Help me choose cast-iron cookware.
March 26, 2007 1:07 PM   Subscribe

What do I need to consider when choosing cast-iron cookware (a skillet or a griddle)? Do brands, price, pre-seasoned v. not, or anything else make a difference?

I'm thinking about starting up a collection of cast-iron cookware. I'm interested in cast-iron because it seems to be reasonably cheap most of the time, and is reputed to last roughly forever. So what do I need to know when choosing my cookware? For now I just want to buy one piece, probably a griddle or a skillet for some basic stovetop cooking, like sandwiches, pancakes, eggs, maybe some sauteeing if I get a skillet. Here are some specific things I'm wondering:

I've read you should leave watery or acidic foods sitting in cast iron. Does that mean I should avoid even cooking things like tomatoes in it, or simply that once they're done cooking, they should be removed? If the former is the case, I will likely go with just a griddle.

What are the advantages/disadvantages (mainly disadvantages) of pre-seasoned cast-iron. Obviously it means I wouldn't have to spend much or any effort seasoning it before use. But will it last as long? Do you think it's worth any extra cost? Cast-iron seems to be cheap all around, even for pre-seasoned, so if there are few or no disadvantages, the extra cost likely wouldn't bother me.

Will any particular brands or stores have much better or worse quality stuff? For instance, will a piece from a cookware store actually be better than one from target? Will lodge or another established brand be better than a less established brand? Will a higher price actually correspond to higher quality?

Some cast-iron is coated with wax or similar to prevent rusting before it's seasoned. Are there disadvantages to this other than having to scrub the coating off before seasoning?

Are there cheap, long-lasting alternatives to cast iron I should know about?

What else do I need to know before making my purchase?
posted by gauchodaspampas to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Check out Lodge Logic. It's pre-seasoned and has been recommended by, among others, America's Test Kitchen.

I've had mine for five years, and I've used it for everything from Cornbread to Cream sauce. I love it. It's my pan of choice.
posted by MasonDixon at 1:11 PM on March 26, 2007

Best answer: Seasoning a cast-iron pan is not very difficult. Rub it with a thin layer of oil and cook it upside down in a moderate oven for an hour. A well-seasoned cast iron pan can cook anything no matter what the acid content. In fact, studies suggest that cooking high acid foods will increase the iron and is actually good for you.
posted by Lame_username at 1:17 PM on March 26, 2007

I have a big Lodge pan. It's cheap, and though it says it is pre-seasoned, it's a good idea to season it well before regular use. Start off with a nice breakfast of bacon and eggs.

Does that mean I should avoid even cooking things like tomatoes in it

Yes, avoid cooking acidic foods. This leaches out the seasoning. You'd have to reseason often.

Avoid cooking with low smoke-point oils. Once smoky, burned oils get into the seasoning, you'll have to reseason or your food will taste burned.

When you clean the pan, don't use soap. Just rinse with water and wipe off gunk with a paper towel. Dry the pan on the stove, and wipe the pan down with a little oil before storing. This keeps the pan from rusting and cracking.

It sounds like a lot of work, but rituals become second-nature and soon enough you have a wonderfully seasoned cast-iron pan you can hand down to your grandkids.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:19 PM on March 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Another factor I thought of that might or might not matter: My current residence has a gas range. I won't live here forever. Will cast iron perform well on an electric stove. I know they scratch glass-top electrics. There are supposed to be items to place between your cast-iron and the stovetop for glass-tops. Do these work well? If I should ever get a glass-top stove, I don't want my cookware to be rendered useless.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 1:24 PM on March 26, 2007

When you clean the pan, don't use soap. Just rinse with water and wipe off gunk with a paper towel.

Some people take this a step further and only clean their iron with coarse salt and a paper towel. I lived with one of these people for three years and her pans were always perfectly seasoned but I did have a lingering (but ultimately unfounded) fear of food poisoning.

Conversely, I grew up in a house where we washed the pans with soap and they still worked fine. It really depends how much work you want to put into it.
posted by lekvar at 1:26 PM on March 26, 2007

I have a cast-iron wok, and it's lovely, much better than my carbon-steel one. but my weapon of choice for cookware is always, always aluminum. pro-level aluminum. most restaurants in Italy use that, it's really cool.
posted by matteo at 1:29 PM on March 26, 2007

They'll work well on electric, better than thinner pans, which might not distribute the uneven heat well.

