Cast iron cookware can be a bit intimidating to those that have never used it before. It can be even more daunting to those who have tried using it and ended up with a burnt mess. This beginners guide to cast iron cookware will help familiarize you with the basics so you won’t be afraid to take that next step in your cast iron journey!
It has been said before that “we don’t ever truly own cast iron — we are simply caretakers of it.” When taken care of properly, cast iron will be here long after we’re gone.
But learning to use cast iron cookware effectively can be an art form. When mastered properly, you can cook some of the most amazing, flavorful, and healthy food you or your family have ever put in your mouths.
In order to get yourself ahead of the learning curve, let’s get you familiarized with the absolute basics of using cast iron cookware.
The Beginners Guide to Cast Iron Cookware
Cast iron cookware has been used for centuries (dating as far back as the Han Dynasty in China). Over time, people have learned that these unique pots, pans, skillets, and Dutch ovens are highly durable, virtually indestructible, and make great family heirlooms.
By show of hands, how many of you reading this right now have a cast iron skillet that your parents or grandparents used? I’m willing to bet at least half of you have some form of cast iron cookware that was put to good use by some close relatives. Would it shock you to know that they probably got it from their parents or grandparents? They used it because that’s what they were taught growing up.
Let’s find out some of the reasons your family should continue the tradition… or start one of your own!
What is Cast Iron?
Ok, as simple a question as this may be, let’s answer it. The term “cast iron” is used to describe anything made of iron that has been melted and poured into a mold — a process called “casting”. Aside from cookware, in your lifetime you may have seen cast iron radiators (for heating homes), cast iron trivets (for resting pots and pans on in the kitchen), and cast iron bathtubs (even though there is porcelain covering them, most old bathtubs are cast iron).
Advantages of Using Cast Iron Cookware
You can cook anywhere with cast iron.
As long as you have a heat source, you can cook in cast iron. In the grand scheme of self-reliance, cast iron reigns supreme. You can use it on your electric range (yes, even a glass-top range — see image on right) just as well as you can a gas stove.
In fact, you can even use cast iron cookware directly over an open fire. Cook a full meal outside over your fire pit (this is an awesome outdoor fire pit and stove combo) or in the fireplace during a power outage. Use it on a bed of hot charcoal, in camp fire embers, or on a portable wood stove (like the Emberlit or Solo Stove).
Cast iron is good for everyday homestead cooking as well as survival cooking in a total off-grid or SHTF situation.
Cast iron cookware will outlast you!
In the “old days”, families would hand down their cast iron cookware from generation to generation. Some families still do this (ours is one of them), and will continue to do it generation after generation. For this reason, there is a distinct connection to the old world.
Remember when I said that we never own cast iron, we’re only its caretakers? That’s because if you care for cast iron cookware properly, it will virtually last forever. You can hand it down to your kids, and they can pass it along to their children.
Cast iron cookware is cost effective.
Glass and Corningware gets broken, and even stainless steel has weak points at the handles sometimes. Even if you find a GOOD set of cookware that will last you a lifetime, they probably can’t be passed down for hundreds of years in pristine condition.
If for some chance you happen to find a set of non-cast iron cookware that CAN be passed down, compare its price to an identical set (same number and sizes of cooking vessels) of brand new cast iron and tell me what you find.
(Spoiler alert – the cast iron is bound to be cheaper!)
Cooking with cast iron is healthier than cooking in Teflon.
Different studies will tell you different things about Teflon coating on pans. Some say it’s linked to cancer, others disagree. I won’t venture a guess as to whether it is actually a carcinogen or not, but for my family, cast iron is a far better option than Teflon.
When you cook in Teflon over and over, and clean it over and over, no matter how careful you are, it will eventually flake and peel. Pieces of the Teflon coating will end up in your food, and even if it doesn’t cause cancer, it’s probably not good to eat.
You’re not going to get any flaking from cast iron. If you’ve properly seasoned cast iron, you’re using oils that are edible, so even if something were to flake loose (which, I say again, isn’t going to happen), it’s not going to hurt you (and is even less likely to cause cancer).
Cast iron cookware can go from stove top to oven.
Remember, we’re talking about cookware that can be used in a fire. Since the versatility of cast iron is all but boundless, you can use it to make those complex recipes that call for you to sear a piece of meat, and then bake it to finish it. Sear the food right on the stove, and then immediately put it into the oven without having to change pans.
Disadvantages of Using Cast Iron Cookware
There’s a learning curve to cooking in cast iron.
Cooking, itself, is a little bit of a science. You have to learn how the cookware you’re using reacts to heat. Likewise, you have to understand what the food is going to do when you put it into the pan.
