Somewhat unusual for a style that has been around for more than 100 years, cast iron cookware has seen a resurgence of epic proportions in the last 10 years.
The Cookware Manufacturer’s Association reports more than a 225 percent increase in sales over the decade. More than 10 percent of cookware sales are now cast iron items– a significant increase from just 10 years before.
So what is bringing international chefs and home cooking enthusiasts back to cookware that is nearly the same today as it was when it was originally invented?
In short: staying power.
Pots, pans, waffle irons, muffin tins, loaf pans and more are just as good now as the day they were made 100 years ago. There is scarcely a product of any kind that has been manufactured by humans and can boast that kind of reputation.
The earliest indications of casting metal may go all the way back to China in the fourth century B.C. Ancient engineers quickly realized that the metal could be used to make weapons, and for centuries that was its primary usage.
As the efficiency of manufacturing improved, so did the creation of cast items of all kinds, and by the 1800s the ability to forge with iron was widely available.
Iron products first made their way to America in 1619, but we were not yet using the process to make cookware.
The current incarnation of the material used to create durable iron cooking products is an alloy of iron, carbon and silicon that is heated until it becomes molten.
Once it becomes a liquid, it is poured into a “cast” or mold of a pot or pan and allowed to cool. Products made using this process are solid and heavy.
They are most often made of a single block of metal rather than putting pieces together with bolts, rivets, or adhesive. This kind of metal cookware has no seams.
The most common piece of iron cookware is the Dutch oven. Despite the name, these items do not hail from the land of pigtail braids and clog shoes (a popular design for kitchen footwear, speaking of which…). The reference to Dutch in this instance means “not real” or “fake.”
Cast cookware is often referred to as the “king” of cooking products, and reigns supreme for a number of cooking applications alongside copper, its higher priced mate and cookware “queen.”
Always enduring despite newer and more “advanced” products that have come out in the meantime, iron cooking vessels are pretty difficult to destroy.
With one good scrape of a metal spatula, Teflon pans can lose a huge amount of their nonstick promise. And that chemical coating then goes where?
Into the food the chef is preparing, and into the stomachs of all of the people who are eating it.
Cast skillets, ovens and other products can last for more then a century and can be fairly easily revitalized if purchased from a thrift store or garage sale.
Want to learn more about the cast iron choices out there, as well as other types of skillets (carbon steel, nonstick, and more)? Check out our full review and guide on the many different frying pan choices out there.
Cast iron offers an entirely nonstick surface, but in some cases, the owner has to work for it. “Seasoning” is the process of adding fats or oils to the surface of the cast item and then, in essence, baking it for an hour in the oven.
The oils blend with the metal and create a semi-permanent nonstick surface similar to spraying oil on a pan before cooking with it.
Despite what logic may tell you, another way to take care of cast iron is to use the same metal tools that may have destroyed other nonstick pots and pans in the past.
The scraping of the metal against the hot oil that has bonded to the pan actually enhances the bond of the patina to the pan instead of removing it.
How Does Cast Make Cooking Easier?
Iron cooking products are very versatile in comparison to many other types of cookware. Cast pots and pans can go from oven to stove back to oven before being taken directly to the table.
Unlike more common pots and pans, which can’t sustain high heat for long periods of time, iron implements are often rated up to 400ºF or higher, and won’t transfer chemicals to the food if put in the oven.
Obviously, because the items stay so hot for so long, cooks have to be careful about making the cookware too accessible to someone who might be prone to getting burned, like little kids.
It’s a good idea to keep a good set of potholders or mittens around such as the Lodge HHMT Max Temp Handle Mitts (pictured above) when dealing with solid metal handles.
Once your food is ready to be served, many cast pots and pans can be put directly on the table as a serving dish. Users should be sure to cover the exposed parts of the pot with a potholder or trivet of some kind to avoid big and small hands from coming into contact with the hot iron.
As far as the foods that go in the pan are concerned, cooking of many kinds becomes much easier when working with iron. When the pans are preheated, browning meats can be done in a snap.
Furthermore, the use of oil and fat in the pans adds to the nonstick coating, and scrubbing off stuck-on food becomes a relic of the past with these still current yet age-old pieces of cookware.
Considerations When Purchasing
Cast products come in all shapes and sizes, and can be purchased both new and used.
The weight is a major factor in the purchase of a satisfactory piece of cast cookware, and while not always true, the heavier items tend to hold more heat and provide a more authentic iron cooking style.
Advances in the casting of metal have led to lighter options that provide nearly the same experience, but the weight of the cast iron giants over the last century has substantially changed.
Many people will have to adjust to the heaviness when cooking with the older style of cooking product because they cannot, by any means, be considered dainty like the newer products tend to be.
If you are concerned about the weight, you may want to look into carbon steel products that are somewhat lighter, with many of the same properties. You can also read more about the differences between cast iron and carbon steel frying pans.
Handles and Knobs
While the quality of the pot or pan is important for cooking the food, being able to maneuver the device is just as important, if you want the food to actually be eaten.
Cast items must have handles or knobs that are user friendly and that don’t burn the chef easily.
