Most of us know somebody who owns cast iron cookware and swears by it. Even if we don’t know someone personally, we’ve all likely heard about cast iron skillets or pans. With that knowledge, a certain mystique has built up with the image of heavy black cookware that can perfectly sear a steak or grill a burger. Does it live up to the hype, though? Does cast iron cook as evenly as people claim? Is it truly better than a trusty non-stick pan? Are the benefits worth the headache of seasoning the pan and taking care of the famously fickle cookware?
Cooking with Cast Iron
We’ll start with the reasons many people love cooking with cast iron. First off — you can get a good cast iron piece of cookware for fairly cheap. While there are pieces that run on the high-end of the cost spectrum, you can get a workhorse cast iron pan for $10 to $25 at most home goods or kitchen stores. As long as you take care of your cast iron, it should last a long time, too — as in your children could pass it down to their children. A well-seasoned and cared-for cast iron pan can last multiple lifetimes.
Of course, the affordability and longevity of cast iron won’t mean much if it’s not useful in the kitchen. Luckily, cast iron has a number of benefits for cooking, especially if you’ve seasoned the pan. Seasoning is a way to create a thin coating on the surface of your cast iron by heating oil at extra high heats. This protects the surface and creates a moderately non-stick covering, though not as non-stick as Teflon. Not only will this make your cast iron easier to use, but it can also keep it in better shape for longer.
The low thermal conductivity also means that it takes a long time to lose heat, retaining heat extremely well.
Finally, when cooking with cast iron, it can be really useful for cooking at high heats and evenly cooking your ingredients. This doesn’t have to do with how well cast iron distributes heat (a common myth). Cast iron actually distributes heat fairly poorly because the material has a low thermal conductivity, which means it takes a long time to heat up. This also means that it takes a long time to lose heat, retaining heat extremely well. Because of this, you can heat an area, shift the pan, and heat another area and those areas will maintain that heat, allowing you to evenly cook ingredients. You could also heat a cast iron pan in the oven before use so that the entire pan is heated evenly. Lastly, cast iron radiates more heat than a standard stainless steel cookware. This may allow you to cook thicker ingredients or layered ingredients, since it will cook more than just the parts of the ingredient that are touching the pan’s surface.
The Downsides of Cast Iron
Cast iron isn’t perfect for every situation. Some of the properties that can make it so effective at searing and browning meat — the way it retains heat — also makes it a bad choice for any type of cooking where you may need to control the heat, like sautéing. Since cast iron retains heat so well, it makes it more difficult to adjust the temperature in the pan.
Another consideration for when you’re cooking with cast iron is to avoid using highly acidic ingredients for long periods of time. Acidic ingredients can react to the cast iron, leaving a metallic taste in the food. An excellently seasoned coating can prevent this reaction, but only if the pan is well-seasoned. If there are spots that aren’t covered or aren’t seasoned enough, you may still get the metallic taste. That said, you can cook acidic ingredients in cast iron for short periods of time, though you may be better served using another pan instead to play it safe.
You should also dry the cast iron soon after washing it, without allowing it to soak to prevent the pan from rusting.
As mentioned earlier, cast iron also can be finicky to take care of. While the talk that cast iron takes a lot of effort and work to maintain is false, there are some truths to it. For example, you may have heard that you can’t wash a cast iron pan with soap without it stripping off your seasoning. This belief was true when soaps were made of vinegar and lye, which were too harsh for the seasoning layer. Most soaps today are gentle enough to leave the thin coating intact, though you can be safe and only use a little bit of soap. You should also dry the cast iron soon after washing it, without allowing it to soak. This can prevent the pan from rusting.
Is It Worth It?
So, it comes down to a final verdict — is cast iron worth getting? When you consider the average price of solid cast iron cookware, how useful it can be, and the longevity of the cookware, it certainly should be worth it. Cast iron is tough to beat if you’re frying, searing, or even baking a dish and can become one of your trusted go-to kitchen tools for years to come.
When you consider the average price of solid cast iron cookware, how useful it can be, and the longevity of the cookware, cast iron is tough to beat.
Having said that, if you’re just starting to build up your cooking equipment, it wouldn’t be the very first thing we’d suggest getting. A good all-around set of stainless steel cookware may be perfect while you’re just learning the ropes since they can be a bit more forgiving and easier to use.
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But, once you have the basics, a cast iron skillet or pan should be high up on your shopping list. A good cast iron pan is worth its weight in gold, which is quite a lot based on the ones we’ve used.