Cast iron, once a common material for pots and pans, has tended in recent years to be used most visibly by either pro chefs or campers. Now it’s trending again in this fall’s kitchenware product previews.
Options range from basic skillets to grill pans to pots both diminutive (for sauces) and expansive (for stews and soups).
Chef Kevin Korman is about to open his new restaurant, Whitebird, in the Edwin Hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee. On his menu: fondue, baked eggs and a savory Dutch pancake, all prepared using cast iron pans.
“Our cuisine is defined as Progressive Appalachian,” Korman says, “and cast-iron cooking played a large role in the history of Appalachia.”
The Tennessee Valley is rich in iron ore, so companies like Lodge Cast Iron set up home there. Korman will be using Lodge products in his kitchens, but aside from supporting a local maker, the material’s performance is what he cares about.
“Not only does cast iron retain heat better than anything else, the distribution of heat is really what makes it a winner,” Korman says. “Every part of the pan gives off an equal amount, so you don’t end up with certain areas that burn while others are still waiting to get some color. This was a big consideration when we were developing dishes for the menu.”
Korman recalls meals prepared on cast iron at his grandmother’s house, and he has carried on the tradition with his own family.
“I have several sizes that I use daily at home for just about everything,” he says. “Both of my daughters love to help me cook, so I hope to hand the pans down to them as they get older.”
Beyond durability, cast iron’s big selling point is the heat retention that Korman mentioned. But bear in mind that it doesn’t heat evenly initially, so always let the pan come to the needed temperature on the burner before adding ingredients. That way, you’ll get a nice crisp sear and a consistent cook with your cast iron.
New finishing methods are improving the wearability and performance of cast iron.
Today, makers like Finex in Portland, Oregon smooth and polish the pans’ interiors so that eggs and sauces don’t stick. An ergonomically designed, coiled-spring, wrapped-steel handle stays cooler than traditional handles, and the skillets are octagonal, making pouring and stirring easier. Cast-iron lids provide a flavor seal for steaming, simmering and braising.
The Museum of Modern Art’s gift shop has a cast-iron item this season: the Railway Dutch Oven, made in Holland out of recycled iron railway ties. A built-in thermometer helps monitor cooking progress, and the tool can be used stovetop or oven.
Williams-Sonoma stocks the French brand Staub: There’s a red or blue-enameled two-handled skillet that goes nicely from stovetop or oven to table, and a glass-lidded braiser in black, grenadine or sapphire. Also at the retailer: a little iron saucepot with a platform base, designed to use on grills. It comes with a silicone-handled, mop-headed basting brush for glazing barbecued foods.
Seasoning is key to optimizing cast iron’s performance; it helps “cure” the iron so food doesn’t stick, and over time helps impart layers of flavor.
To season a new pan yourself, lightly wash it as directed, then add a tablespoon of oil and massage it thoroughly into the iron, wiping any excess with a paper towel. Place the pan in an oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit and let it “bake” for about an hour. Remove and wipe off any excess oil before using or storing.
You can buy pre-seasoned pans, which just need a little refresh once in a while.
Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Table and Crate & Barrel all carry several of Lodge’s pre-seasoned cast-iron pieces.
But it’s still a good idea to refresh the seasoning if you use your pans often. It can even be done stovetop: Heat the pan until it’s hot, swab some oil into it, then let it cool.
While some people prefer not to use soap and water to clean cast iron, thinking it removes the oil coating, Serious Eats’ chief culinary consultant Kenji Lopez-Alt says it’s fine to do so.
“The one thing you shouldn’t do? Let it soak in the sink,” he says. “Try to minimize the time it takes from when you start cleaning to when you dry and re-season your pan.”