I grew up using non-stick Calphalon cookware. While the non-stick feature was nice, you couldn’t use metal utensils on it. One way or another it eventually got scratched and had to be replaced. There were also heat restrictions on it, so its uses were limited. I remember this one bulky, black pan that always sat in the back of the pan drawer. It didn’t have the sleek look of a new Calphalon pan and the handle and pan were all one piece. I figured it was something that my parents held on to for sentimental reasons, maybe their first frying pan. I may have tried cooking with it once but didn’t know what I was doing and everything stuck to it. It wasn’t until my twenties that I discovered the wonders of cast iron when used properly. Today, whether I’m pan searing a steak, preparing gumbo in a pot, cooking bacon and eggs on a griddle, or frying stir-fry in a wok, I’m using cast iron. I even found a lesser known cast iron piece called an Aebleskiver. It is traditionally used to make a sweet Danish snack that resembles donut holes, but I found that is perfect for cooking oysters. At one time, my kitchen was even decorated with cast iron knick-knacks. My wife has since vetoed that. After cooking with cast iron for 20 years, I still have every piece I ever bought and they are all used regularly.
If cared for properly, cast iron is always non-stick, easy to clean, and virtually indestructible. Even improper care won’t destroy cast iron. Cast iron is exactly what it is called, a piece of iron cast into the shape of a pan. Iron rusts. Cast iron cookware must maintain a coat of oil as protection from moisture. Each piece is originally coated with oil and baked in an oven. The oil cooks into the surface of the iron creating a non-stick surface that protects from rust. As long as you maintain the oil coating, the cast iron will always be non-stick and easy to clean. To maintain the oil coating, do not use heavy amounts of soap. Soap breaks up the oil and removes it from the cast iron. I never have the need for soap on my cast iron. Hot water and light elbow grease works fine. Remember, you are not trying to remove all grease from the surface, just food particles. But if you do use soap, make sure you recoat with oil which you should do after each use anyway. Once the cast iron is clean, dry it off immediately as any moisture left on the piece can cause rust. Then apply oil and wipe down with a paper towel. Any oil will do. I use cooking spray because it is easy to apply the right amount. A light coat will usually suffice. The entire surface of the cast iron should have a glossy coat. If any of it has a flat, matte finish, apply more oil. If you do get rust on a piece of cast iron, it can be fixed. Sand the rust off with steel wool or sand paper. You can even use an electric sander if necessary, just be careful not to distort the surface of the pan. Coat the entire piece in oil. Place upside down on the middle rack of an oven and bake at 375 degrees for an hour. The piece will regain its black, glossy finish and will be ready again for use.
If you have never used cast iron, start out with a medium frying pan. Try it out and if you like it as much as I do, move on to multiple sized pans. Then you can get in to the griddles, woks, pizza pans, baking dishes, dutch ovens, and Aebleskivers. If you really want to be an aficionado, you can get into the knick knacks. They have sauce dishes and spoon rests shaped like miniature pans, guitars, or cauldrons. Your grandmother may have made corn shaped cornbread in a cast iron corn stick pan. Those are one of our more popular items. If you are a camper, they make campfire dutch ovens that have a lip on the lid for holding charcoal and long legs that allow for charcoal underneath. They make a small, all in one sportman’s grill that is 100% cast iron. Any cast iron can be put directly on a fire or hot coals. I have even heard of putting cast iron in a fire as a method for cleaning.
Cast iron also makes a great gift for a cook in the family, a beginner heading off to college, or a practicing enthusiast who needs to add to their collection. But it is important to get the right brand. Make sure it is a Lodge cast iron product. Lodge has been making cast iron cookware in Tennessee since 1896. We tried selling an off brand of cast iron at the store and found that the quality of the metal made in other countries was subpar and frail. One skillet arrived at our store, cracked in half. I have never seen a Lodge skillet cracked in half. Visit their website at lodgemfg.com and take a look at what all they have. Then head to your local hardware store to pick one up.