Ever So Humble, Cast Iron Outshines the Fancy Pans
By MARK BITTMAN
The New York Times
AS cookware becomes more expensive and the kinds available become more varied, it's increasingly clear to me that most "new" pots and pans are about marketing. For most tasks, old-style cookware is best. So these days when I'm asked for a recommendation, I reply with an old-fashioned answer: cast iron.
My personal return to cast iron began less than a year ago when I began to heed the warnings against preheating chemically treated pans and putting them in hot ovens, which could create potentially harmful fumes.
As most experienced cooks know, you can't brown food unless you preheat your skillet, and I frequently transfer food from stove top to oven.
So cast iron is a logical choice, especially in skillets, unless you require gorgeous stainless to make a style point or you can afford copper - which is ideal for sautéing because its heat distribution is incomparable - and the time to care for it. The only disadvantages are that cast iron is heavy (look for skillets with handles on both sides) and it requires a bit of care to keep it seasoned and looking nice.
But cast iron has so many benefits. Well seasoned, it is nearly as nonstick as any manufactured nonstick surface and far more so than stainless, aluminum or even copper pans.
Cast iron is practically free compared with other high-quality pots and pans ($20, say, for a skillet). In addition, it lasts nearly forever: the huge skillet I bought around 1970 for $10 is still going strong.
Furthermore, it is an even distributor of heat, which you will instantly appreciate if switching from stainless steel or aluminum. And you can move it from stove top to oven without a thought.
Cast-iron pans are created by pouring molten iron into sand molds. After the metal solidifies, the sand crust is blasted off, and any rough edges are removed. This is pretty much the way cast iron has been made for
A couple of variables might influence your buying decision: the purity of the cast iron and the issue of seasoning it.
Lodge, the only domestic maker of cast-iron cookware, uses only "pig-iron ingot and scrap steel converted back into iron" to make its cookware, according to the company's chief executive, Bob Kellermann. Anonymously made imported cast-iron cookware, though often less expensive, offers no such guarantees. In my experience the cheapest cast-iron pans have far more "hot spots."
But the biggest fear most people have about cast iron is the seasoning process. The metal is porous and rough, and until it gains a patina from use it is the opposite of nonstick. Lodge, in an attempt to make this a non-issue, has introduced a line of preseasoned cookware, which now makes up something like 80 percent of its sales.
But I'd rather control the process: seasoning is simple, and maintaining it is even simpler. To season a new pan wash it well and dry it. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees while you warm the pan gently over low heat on top of the stove. Using a brush or a paper towel, spread a tablespoon or so of a fresh neutral oil like corn or grape seed in the pan; the surface should be evenly covered, with no excess. Put the pan in the oven, bake it for about an hour and let it cool in the oven.
It's helpful if the first few uses of the pan involve oil, like sautéeing or deep-frying. If you care for the pan properly, it will darken with use and become increasingly smooth, beautiful and easy to cook in.
Once the pan is seasoned, routine washing can almost always be done with a scouring pad, not steel wool or anything else that will damage the seasoning (although the worst that can happen is that the pan will have to be reseasoned).
Despite many recommendations to the contrary, a little mild soap won't tear off the seasoning.
Cast iron can rust of course, but never if you dry it after washing and keep it out of rain and floods. If rust does appear, scour it off with steel wool or sandpaper, and reseason.
Cast iron really struts its stuff when you want to get a pan good and hot and keep it that way. For "grilling" a steak indoors, it can't be beat. Ridged cast-iron "grill pans" are good for two reasons: They raise the meat slightly above the surface, which promotes browning by preventing escaping liquids from contacting the meat, and they leave grill marks, which are attractive if nothing else.
Cast iron is as good at browning as any other cookware, and its mass lets it hold a steady temperature so well that it is perfect for deep- or shallow-frying.
But braising in cast iron, especially with acidic ingredients like tomato or wine, may degrade the seasoning slightly. In extreme cases, you may have to reseason the pan; more likely, you'll just have to treat it to a light coating of oil and a few minutes of warming.
In any case, this isn't a bad routine. Every so often I wash my cast-iron skillet and put it over low heat. When the water begins to evaporate I wipe it dry and spread a little oil over its surface with a paper towel. I leave the skillet over the heat a few more minutes and wipe it out again.
Yes, this is maintenance, and most cookware is maintenance-free. But it seems a small price to pay for inexpensive, high-performing, safe, nonstick pans. When it comes to cookware, new is not necessarily better.
December 7, 2005
How Not To Eat Teflon
In our eternal attempt to get poisonious crap out of our homes and our diets, we have come accross concerns about cooking with teflon. Since I have known no other way of cooking, it didn't really occur to me that going back to iron age cook ware was a possibility. After reading this I think we are gonna give it a try.(Hat tip: Binstock.)