe almost all of the excess oil off with paper towels.
Return it to the heated oven again for another 30 minutes.
If you have an old piece of cast iron, remove any rust with steel wool and season it before use. If food begins to stick while cooking, it needs to be seasoned again. The more a cast iron pan is used, the more seasoned it becomes. Always wash your cast iron by hand, dry it thoroughly and store it with the lids off so moisture will not cause it to rust. Do not pour a large amount of water in a very hot pan, as this could cause the cast iron to crack.
- Don't store food in cast iron, as it may impart a metallic taste to the food, and any acid in the food could ruin the seasoning on the pan
- Don't use cast iron to cook a pan full of okra, as the okra will turn black. If okra is just one ingredient in a dish this isn't a problem
- If rust does develop, clean and re-season the pan
- If you need to stack your cast iron cookware, place a potholder in between each piece of cookware so they don't scratch each other and break down the seasoning
- It is very important to replenish the seasoning of your cast iron cookware by applying a thin layer of vegetable shortening or lard after each cleaning. Seasoning is an on-going process, and as you use cast iron, the seasoning is improved
- Use wood or silicone utensils to avoid scratching
- For persistent stains, soak interior of the cookware for 2 to 3 hours with a solution of bleach, consisting of one teaspoon of bleach per pint of water. To remove baked on food residue, boil a mixture of 1 cup of water and 2 tablespoons of baking soda in the cookware
If you if you are hesitant to use cast iron because of the seasoning process, you can purchase seasoned cast iron. I suggest Lodge cast iron cookware that is already seasoned (widely available in stores that carry cookware, or online at www.lodgemfg.com). I have no connection with Lodge, but I have used it for years and find it to be excellent. (A bit of the information within this article comes from the Lodge website.) The phone number is 423-837-7181
Cooking with Cast Iron
Cast iron may be used on various heat sources including gas, electric, induction and ceramic/glass top stoves and ovens. Seasoned cast iron can also be used on the grill or for camp cooking. Do not drop cast iron cookware on the stovetop or slide across the surface. Begin heating cookware on low and slowly bring heat up to medium or high; do not have oven temperature over 400 degrees F.
When I make cornbread or biscuits in a cast iron pan, I like to bring it directly to the table (placed on a hot plate). It makes a fun centerpiece and, since we "eat first with our eyes," it is a very appealing presentation.
For a casual dinner, I'll bring a stew, jambalaya or other main course dish to the table in the cast iron vessel in which it was cooked. Again, it tempts the diner, and it's fun for everyone to be able to load up their plates as desired.
I usually add a platter of biscuits or corn muffins (with butter and honey on the side) and a vegetable or salad. Easy to serve and clean up, and leaves the host or hostess free from running back and forth into the kitchen for refills.