I have five pieces of cast-iron cookware: two frying pans, a flat skillet, a biscuit pan, and a popover pan.
I love looking at them and cooking with them. What’s not to love?
The price was right (two handed down from my mom, two from the “free mall” at the town dump, and one from a thrift store).
- All five pieces were old, well-used, and relatively well-seasoned—black with a rich patina—when I got them. The seasoning self-maintains itself with regular use of the cookware.
- They bear the heft and weight of history (and feel like it, too). The Chinese developed cast-iron foundries 2500 years ago, and probably the first iron cooking utensils. The cast-iron kettles, cauldrons, spiders, and Dutch ovens of my Colonial ancestors produced much of the cuisine we call American.
- They look good on my wood-fired kitchen stove, a stove of Amish design, which is plain, simple, and black, with a cast-iron cooking surface.
- They conduct, distribute, and retain heat well, and cook at a lower temperature than pots and pans made from other materials..
- They contain no wooden or plastic parts, important when cooking on a woodstove, which I do throughout the colder months. They also go from stovetop to oven with no melting, cracking, or warping.
- They’re versatile: I can use them for various egg dishes, vegetables, stir-fries, flatbreads, English muffins and baking-powder biscuits.
- Properly seasoned, they offer a non-toxic, (almost) non-stick cooking surface.
- They’ll last forever.
Recently I wondered if a couple of my cast iron pieces might benefit from a complete re-conditioning. When I started searching the Web for information, I discovered that cast-iron cookware and cooking with it is something of a cult. Who knew?
People collect it, both vintage and modern pieces, and designate their collections to specific heirs. They argue over which brands are best and which size and shape of iron cookware best serves a particular recipe. There are whole books written about how to cook with it, and hundreds of online articles and spirited discussions about the best way to season it , and about whether it’s even safe to use.
Cast iron does leach some (relatively non-absorbable iron) into the food as it cooks, although apparently less from older, well-seasoned items than from newer ones. This can be beneficial for folks who suffer from iron deficiency.
There is a condition called hemochromatosis, usually inherited, in which the body absorbs and stores too much iron, with toxic consequences. People with this condition, readily diagnosed by blood tests, are advised not to cook with cast iron.
After decades of cooking with cast iron (not to mention regular blood testing), I don’t worry much about getting an iron overdose from it. It’s a matter of balance. I will say I don’t cook tomatoes or fruit dishes in my iron cookware (it imparts a metallic taste to the food), and I don’t deep-fry any foods, so I don’t worry about concerns with deep frying.
I will admit, hefting hot, heavy iron pans is tough on my increasingly arthritic thumbs and wrists. But I’ve just discovered the virtues of compression wrist-support gloves. Perfect!
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.