Kitchen Comeback: Cast-Iron Cookware

Flea markets, garage sales, your great-aunt’s kitchen and pricey culinary stores have something in common: They are all selling cast-iron cookware. From the very old to brand-new designs, cast-iron pans are experiencing a renaissance—and for good reason. Not only are these time-trusted pans safe to cook with, but they offer a healthy way to cook, too. Take good care of them and they can be passed down for generations.

What is a Cast Iron?

Cast iron is iron that is alloyed with about 3 percent carbon to harden the metal and also contains some silicon, according to On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (Scribner 2004) by Harold McGee. This blend is ideal for creating inexpensive, effective and safe cooking material. While cast iron does not conduct heat as well as aluminum or copper, it holds heat better—allowing for even cooking without any hot spots. Cast-iron cookware can be used on the stovetop and in the oven, and it is available in bakeware, skillets, Dutch ovens and griddles.

The Resurgence of Cast Iron

With the controversy of toxins surrounding the continuous use of nonstick cookware, cast-iron pans have been surging ahead as the new face of healthy cooking. Thanks to a rich patina, cast-iron pans can be used with little oil to cook many of the same foods typically cooked in nonstick pans—from meats and fish to casseroles and cornbread. Cooking with cast iron can also provide dietary iron—a plus for vegetarians, vegans or people with iron deficiencies.

Maintaining Cast-Iron Cookware

The longevity of a cast-iron pan depends upon the care used in maintaining it. If not handled properly, cast-iron pans will begin to corrode. Always clean them according to the manufacturer’s recommendations (this usually means with hot water and a stiff brush—no soap) and season your pans regularly. Foods that are highly acidic, such as tomatoes or citrus, are not recommended on pans that are not very well seasoned. The acidity can destroy the patina, discoloring the pan and leaving a metallic taste to foods.

Tips on Cooking with Cast Iron

Set cast-iron cookware over low heat to begin and then gradually increase the heat. Cast iron holds heat well, so a very high flame may not be necessary.

  • Resist the urge to place frozen or very cold foods onto a hot pan. This causes food to stick—or worse, it can crack the pan.
  • Use only wood or silicone cooking utensils on cast-iron cookware to prevent scratching.
  • Do not use soap or detergents on cast-iron cookware for regular cleaning. Hot water and a good cleaning brush are all you need.
  • Re-season your pan often to keep it clean and ready for use.

How to Properly Re-season a Cast-Iron Pan 

The longevity of cast iron depends on care–and pans work best when re-seasoned regularly.  A good indicator that the pan should be re-seasoned is if the user notices food sticking to the pan. Some manufacturers sell pans that are pre-seasoned, so there is no need to do an initial seasoning before cooking.  However, if you purchase a brand new pan that is not pre-seasoned, or if you pick up an old pan at a garage sale, it is a good idea to season the pan before its first use.

  • Wash the cookware with hot, soapy water and a stiff brush. (Soap is okay this time because you are preparing to re-season the cookware). Rinse and dry completely.
  • Apply a thin, even coating of melted vegetable shortening (or cooking oil of your choice) to the cookware (inside and out).
  • Place aluminum foil on the bottom rack of the oven to catch any dripping and set oven temperature to 350-400 degrees F. Place cookware upside down on the top rack of the oven. 
  • Bake the cookware for at least one hour, then turn off the oven and let the cookware cool in the oven. Store uncovered in a dry place. 
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Sara Haas
Sara Haas, RDN, LDN, is a Chicago-based dietitian and co-author of the Fertility Foods Cookbook. Read her blog, The Cooking RD, and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.