Examine the construction of the items you purchase, and make sure that any place that the cook is expected to put his or her hand while cooking either has a heat-resistant cover or a potholder to go over it.
When shopping for iron pots or pans, watch for pieces that are small enough to hold easily, or that have handles on both sides.
The double handles allow the cook to balance the pot more easily when it’s being heated up or transported, and the handles reduce the chance that the pot will become too heavy for a single wrist, thus causing the cook to instinctively place a bare hand on hot metal.
The gigantic 17 in Lodge L17SK3 Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skilletpictured above has eliminated the conventional handle in favor of a true double hand grip that allows for easy movement of this behemoth! This one is definitely on my want list. It’s perfect for pizza making for the entire family!
Cast iron products range in price from something much cheaper than a new set of more modern pots and pans to a much more expensive cost per piece. The price is dependent on the brand, but cheaper does not always mean less effective.
For instance, Lodge, the last stronghold of American iron casters, makes skillets that are very affordable. The Lodge style of “bare” cookware has a huge following with collectors who hang on to thousands of pieces at a time.
This 10-Inch Lodge LCS3 Pre-Seasoned Skillet pictured above is very easy on the pocketbook, and would make a great first piece for your collection. It’s a good all-around size for many cooking tasks.
Conversely, the oldest creator of enamel cast dishes, Le Creuset, continues to sell pieces that are durable and impressive, but also very expensive.
The investment for a good piece of cast iron does not have to be huge, but consumers will be doing themselves a disservice by purchasing without first doing their homework.
Home chefs can end up spending too little or much too much on several cast iron items by failing to be clear about their needs and goals. You may do very well with a small iron pan that costs only $25 if you’re just going to be searing the occasional steak.
However, if you are going to be preparing acidic dishes, you may be better off looking into the enameled options. This is because cast iron is a reactive metal, but more on that later.
On the other hand, you may end up regretting that purchase if you don’t want to put in the work to get a bare pan prepped and ready to be cooked on. The $30 that you spent might actually be a waste, because you would have done better with a more expensive, but less labor intensive piece of cookery.
Additionally, for would-be cast users who don’t mind a little cleaning, a highly usable piece of cookware may be discovered at second-hand shops or thrift stores.
Just because it has been used to make someone else’s food and retains some of that patina doesn’t mean it’s dirty. After a scrubbing at home and a re-seasoning, the old pot is just as good as new, and you will have saved a chunk of change.
Bare vs. Enamel
Cast items come in two different styles: bare and enamel-coated.
Bare pans are exactly that. They are the unaltered iron skillets, pans or ovens that come without any covering to make them inherently nonstick.
Bare iron products are more reactive when heated compared to other items, and have to be “seasoned” and then used to develop a patina, in order to become truly nonstick.
Bare items usually come with much a lower price tag than enameled products, and the total cost savings over the years can be enormous since this is a product that you could potentially use for the rest of your life.
Le Creuset Signature Enameled Cast-Iron Round Braiser, 3-1/2-Quart, Palm available on Amazon
Enamel or porcelain coated products, on the other hand, are nonstick immediately out of the box and are considered “non-reactive.” Though these items don’t need to be seasoned, they do require regular maintenance and care to keep the finish intact.
Otherwise, the enamel coating may wear off, and the pans can become unusable over time. The convenience of the nonstick surface comes at a price, and it is common to pay more than $150 for a porcelain or enamel coated pan.
As opposed to bare products where the nonstick quality develops over time and can mostly be controlled by whomever uses them regularly, the quality of the coating on enamel pots and pans must be examined prior to purchase.
Here’s the thing:
Cast iron pans are expected to last for the majority of your lifetime, if not more.
Investing in an inexpensive one with a reputation for “shedding” its coating quickly can be a waste of money.
The coating must be thick enough to withstand the abuse often levied by cooking utensils, while still allowing heat to be transferred through the iron. Everything about the pot or pan should be even, and no part of the item should have a different thickness level than any other part.
Uneven applications of coating can represent a problem in reliable heating, making cooking in them incredibly difficult.
Additionally, enamel items require the cook to be much more careful about what tools are used when cooking in them. Sharp metal could take off some of the finish and leave a chef with a pot or pan that has several different spots that heat to varying temperatures.
Though very useful, they do require care in order to keep them around for a century.
Disadvantages of Iron
On burners that are not large enough, the pans can be difficult to heat. The endurance of the heat from cast items comes from the thickness of the material, rather than its reputation as a stellar conductor of heat.
In fact, iron is one of the less efficient heat conductors in cookware. The difference, however, is that once a cast pot, pan or skillet is heated through, it will remain hot for a long time.
Thinner metals or other, better conductors will lose their heat much faster. So, heating an iron skillet on a smaller burner will only create spots of the correct temperature, and the heat will cool down as it moves outward from the center or “hot spot.”
A burner of the correct size for the item must be used, and heating slowly is an absolute must. Otherwise, the same hot spots will begin to appear as was apparent with the smaller burner.
Occasionally, the only way to heat the product appropriately is to put it in the oven until it is pre-heated.