With cast iron, you can’t just put the pan on the stove, put the food in it, turn on the heat, and watch it cook. That’s a sure fire way to get food to stick to cast iron, which means burnt-on bits. Then you’ll have to scrub the pan, then reseason it.
Yes, there’s a slight learning curve to cast iron, but spending time with your parents, grandparents, or anyone that has used cast iron a lot will help get you ahead. You’ll learn bits and pieces of wisdom that are not only good for your cast iron cooking method, but also good for your soul.
Cast iron takes more effort to care for it.
Some of the people I have spoken with about cast iron say they don’t use theirs very often because it takes so much time to care for it. Sure, you can’t put them in the dish washer. You shouldn’t wash them with SOS pads. You can’t let them air dry.
But taking care of your cast iron isn’t all that difficult once you get used to it. After you have your cookware seasoned properly, and you’ve learned how to cook with them efficiently, you probably won’t ever need any more than a stiff bristled brush to clean your pans.
There is an initial period of time where you have to show the cookware more love and attention, but as with anything, it gets easier and becomes second nature.
Basically, the more you cook with cast iron, the easier it is to care for.
Cast iron cookware is heavy.
We’re working with iron, folks… not aluminum. It’s bound to be heavier. It’s also thicker than the steel pans with Teflon coating. The upside is, it’s more rugged and durable than those pans, too.
If you suffer from arthritis, it can be a task to work with cast iron. Heck, I’ve not got any bone, muscle, or joint issues, and it’s still heavy to me. But the reward far outweighs the risk, in my opinion. You won’t have to worry about using those dumbbells at the gym, next time.
Bare Metal vs Enameled Cast Iron
All cast iron is not the same. In the 1900s, companies started enameling over cast iron in an effort to make them more “user friendly”. They have a smooth, shiny surface and come in a wide variety of colors. Le Creuset, Staub, and Lodge are the three main modern manufacturers of enameled cast iron cookware.
Enameled cast iron takes longer to heat up than bare metal cast iron due to the insulating properties of the enamel. It also seems to hold heat longer for the same reason.
Lots of people choose enameled cast iron Dutch ovens over bare metal Dutch ovens, but they are more expensive (about twice the price between those two links). They don’t require the same level of care that traditional cast iron does, but there is also more risk of damaging the surface.
Whereas you can use metal utensils in traditional cast iron, you would definitely want to stick to wood or bamboo spoons and spatulas in an enameled piece.
In enameled cast iron, you would also want to use lower temperatures so as not to damage the coating. That might limit you a bit if you’re planning to sear that roast before you pop it into the oven.
You also shouldn’t use enameled cast iron on a camp fire or with charcoal. They’re really more for indoor cooking.
So for the purposes of this article (and this entire series on cast iron), we’re only talking about the traditional black cast iron.
Types of Cast Iron Cookware
The first thing most people think of when they hear “cast iron” is either a cast iron skillet, or a Dutch oven. But there are many more types of cast iron cooking vessels on the market — some geared toward specialty (novelty) cooking. In fact, you could pretty much replace all of your cookware with cast iron counterparts.
Of course you have your cast iron skillets and frying pans. These are good for just about any kind of pan frying, searing, sautéing… you get the idea.
You can also find cast iron grill pans — the ones with the raised lines on the cooking surface. They can be used on the stove and will emulate a grill. They’re also a good way to channel excess fat from food as it cooks. (They even make special cleaning tools for cast iron grill pans.)
Dutch ovens are probably the second most common piece of cast iron cookware after cast iron skillets. There are a couple of types of Dutch ovens — traditional (the ones that are most commonly used indoors) and camp ovens. Camp ovens have feet on the bottom to keep them elevated off the coals so air can circulate, and a lid with a lip to hold coals on top for even cooking (and the lid can be flipped over and used as a griddle). Dutch oven cooking has become a pretty popular niche hobby (and is great practice in self-reliance). In fact, there are entire groups and clubs devoted to the activity.
Cast iron griddles are good for indoor cooking, but are another item you’d likely find in some hardcore camping buff’s camp kitchen gear. You can use them for cooking bacon, eggs, pancakes, and a multitude of other foods.
Then there are the specialty vessels — cast iron teapots and kettles, cast iron woks, large cauldrons (often used for heating large amounts of water for bathing and washing clothes and even used as fire pits), muffin pans, corn sticks pans, cornbread pans… the list goes on and on. We happen to have some of the corn sticks pans and one small 6-slice cornbread skillet (shown in the featured image).
