These days there are many choices when it comes to quality cookware, but one option seems to have stood the test of time: cast iron cookware. Cast iron cookware makes perfect sense for any kitchen. They are the preferred cookware of most professional chefs due to their long lasting durability and reliability—able to last for generations when properly cared for. Moreover, cast iron cookware is very versatile and does not present any risks to the health of the user.
In the following article we will first provide a brief definition of “cast iron cookware” and how it is made, followed by a list of 10 prime benefits to using these types of pots and pans in your kitchen. We have also included a brief section on how to season and care for this type of cookware to ensure the next piece you buy will last forever—as it was intended.
Before we discuss the definition of “cast iron cookware,” let us first take a look at exactly what “cast iron” is. Cast iron is a particular alloy of the metal known as iron that additionally contains about 2 to 4 percent carbon, as well as minute amounts of manganese and silicon—and even smaller amounts of the elements sulfur and phosphorous. Cast iron is created by reducing iron ore into liquid form through the use of a blast furnace. The resultant liquid is then cast—or poured and hardened—into crude blocks called pigs. Once this liquid sets up, the iron pigs are re-melted using cupola furnaces, along with scrap and alloying elements, and recast into molds for creating a variety of different products, including cast iron cookware.
Valued for its ability to retain heat for long periods of time, cast iron cookware has been used for centuries. As you can see from the definition above, cast iron cookware can be made with a comparatively low level of technology, as these items are cast from a single sheet of metal. This design is what makes the cookware so efficient at heat retention and diffusion. Cast iron cookware is also able to withstand very high temperatures, which makes it a wonderful choice for cooking styles such as frying and searing. Seasoning (which we will discuss in more detail toward the end of this article), prevents cast iron cookware from oxidation (rust), and also creates a non-stick surface.
Cast iron can be a great choice for a variety of cookware items, including frying pans, Dutch ovens, griddles, flattop griddles, waffle irons, Panini presses, woks, deep fryers, and more.
Although cast iron has been around for years upon years, the material lost some popularity around the 1960s with the introduction of non-stick Teflon surfaces. However, given that much of this Teflon cookware can prove toxic over time, cast iron is rapidly making a comeback, and some people are just now realizing the many benefits that this type of cookware can offer—both for their health and in the kitchen.
Although there are scores of benefits to using cast iron cookware, here we have focused on the 10 most talked about advantages.
1. Cast Iron Cookware is “Naturally” Non-Stick
When properly seasoned, cast iron cookware can provide years of non-stick cooking. In fact, when cared for properly, cast iron cookware is virtually as “non-stick” as the Teflon coated pans so many of us use today. Why is this important? Because cast iron cookware gives you a “safe,” non-toxic, and relatively inexpensive alternative to the Teflon pots and pans, which science has no shown can be very bad for your health.
At very high temperatures, particularly when the pot or pan is dry (such as it is during pre-heating), Teflon cookware releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere known as Perfluorinated Compounds, or PFCs. The problem is further compounded when the Teflon coating is scratched or flaking, as this causes the PFCs to leach into the food you are cooking with those pots and pans. These chemicals, according to scientists, can lead to many risk factors, including, but not limited to, liver disease, brain dysfunction, and hormonal imbalances. Mothers who are nursing should be particularly leery of Teflon pans, as these same PFCs they are ingesting can be passed to their infants through breast milk.
Non-stick is certainly a great and very convenient bonus in the cookware we use. But instead of taking a risk with Teflon, you’d be much better served to switch to cast iron cookware.
2. Cast Iron Cookware Is Super Easy to Clean
If you’ve ever had to scour a stainless steel pan or a glass or ceramic cooking dish you already know firsthand what a pain in the neck that process can be. Not so with cast iron cookware. When cooking with cast iron, bits of stuck-on food remove easily under running water. Before you sit down to enjoy your meal, merely rinse the pan under water, using a spatula if need be to remove any stuck on food. Replace the cast iron pan on the stove to dry, using a paper towel dipped in oil for seasoning. And voila! You’re done. It really is that simple. Remember, soap is never recommended on cast iron cookware, as it can erode the seasoning and leave it vulnerable to rust.
3. Cast Iron Cookware Has Health Benefits
According to a study by the American Dietetic Association, cast iron cookware offers health benefits, as it actually leaches a certain amount of dietary iron into the food we eat every time it is used—sometimes adding to as much as 85 percent more iron. Yes—the pot or pan that you use to cook can actually make you healthier. Iron is a crucial part of our diet, as it helps strengthen the immune system and replenish energy levels. People who are anemic, as well as those with iron deficiencies, may especially benefit from this effect, allowing them to get more iron out of every meal.
4. Cast Iron Cookware Is Inexpensive
Still sold widely, and despite its high quality, cast iron cookware is some of the most inexpensive cookware on the market today. This is mainly due to how inexpensive the cookware is to make. While stainless steel pans and other high end pieces of cookware could have you shelling out $100 or more for a single piece, a cast iron pan can usually be had for about $20-$30—even less if you look around at swap meets and thrift stores. And the best part? Cast iron cookware lasts forever when it is properly cared for—meaning this may be the very last pot or pan you will ever have to buy.
