Saturday, June 28, 2014

All About Cast Iron: Where to start and why you should.

I bought my first cast iron pan when I was twenty. We had just made the 500 mile move to Tennessee, to a real, grown-up apartment, with one small boy in tow. I fancied myself a homemaker, and in order to feel equipped, I ordered a 10 inch lodge fry pan to meet me on my front door.

I was remembering Costella, the precious woman that raised my dad and his siblings. I was remembering her standing in my Grandmother's kitchen and telling me the secrets to cooking. She taught me to roll dumplings on the counter, to shake chicken and flour in a paper bag and then drop it into a heavy, grease-slicked cast iron pan. "Don't even fool with frying chicken in anything else," she said. "It won't turn out the same." And then she gave me a piece. It burned my mouth. I was ten.

I washed my first cast iron pan in the dishwasher. Costella had impressed upon me the merits of cast iron but had never touched on the care of it. When it turned orange with rust, I put it in a hard to reach cabinet and forgot about it.

in 2009, I received Mad Hungry: Feeding Men and Boys for Christmas. In it, Lucinda Scala Quinn sings the praises of cast iron and I thought, "Hey, I have one of those".  It was all downhill from there. Having gained a little more experience in the kitchen, I was able to appreciate how truly awesome cast iron cookware is. My collection today would make Costella proud.

In fact, the last conversation I had with her, although she was not entirely lucid and thought I was my mother, was about cast iron. She told me about seasoning it. About never letting soap touch it. About keeping it to give to my babies when I'm too old to fry chicken anymore.
She sat there in her chair, a faded, framed photo of MLK on the wall behind her, her wig slightly askew and her stockings drooping on her shrunken legs. I remember that moment so clearly because I wanted to take her photo and I didn't. This beautiful woman, our bonus grandmother, who loved us all like she had delivered us into the world herself . When I look back to that moment, what I remember most is what it meant to watch someone fade away. And in the years since then, I've learned the regret of not capturing a moment when your heart is moved to. This is why I take photos of everyday things, of odd things, and even sad things…because I wish I could show you Costella now, on the last day we spoke, the day she taught me about cast iron pans.

So, you may ask, why cook with cast iron?

1.  It's incredibly cheap.

I'll start with this point, because frankly, it's what drives most of us. Especially those of us with families and plenty of things we would rather buy than pans. You can get an entire set of Lodge cast iron on Amazon for less than 65 bucks here: Lodge 5-Piece Cast Iron Cookware Set, Black 
 The linked set above contains a 10 inch griddle, a 10 inch skillet, and 8 inch skillet and a 5 quart dutch oven with a lid. If you don't want to make that big of a commitment, I recommend just getting a 10.25-Inch skillet to start out. That will run you between 15-18 dollars depending on where you buy it. 
Also, you can find cast iron pans at garage and estate sales. Some of my best pieces I paid less than a dollar for and just had to put in some work getting the rust off. Then it has a story.
 I love things with a story. 

2.  It will last forever.

The worst damage you can do to a cast iron pan is put it in the dishwasher and ruin the seasoning. But it can be restored even then. Your cast iron pans will outlive you. You don't have to worry about someone messing up the non-stick coating or burning a bunch of stuff to the bottom. For someone like me, not being able to ruin it is a huge plus. 

3. It's so much easier than you think. 

One of the things that I hear a lot when I talk about cast iron is "But it's so much work."
That couldn't be further from the truth. 
Really, caring for cast iron is more about what you DON'T do. 
Don't EVER put it in the dishwasher. Trust me on that one.
Don't put soap on it. If you accidentally do (or a well meaning friend cleaning up after dinner does), don't sweat it. Just rub it down with some oil and it should be fine, though it make take a few meals to get it good and slick again. 
Usually, all you need to do is scrub it with hot water and a stiff scrub brush. Dry it off with a towel (or put it on a hut burner for a few minutes) and if it's looking a little dry (not shiny), just wipe it down with a paper towel and some vegetable oil. 
To season a new cast iron pan or one that has had a soapy encounter, wipe it down well with vegetable oil or shortening. Then bake it in a 325 degree oven for an hour or two. This isn't exact science. I've tried all kinds of oils on my pans, but truthfully, I like using shortening best. Yes, as in Crisco. I know it's gross stuff but I keep a little tub of it just for my cast iron. It is, after all, what Costella told me to use. 