How to Obtain Cast Iron Cookware
While I definitely recommend finding some old cast iron (even if you have to restore it), you can always start with a brand new piece. It might actually be better for you to start with new cast iron until you learn more about the way it reacts, what it’s supposed to look like when properly seasoned, and how to restore an old piece. Once you are more familiar with cast iron, I’d definitely go treasure hunting, though!
Griswold and Wagner Ware cast iron are a couple more names that I can’t go without mentioning in this article. They, along with Lodge (and others), are some of the most frequently collected cast iron cookware. If you see a piece of cast iron at a garage sale, flea market, thrift store, or any kind of consignment store, you might think about grabbing it.
Sometimes people don’t know what they have, and they’ll sell an old piece of rusted cast iron for a couple of bucks. That’s a major score for you! As long as the bottom of the pan is still flat, there are no cracks in the metal, and there isn’t a hole rusted completely through it, you can restore it and use it.
Inherit it from family
The best cast iron skillet is the one you get from your parents and grandparents and give to your children and grand children. They become family heirlooms to be passed down generation after generation.
Moreover, the memories made while the cast iron is being used far outweighs the usability of the piece of cast iron cookware itself. When you see a family member cooking with cast iron, ask them where they got it. There may be some dynamic family history attached to that particular skillet or Dutch oven.
Tips for Cooking in Cast Iron
Alright, so now you know a little more about cast iron, and hopefully you’re at least considering pulling out that old cast iron skilled from the cupboard or going and buying a piece to add to your cabinets. Here are a few more tips for your cast iron foray to help ease the nervousness:
- When using cast iron, you don’t have to turn heat up as much. If you would normally fry bacon, for example (and what a tasty example it is), in a normal frying pan with your stove eye on 5, you’ll probably only need to turn it on 3 with cast iron.
- Handles on cast iron cookware gets hot, too. Be sure you’re using oven mitts, heat resistant gloves, pot holders, or handle covers when you’re cooking. It will only take once for you to burn the crap out of your hand — after that, you’ll remember!
- You can use any utensil in cast iron (yes, even metal). Contrary to what some people might tell you, you can actually use metal spatulas in your cast iron skillet as long as you aren’t digging into it. Light scraping and scratching won’t hurt a properly seasoned pan. Plus, if you’re using your cast iron on a daily basis and oiling it after every use, it wouldn’t matter anyway.
- If you’re cooking acidic foods in your cast iron, clean them out as soon as the food is ready. Again, some folks might say you aren’t supposed to cook things like tomatoes and other foods that are deemed “high acid” foods because it will ruin the seasoning and give your food a metallic taste. We’ll cover that in a future article in this series, but just know that with a properly seasoned pan, you can cook anything in it.
- Don’t store food in cast iron. When you’ve cooked your food, and you’ve had your fill, put the leftovers (if there are any) into a storage container to go into the fridge. Leaving food in cast iron as a storage vessel is inviting moisture to penetrate and rust the piece.
- Never put a hot pan into cold water. This is really a rule for any piece of cookware. Hot glass or ceramic going into cold water will shatter it. Hot steel going into cold water will warp the steel. Hot cast iron going into cold water will crack the cast iron. This is called “thermal shock“, and is really the only thing that can destroy a piece of cast iron through operator error. The same can be said if you’re cooking outside in winter. Don’t take your pan out of the snow and put it right into a fire. Place it next to the fire so it can warm up a little before putting it right onto the coals.
- Have fun, and don’t give up! You might burn the life out of a few meals. You might even have food stick to the bottom so bad you think you’ve ruined the pan. Let me assure you that as long as you don’t give up, and you learn from your mistakes, you will eventually love cooking in cast iron. You really can’t ruin a pan (except through thermal shock). During this series on cast iron, we’ll talk about recovering from mistakes, cleaning, seasoning, and even restoring cast iron that some people might deem to be “ruined”.
Get Started Cooking in Cast Iron Today!
There’s a certain self-reliant satisfaction and old-world sense of pride you feel when using cast iron cookware. Don’t be afraid of cast iron — it’s easier to use and care for than you’ve been told.
During this cast iron series, I’ll teach you to properly clean, season, and store cast iron, as well as restore old pieces, share recipes and cast iron cooking tips, and we’ll even discuss old wives tales about cast iron.
Do you have any questions about cast iron cooking?
As part of this series, I would like to have an open “question and answer” session with my readers. If you have any questions that have not been answered, please ask away! You can leave a comment below this or any of the other articles in this series, or you can send me an email directly at survivalathome (at) gmail (dot) com. I’ll answer every one I can as they come in, and they will all likely go into an “F.A.Q.” article later in the series!