5. Cast Iron Cookware is Durable
Cast iron cookware is virtually indestructible, and when seasoned properly it can last for your lifetime and beyond. In fact, many people still use cast iron pots and pans they inherited generations ago—and they still get the same quality results. Compared to stainless steel pans that can get scratched and discolored, cast iron is a much better option for durability. And of course, those Teflon pans you may be currently using—one scratch from a metal utensil and you may as well just throw it in the trash. Since cast iron will never scratch, there is never a need to use plastic or rubber spatulas, and there is no risk of using your silverware to stir or serve from the pot or pan. Additionally, it never requires soap, so it can’t be damaged in the dishwater.
6. Cast Iron Cookware Provides an Even Cooking Temperature
If you pick up a piece of cast iron cookware, the first thing you will notice is its weight. Yes, cast iron pots and pans tend to be much heavier than other types of cookware. But while some may look at this extra weight as a disadvantage, it is actually a huge benefit. The weight and construction of the cast iron pan makes it great at retaining heat—and not burning food. Whether you are searing a pork chop at high temperatures, or simmering a pot of sauce, cast iron is the best solution. Cast iron is also great for cooking things like homemade French fries, pancakes, and Paninis, complete with golden brown, and very crispy exteriors. Try this with a piece of Teflon non-stick cookware, and you’ll find that browning is nearly impossible.
7. Cast Iron Cookware is Non-Toxic
As we explained in some detail in #1 of our list, cast iron cookware is completely non-toxic. It does not put out the PFCs associated with Teflon cookware. In fact, the only thing it DOES put out—iron—is actually good for those who ingest it, making these pans just the opposite of toxic. Replacing a non-stick or Teflon skillet with a cast iron skillet or griddle enables you to evade the toxic fumes that accompany most non-stick cookware. Cast iron can also replace aluminum cookware, which may also pose a whole new collection of health hazards.
8. Cast Iron Cookware Can Be Used in the Oven
Cast iron cookware can be used on both the stovetop and in the oven. Most cast-iron pots and pans are manufactured as a single piece of metal. This includes the handle. Because of this, they are perfect conductors of heat regardless of where they are used. Many recipes call for the use of a cast-iron skillet or pot, especially so that the dish can be initially seared or fried on the stovetop then transferred into the oven, pan and all, to finish baking. In the same way, cast iron skillets can be used as baking dishes. According to one chef, this works especially well with cornbread: “Cornbread in particular is seen as a food item that is best prepared in a cast-iron skillet: the iron pan is heated beforehand in the oven, the ingredients are first combined and mixed in a mixing bowl, then added to the heated pan, and the dish is then placed directly into the oven for fast baking.”
The ability to use cast iron on both the stovetop and in the oven sets it apart from other types of cookware. Many of the Teflon and stainless steel pots and pans have certain components—in the handles and in the pan themselves—that prevent them from being used at very high heats.
9. Cast Iron Cookware Is Great for Camping—and Emergencies
Cast iron cookware can be used to cook food over a variety of different heat sources, including an open flame—don’t try that with a Teflon plan! This makes them an ideal choice for cooking over a campfire or other heat source. Cast iron cookware can also be used in emergency situations over an alternate heat source, when the oven and stove are not working.
10. Cast Iron Cookware Has a Lot of History
Used for thousands of years, cast iron cookware has truly stood the test of time. The same type of cookware that is in use today was no doubt used by our Founding Fathers—and their Fathers—and will continue to be used tomorrow. For this reason, cast iron cookware makes a great gift, representing something that will last forever if properly cared for.
To explain the process of “seasoning” your cast iron cookware, we will assume that you just purchased a non-pre-seasoned piece of the cookware from the manufacturer. Here are the steps you will want to follow:
Wash the Cookware
Although going forward you will want to use minimal soap on your cast iron pan to prevent it from breaking down in a metallurgical sense, when you first purchase the pan you will want to wash it fairly vigorously using hot water and plenty of soap. This step must be taken to remove any of the casting oils from the surface of the pot or pan.
Oil the Cookware
Using a liberal amount of vegetable oil or animal fat, lightly coat the cast iron pot or pan—inside and out. Once you have done this, place the cast iron piece upside down on the top rack of the oven. Place another pan directly under the cast iron pan to catch the drippings from the oil. Continue to let it drain for about 60 minutes.
Cook the Cookware
Once all the excess oil has drained from your cast iron pot or pan, remove the pan that was catching the drippings. Next, set the oven at a temperature of 350 degrees, and bake the cast iron pan for about 30 minutes.
Now you have a seasoned, non-stick piece of cast iron cookware that will resist rust and last forever. Remember that over time acidic foods can break down the seasoning of your cast iron cookware. For that reason, it is important that you repeat this process often—probably about once a month—to retain the non-stick, rust-resistant nature of your pot or pan.
Although the weight of cast iron cookware, coupled with its need for regular maintenance, may seem like disadvantages, the benefits of owning—and cooking with—these types of pots and pans far outweigh any drawbacks. From the even heat they provide to their versatility to the health benefits they offer, cast iron cookware is a great addition to any home or commercial kitchen.