Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Tools of the Trade: Cast Iron Cookware

I recently inherited a couple of pieces of cast iron cookware from my in-laws. They were big lovers of it and cooked with it regularly. They had short-sided skillets, tall-sided skillets, Dutch ovens and grill pans. A good sized inventory to choose from. I didn’t really grow up with cast iron, so it wasn’t something I sought out simply because I wasn’t familiar with it, but I’ve come to see the benefits of cooking with it and regularly use the pieces I’ve acquired.

Cast iron cookware, being made exclusively of metal, has excellent heat retention properties. It withstands and maintains high cooking temperatures which is ideal for searing or frying, and its excellent heat retention is good for long cooking stews or braised dishes especially those calling for meat.

Cast iron cookware has been used for over 2000 years, and as early as the Han Dynasty (206BC - 220AD) for salt evaporation. In Europe, before the introduction of the kitchen stove in the middle of the 19th Century, meals were cooked in the hearth or fireplace, and so all cooking vessels had to be designed to be suspended on or in a fireplace. Cast iron pots were made with handles to be hung over fire or with legs to stand up in the fireplace. Cooking pots and pans became legless (with flat bottoms) when stoves became popular. It was then that cast iron skillets were introduced. A neat little website I found describes what cooking in “the old days” was like for women.

The cookware was especially popular during the first half of the 20th Century. Lodge Manufacturing is currently the only major manufacturer of cast iron cookware in the United States, as most other suppliers use pots and pans made in Asia or Europe.

“Seasoning” protects bare cast iron from rust and creates a non-stick surface, eliminating the need for regular non-stick cookware which gives off toxic fumes when heated. So you could say that cooking with cast iron is a healthier option than many of the non-stick products on the market. Because of its non-stick surface, cast iron is a good choice for egg dishes. Some cast iron is formed into special shapes, the most popular of which is a mold that resembles corn on the cob, and is frequently used for making cornbread.
Silicone sleeve for hot handles

Because they are cast as a single piece of metal, including the handle, they can be used both on the stovetop as well as in the oven. But be careful, the entire pan gets hot, including the handle. This is where the use of a silicone slip-on handle cover comes in handy.

An ADA study found that cast iron cookware can leach significant amounts of dietary iron into food.  While this sounds distasteful, it’s actually quite healthy. However, the amounts of iron absorbed varied greatly depending on the food, its acidity, water content, and how long it was cooked.  But for this reason, anemics may benefit from this effect, while those with hemochromatosis (iron overload) should avoid using cast iron because of their condition.

Because it is a metal, cast iron cookware needs to be seasoned, which is a process by which a layer of animal fat or vegetable oil is applied and cooked into the cast iron. How to do that can be found aplenty on the internet. Basically it’s “cooking" it in a low temp oven for about an hour upside down.

Cleaning is another special consideration. It cannot be placed in a dishwasher but must be washed by hand. Ideally one also should not use soap, or if one does, then after drying re-apply a thin layer of fat or oil.

An easier way to enjoy cast iron is by purchasing enameled cast iron. It has a vitreous enamel glaze or coating which prevents rusting, eliminating the need to season the metal, and allowing for more thorough cleaning. But for that, it is considerably more costly to purchase than cast iron. I wouldn’t mind a Le Creuset Dutch oven myself, but they are typically over $200. Depends, like anything else, on how lazy you are. Cast iron cookware is quite reasonable but requires a little more hand-holding.

Either way,  if you don’t already own cast iron or a fancy enameled pot or pan, and you’re looking for a pan or two, consider adding cast iron to your collection.  You will find many uses for it. Cast iron  will last you a lifetime, and provide you with something useful and meaningful that you can pass along to your children. Thank you, Doris and Ken.

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