Cast Iron Makes a Comeback
In the last few years, there's been a resurgence of using cast iron to cook. Today, cast iron skillets, grill pans, bakeware and cocotte/dutch ovens are often found in today's everyday kitchen. Whether you choose to invest in vintage or today's modern enamel coated offerings, cast-iron can be a great pick to take cooking to the next level with enhanced performance, style and durability.
Cast iron is a versatile workhorse that can be used to cook almost any food, using any method including: searing, sautéing, deep frying, grilling, braising, slow simmering and even baking.
For as long as I can remember, our family has always cooked with cast iron. I recall when my grandmother would use a cast iron skillet to sear beef or pork to obtain a rich, caramelized, deep-brown crust on the surface of the meat (while locking in its juices) before finishing it in the oven. The same 12" skillet was been used to sautée Maryland blue crabs on a gas grill in Barnegat Light, NJ when we wanted to limit the mess of cooking inside the house. My wife has even found uses for it while baking a skillet corn bread recipe she had found online. My grandmother would always tell whomever was in the kitchen with her at the time that a "well seasoned pan" was practically "nonstick", "bulletproof" and would last for decades.
A well seasoned pan is practically nonstick, bulletproof and can last for decades.
For the health conscious, you actually use less oil when cooking with a cast iron skillet. A properly seasoned pan is nearly nonstick and therefore less oil is required to brown and cook your food. Also, some cooks prefer cast iron because it does not contain any potentially harmful chemicals that are found in many, modern nonstick pans.
Some cooks are partial to cast iron because they believe it cooks evenly. Actually, this is a misnomer. Aluminum cookware actually heats more evenly. Where cast iron excels is in the fact that it has a very high volumetric heat capacity, which means that once it's hot, it stays hot. Ask any chef and they will tell you that this is vitally important when searing meat. Quick tip: for the best results when searing meat, preheat your cast iron skillet in the oven for 20-30 minutes to get the pan evenly hot before searing.
Seasoning and Cleaning
So, you've purchased your first cast iron skillet and are wondering how to properly season it. To season your cast-iron skillet, cover the bottom of the pan with a thick layer of kosher salt and a half inch of cooking oil, then heat until the oil begins to smoke. Carefully pour the salt and oil into a bowl, then use a ball of paper towels to rub the inside of the pan until it is smooth. Voila, you've now chemically bonded the seasoning to the pan. Quick tip: The best way to keep your skillet seasoned is to just use your pan a lot! The more you fry, sear, or bake in it, the stronger the seasoning bond will become.
To clean cast iron, many people will tell you to never use soap. I've found that you can use it, but you never want the cast iron to soak in water as rust can form. Typically, I just use a stiff brush or the rougher side of a sponge and hot water. I always make sure to completely dry it off. If your cast iron ever gets rusty, just scour it with steel wool and simply re-season it.
Vintage or Modern?
If the material is the same, why should you choose vintage cast iron over its modern counterpart? Like many things that were made long ago, the production process usually involved additional steps which resulted in a more refined product. In this case, manufacturers like Griswold and Wagner used a lengthy polishing process that would remove many of the bumpy or pebbly inside surface areas which helps vintage pieces to be a bit more non-stick than their modern counterparts. I've also found that vintage cast iron seems to have just a little more substance to it - that is, it's a bit beefier and durable. Quick tip: when purchasing cast iron, try to select pieces that have minimal cracks and pits. Most importantly, place the skillet on a hard, level surface to see if it wobbles. If it wobbles, it's not the piece for you.
I store all of my cast iron pans nested in one another from small to large. I've never had any "seasoning" chip off. If your adventurous, why not try hanging it? Besides being great for cooking, cast iron can make a lovely kitchen decoration!