Cast iron cannot necessarily be used on all range types. It can certainly be put in the oven, but many glass-top range manufacturers advise against cooking with cast iron on the stove.
Check with the manufacturer of your stove prior to attempting to cook on your glass-top range. In may cases, they advise against using cast pots and pans on a glass-top range because it could scratch the surface.
While there won’t be any actual damage to the functionality of the stove, this type of damage can be unsightly.
Unlike many copper cookware options, cast iron may be used on an induction cooktop without any anticipated problems.
Induction stovetops are similar in appearance to the now ubiquitous flattop electrical ranges, but use a magnetic force to directly heat the bottom of pans and skillets, providing instant heat similar to gas while being very energy efficient.
Enamel cookware often calls Le Creuset home. Le Creuset’s enamel cast pieces are made to be durable enough to last generations, while being usable enough to be included in the regular cooking rotation.
Le Creuset makes some of the most expensive cookware on the market, but their stellar reputation of offering durable, interesting products has earned them that honor.
Pieces of Le Creuset are often obvious from a distance. The signature color is a bright orange called Flame, originally chosen to represent the color that the metal turns when in the molten phase.
Other colors are available throughout the year, but Flame has been the company’s standard since 1925.
Pictured above is an example of the famous Flame color, one of Le Creuset’s better sellers as customers know that it will always be around and that they will be able to complete a full set at any time if they wish. Other colors sold by the brand are sometimes discontinued.
Personally, I like to mix and match, but I know others might not prefer the eclectic look.
Staub cookware is another type of enamel-based cast product that purports to be entirely nonstick. Though offering the same kind of nonstick surface as other brands, they have the reputation of being both durable and easier to maintain.
Staub’s backbone product is the large Dutch oven, and it can cost a pretty penny. These are usually at the higher end in terms of price.
The last American stronghold of the king of cookware is Lodge. Every other major US manufacturer of cast items has gone belly up, but Lodge actually continues to heat the food that fills bellies throughout the United States and the world.
Lodge was founded in 1896 by an iron worker named Joseph Lodge. He opened his foundry to cast products of all sizes, and ended up focusing on cookware only after creating other iron items including novelties like garden animals.
Lodge is largely accepted as the best manufacturer of “bare” iron cookware. From the molten stage to the stove, not much is added to the surface of Lodge products.
For that reason, some consumers don’t purchase Lodge because the cookware doesn’t become quite nonstick, unless a seasoning process is completed and it goes through several uses.
The seasoning process in itself can be overwhelming to new cooks who have never used cast products before, but in actuality, it is not particularly difficult.
To catch up with the newer generations of chefs who are accustomed to picking up a ready-to-use pan from the store of their local mega mart or department store, Lodge has created a pre-seasoned line that takes some of the work out of the process.
Though repeated cooking is still necessary to develop the correct patina that makes the pan truly nonstick, the addition of the pre-seasoning has helped ease some new cooks into the iron lifestyle.
More than that, these new products represent nearly 85% of Lodge’s current sales.
Lodge does offer additional items beyond bare cast-iron including several different lines of enamel covered products. The difference between the two lines, Lodge Color and The L series, is the number of coats of enamel used.
Lodge Color is the less pricey line, coated with enamel two times, whereas the L-Series is definitely on the higher end and has been covered four times. Unlike most of the rest of the Lodge’s products, both enameled lines are made in China rather than the USA.
The L series and Color lines are recent introductions, and no manufacturing capability for enameling cast iron exists in the United States. Sad, isn’t it?
The US used to produce some enameled versions, as I have two pre-WWII Griswold enameled lids attesting to this.
These three are obviously not the only options in cast, but you have to make sure you consider what is being purchased when venturing beyond the well-known names.
Now that iron is “en vogue,” brands from all over the world are coming out with their own versions of classic or technologically updated cast products.
First, iron items have been updated very little over the past 100 years. It doesn’t seem likely that a mass producer of everything other than iron would be able to improve upon this durable formula.
Second, most of the cast sets are rebranded versions of the same items, which are usually produced out of China. These pieces are not forged in facilities that know how to make a solid piece that will last for generations,.
Often, people who report bad experiences with cast iron bought an inexpensive set with a famous chef’s name from a big box store.
These pieces are more of a marketing machine than an intent to sell the best products to the consumer, and the results may leave a bad taste in the cook’s mouth.
Cast Iron Your Vote
By using iron cookware, chefs are taking more control of the cooking process while ensuring that few chemicals make it into the food they’re preparing.
There are a lot of choices when looking at cast products, and the decision pays off the most when the chef knows how often the pieces will be used, and what they will be used for.
Whether the initial investment is $15 or $200, the items offer a lot of value for the price if you buy quality items that will literally grow with a family for decades (if not longer). Cast is where it’s at.
Click here to explore other types of cookware.
Originally published August 2, 2014, updated June 29th, 2015, and last updated January 12, 2016.
About Lynne Jaques
Lynne is a stay-at-home mother of two boys. As a former US military officer and the spouse of an active duty US military member, Lynne enjoys traveling the world (although not the moving part!) and finding new cuisine and methods of preparing food. She also has the habit of using parenthesis way too much!