4. It's significantly healthier. 

Once your pan is well seasoned (and that doesn't count the "pre-seasoning" it comes with when you buy it), it is virtually non-stick. You can use much less oil even when cooking things like fried potatoes or eggs. Because it doesn't need a non-stick coating to be non-stick, it is a great chemical free alternative to coated pans. If you've ever done even the slightest research about Teflon, you will want to ban it from your kitchen.  And unlike so many things that require a lot of money or commitment to make a healthier choice, cast iron is easy and cheap, remember?

5. Food cooked in cast iron tastes good. 

Because food can be cooked in cast iron with less oil, you really get to enjoy the flavor of the food. I actually enjoy steaks cooked on cast iron more than ones cooked on the grill. Also, iron distributes heat evenly so you don't end up with hot spots or burned bits quite as easily as other pans. 

6. It's super versatile. 

Cast iron can be used for SO many things. You can use it in your kitchen, on the stove top and in the oven. You can take it camping, cooking over a wood stove or a fire. It generally cooks very evenly and also retains heat, so it keeps food warm on the stove for a long while. 
I cook the majority of our food in cast iron. I cook sauces, meat, and veggies in my skillets. We use them for pancakes, cornbread and baking things like fish and chicken breasts. I cook soups, stews, roasts, and rice in my enameled dutch ovens. I have even used them to bake loaves of bread! (You may notice i said dutch ovens. Yes, plural. We have two 7 quart dutch ovens that get used a ton because we have a huge family and are often feeding 20 people at once. One large dutch oven should suffice for most families.) We have a 15-inch skillet that is roughly the size of a manhole cover but is crucial for the best chicken recipe in the history of ever. (In all seriousness, you need to make the chicken. If I had to choose only 5 foods to eat for the rest of my life, this would be the only meat I'd choose.) I really can't think of much you CAN'T make with the right cast iron pan. Muffins. I've never made muffins. But I have made cake, so.

So, where do you buy it?

All of the links in this post so far take you to Amazon. This is probably one of the cheaper places to buy cast iron brand new. You can also get it at Wal-Mart, Target, or any store that sells camping gear (think Academy Sports, Dick's Sporting Goods, Gander Mountain.) Look out for it at garage sales and estate sales. Usually, if it's in flea markets, it's been marked up but sometimes you can find a deal.
If you find a used piece that is rusty, you can follow this tutorial on how to get it clean without using harsh chemicals.  You basically just have to get the rust off then re-season. It's totally worth doing if you find a good deal.

Additional tips

If you do buy a brand new cast iron pan, go ahead and scrub it with soapy water. They coat it with something to make it non-stick but it doesn't work well and I imagine it's not very healthy for you. Just wash it and then season it yourself.

The first handful of times you use your pan, you want to try to cook higher fat things. Like bacon or hamburger meat. It takes a little while to get it good and slick where things like potatoes won't stick to it. But bear with it. It's worth it.

There are a lot of cheap cast iron pans out there, most of which are china made. For a more affordable option, I always lean towards Lodge because it is USA made (except for the enameled pots).

So, there you have it. The nitty gritty of cast iron. Tell me, what is your cast iron story? Your favorite pan? Favorite dish to cook in it? I'd love to hear from you!

*The links above are affiliate links. This means that a percentage of any purchase you make while using one of my links goes to support The Hodgepodge Darling blog. Thank you so much for helping me pursue my dream!


  1. I have a Lodge Dutch oven that I've been trying to season using your tutorial. However it remains more sticky than slick. When I rub it with a paper towel and oil the paper towel turns black. Also the lid tends to drip rusty water when I leave it on. Any suggestions?

  2. It's a Lodge I bought new. I started using vegetable oil but it was so sticky. I cleaned it really well and started using mineral oil and it is better but I still have some trouble with it. I never know how much to clean it. Just wiping it out doesn't seem like enough after I cook something like a roast in it.