There's no reason to spend hundreds of dollars on cast iron cookware
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- Cast iron pans can cost hundreds, but while it's nice to cook on finer, hand-finished surfaces, they're definitely not necessary.
- Pricey, ultra-thin Wagner and Griswold pans (now only available via antique shops and auction sites) are considered by many to be the cast iron gold standard.
- But after comparing my Wagner and Griswold cookware to more budget-friendly pieces from Lodge, Camp Chef, Victoria, and Cuisinel, I can say that the latter four's pans more than suffice.
- If you're new to cast iron, I recommend starting with Cuisinel's $45 pre-seasoned Dutch oven and skillet combo. The two pieces can be used separately or together, with the skillet serving as the pot's lid.
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- What is cast iron?
- A brief history of cast iron
- Pros and cons of cast iron
- Weight and handle design
- The bottom line
Cast iron is nothing short of a blessing, and many of us at Insider Reviews are cast iron cookware devotees. Sure, it's heavy and clunky, and it takes a longer time to heat up, but it's almost completely foolproof (yes, even if you wash it with soap and water, but more on that later). Put simply, it gets the job done without the fuss of nonstick coatings or overly sensitive aluminum or steel.
What is cast iron?
Cast iron cookware is made by pouring molten iron ore into a sand mold. The sand mold is then broken apart, revealing the pan in one piece, handle included. The material is nearly indestructible. You can drop it (from up to a certain height), you can burn the daylights out of it (also to a point — it will eventually crack), and, believe it or not, you can soak it in sudsy water if it gets a little too dingy for your liking. And after soaking it for days on end — while you may have your work cut out for you — you will be able to resuscitate it. Yes, I can hear the purists screaming now: "You cannot put water in cast iron!"
Sorry to break it to you all, including my former roommate whose screams still haunt me from the one time I cleaned her cast iron with water. Amy, if you happen to read this, I apologize (again).
A brief history of cast iron
Let's get to the facts. Cast iron is, after all, iron — the obstinate, fortitudinous, persevering metal of Mars. It is rugged, heavy, and every bit as American as apple pie — although that's a fairly recent development (cast iron dates back to at least sixth century BCE China, but it's only been popular in the western hemisphere for about 200 years). It's what got hard-traveling settlers across the great divide in the 19th century, and it'd be hard to overlook its durability as a reason why.
My own appreciation dates back to my less-employed, more freewheeling days when "home" was a series of spartan country cabins, camper vans, and wherever I laid my head. The MO of my "kitchens" was extreme minimalism: fewer pots, fewer pans, and fewer dishes to wash. It tends to be simple logic that keeps the bachelor afloat, after all.
I used to browse antique shops for cookware — namely, the illustrious Wagner and Griswold pans of yore. They're ultra-thin and they're finished more like high-gloss ceramics. But those bygone brands (Wagner shuttered in 1952 and Griswold closed up shop in 1957, right around the time Teflon was popularized), along with most any antique cast-iron cookware, have grown increasingly popular in recent years and are now prohibitively expensive.
After the public became aware that nonstick coatings like Teflon could be toxic, a new fleet of higher-end cast iron brands emerged. We've tried many of them (Stargazer, Field, and Smithey), and have to admit that they do offer slightly more even heating than their less expensive competitors. They're also beautifully designed, with details like hand-hammered handles and elaborate surface treatments. But, that being said, cast iron from brands like Lodge, Camp Chef, and Victoria (our overall favorite in our guide to cast iron skillets and pans) will more than suffice.
While I've owned a lot of cast iron cookware, I always return to this two-piece set from Lodge, the trusty preseasoned stuff you can find in department stores. Cuisinel offers a similar set and both are as cheap as cast iron cookware gets, and there's no arguing that they get the job done.
The trick with cast iron, be it then or now, or fancy or not so fancy, has been and always will be proper seasoning. If your cast iron skillet or pan is seasoned correctly, and you place it over a suitably-sized burner, you won't have any problems (unless you're dealing with a truly horrible pan riddled with air pockets and destined to crack from the start).
Pros and cons of cast iron
If you've ever gone to grab a piece of cast iron cookware several minutes after you've turned the burner off or pulled it from the fire only to encounter blistering pain, you'll know that the material — unlike aluminum, steel, or copper — has exceptional heat retention.
This is good and bad, depending on how sharp of a cook you are and what you're making; cast iron keeps a steady heat while cooking and it keeps your dish warm well after you turn the burners off, but it takes much longer to heat up. Plus, if you get it too hot, the chance of you burning your butter, oil, or whatever you're cooking with is high.
Cooling down a cast iron pan once it's too hot, especially if you've already started cooking, can be disastrous. At best, you're going to have to get all that burnt oil or butter out of there, and at worst, you're going to disrupt your cooking process, which isn't so bad for potatoes or veggies, but is usually a no-no when it comes to meats (especially if your intention is to get a good sear on a medium-rare steak). Essentially, life does not stop and start at your convenience with stovetop cooking, and cast iron does not make it any easier.
Cast iron also rusts, but rust is not the death of the stuff, contrary to popular belief. Buff it away with a Brillo pad or a chainmail pot scrubber, like this one from Knappmade, but we recommend staying away from steel wool. The next thing you've got to do is pour in some cooking oil and a little salt. Rub it into the cookware with a paper towel and either put it on some heat (250-300 degrees Fahrenheit, or so) on the stove or in the oven. Presto.
Weight and handle design
Cast iron, just like iron, is heavy as heck. It's not something you're going to trek the Pacific Palisades or Appalachian Trail with, and many skillets often come sorely under-equipped, with diminutive handles that are destined to lead to carpal tunnel in anyone who commits to cooking with them regularly.
If you tend to use a skillet's handle a lot (I usually just leave it on the stove, but to each their own), then look to Victoria. I'm a Lodge devotee, but their pans and skillets have almost pathetically small handles. The trade-off is that they take up much less space in the cabinet.
The bottom line
There are certain reasons my Wagner and Griswold pans and skillets will always be my favorites, but they're mostly sentimental. I have some Griswold pans from my great-grandmother, made sometime between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they're definitively smoother than most any cast iron you'll find today. But do you need it to fry chicken, or sear a steak or make pancakes? Does it even really help? That might be up for debate, but I'll throw my hat in here and say no, not really.
Wagner and Griswold pans are thinner and lighter, and the attention to craftsmanship cannot go underappreciated: they were hand-poured into thin sand molds and then hand-polished to almost impossible smoothness. Today, cast iron cookware is still cast in sand but not always hand-finished, which is the labor-intensive step — and the detail sets Wagner and Griswold apart.
You might do a better job with things like pancakes and eggs, but it's not worth paying five, six, or even 10 times what you'd pay for Lodge, Camp Chef, Victoria, Cuisinel. They have the same basic elements as Wagner and Griswold, and in many — if not all — case, produce delicious results that look and taste just the same.
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