For years I’ve heard tales of how good cast iron pans are, how they heat evenly, how they are non-stick if properly seasoned, how they need TLC to stay that way. I’m beginning to think that’s pretty much equal parts nostalgia, and hype. The trouble is, once something becomes accepted folk knowledge, it stays that way. It’s like the New in New York. Once something is “New”, it’s New forever.
Let me give you another example, from amateur astronomy. For years, decades really, all the amateur astronomy books said that you shouldn’t point your telescope through a closed window, because the imperfections in the glass would destroy the seeing. That’s true, if your house was built before 1960 and so used sheet glass, but the 1950′s saw the development of the Pilkington float glass technique, where very smooth glass was made by floating it on molten tin. It took almost half a century for the “don’t look through a window” advice to finally change. Yes, there are times you don’t want an additional refractive layer in front of your scope, but there’s also the dead of winter and the height of mosquito season, times when you don’t mind a little refraction.*
Cast iron is the sheet glass of the cooking world. Yes, a well seasoned pan is more non-stick than the pre-Apollo pans your grandmother used, but no, it’s not as non-stick as teflon or some of the more modern coatings. And, no, it doesn’t distribute heat evenly.
I see two uses for cast iron pans. First, for searing. If I have a chunk of meat that I want to cook quickly at high heat, or I have a sous-vide that needs a bit of brown, then I pull out the cast iron frypan. I put it in the oven to get it afterburner hot (there’s nothing on it to melt), then pull it out (wearing heavy gloves, using potholders), and drop the meat in. I have to be sure the kitchen fan is set to mega-suck, or all the smoke detectors will go off at once. Cast iron does hold heat very well, so that pan is still sear-your-flesh hot when I turn the meat. When I’m done with the searing, I turn off the oven and stick the pan back in. Leaving it in a hot oven won’t help cleanup, but if it’s in there I won’t forget and try to grab a still-hot handle barehanded ten minutes later (remember, the non-stick part is only relative). When everything has cooled down, I take it out and clean it.
The second use is outdoors, over a fire. As I said, it won’t melt. It won’t burn. It won’t even scorch. I’ve been using mine to heat beans and such on the BBQ when grilling meat, since that lets the food pick up some of the flavorful carcinogens from the meat smoke and drippings. I am still experimenting with that approach. If I set it between the charcoal holders and put the meat directly over it (indirect heat), I get juice, but I have no control — I’d have to pull the meat and lift the grill to stir it. If I set it up on the grill I can control the heat, and stir and stuff, but I’m dependent on second-hand smoke for flavoring. That’s grilling at home. Camping is something else. I haven’t been camping for decades — not since that time with the Girl Guides in Thetford Chase — but if I did, I’d take along the cast iron pan for campfire cookery.
As for care, I soak it overnight, scrape the big chunks off, hit the rest with a scouring pad, and pop it into the dishwasher. Yes, it destroys the seasoning and takes away the non-stickiness, but I’m not going to be cooking omelets in it. When I take it out, I hit it with a shot of Pam and wipe it off. That keeps the rust away.
*Yes, I know about warm air currents and distortion, but that’s primarily a problem if it’s an open window, or if you have a radiator directly under it.