I've got a huge collection of cast iron stuff that I've picked up used, scrubbed down, and seasoned at home. It's all great.
posted by OmieWise at 1:30 PM on March 26, 2007

I love my cast iron. I've got stuff that came seasoned and stuff that I had to season; it's all great. The newest piece is a Lodge pre-seasoned Dutch oven, and the seasoning is quite good. The only thing that stuck was some cornbread that I foolishly put in there on the pot's first use without any lubrication.

My only recommendation is that, if you decide to go with unseasoned cast iron, use solid shortening (Crisco or the like) to season, and not vegetable oil. I find that the solid stuff is less likely to come out tacky. And, this goes for any cast iron, cook a pound of bacon in there, first thing. The bacon grease will develop a killer season that won't quit. Plus you get delicious bacon.

Also, should something actually become stuck to the pan, no worries; just put an inch of water and a few splashes of vinegar in it, bring to a boil, and the stuck-on stuff should float right up. And when it's clean and you're ready to store it, make sure it's bone dry and give it a quick rub with an oiled paper towel, as noted above.
posted by uncleozzy at 1:58 PM on March 26, 2007

How I wish, wish, wish, I was still somehow in contact with Peggy Morgan, a lady who worked at a University somewhere, who was a fellow subscriber to the EAT-L mailing list back in the late 80's-early 90's. She had a beautiful answer to the "wash or don't wash, no acid" fanatical-type questions and answers. Peggy, if you're out there, hope me!

I've got a huge collection myself, from gigantic 12 inch frypan to oblong skillets that cover two burners. I saw a four-burner skillett at the flea market once but didn't have enough money or plans for it.

Brands don't really seem to matter, I've gotten Lodge, I've gotten dollar store off-brands, flea market finds, what have you.

You can wash them with soap and water, even scrub them with SOS pads and Comet. What you do risk there is stripping off the seasoning, which leads to rusting. To fix that, you scrub off the rust, rub on more oil, and 'cook' it again.

You don't need a very high temperature to season or even need to do it for very long. I accidentally left a saucpan on the stove for six hours and the entire thing was terribly hot and covered in rust. I had to start all over again. 400 degrees, 30 minutes, you're fine. Let it cool and wash with sudsy water before cooking (with oil)

What I like about them is that they're terribly hard to ruin. You burn something? Scrub it off (my grandmother used balled up aluminum foil) put some oil in and cook again. You can use a fork to scramble the eggs and not worry about scratches. They travel well. You can put one in the oven to make a cake in an emergency. And they just look cool.

What I don't like is that they can be hard to clean, compared to today's non stick stuff. That's where the steel wool and elbow grease come in.

In regards to acidic foods - yes, they can strip the seasoning if left in too long. Hubby makes a fantastic spaghetti sauce in that 12-incher, and there's a rim of black around the top inside, where the seasoning has not been stripped off by the hours of simmering that's been done in the pot. I just wash it, put in some oil, and cook again.

More on seasoning. If you get a dutch oven or saucepan with lid, season the lid, too. I did this by turning them upside down on the (gas) stove and using them to make scrambled eggs for a few weeks. No rust on them ever.

Even more on seasoning. My 8 inch skillets, which I've used and abused for about 15 years, have accumulated enough seasoning that they can stand to be washed and left in the dishrack to dry. Ones that are "younger" do need to be dried by hand (or on the stove burner), especially when you live in places with hard water.

IME I had easier times with the gas than the electric, but that seems unique to me - I just can't seem to cook on electric stoves, no matter the cookware.

Short story: don't sweat it, don't drop it, if you find rust, clean it, put food it in it and cook it. Have fun!
posted by lysdexic at 2:03 PM on March 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: No need to buy anything fancy, just get something that feels good in your hand, as these suckers are heavy. A little soaking and an abrasive sponge (but without soap) will clean anything off.
posted by caddis at 2:05 PM on March 26, 2007

And what uncleozzy said about bacon. MMMMM.
posted by lysdexic at 2:05 PM on March 26, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice so far everybody. Thanks for all the seasoning and maintenance advice, but that's not exactly what I'm looking for at the moment. I'll tackle that issue when it comes. My parents had some cast iron, so I'm generally familiar with maintenance and washing of them, and any extra time that requires is not an issue for me. I'm mainly interested in finding out if there's anything in particular I should watch out for when buying. Let me specify my last question to: "what else do I need to know specifically about choosing the right piece before buying my cast iron?
posted by gauchodaspampas at 2:17 PM on March 26, 2007

Best answer: First one I bought was a Lodge 12" skillet.

Mistake. It weighs a freakin' ton, which kept me from using it all the time. Handy for making fried chicken, but not for day-to-day use.

A month later, I bought the 10" skillet (Lodge, unseasoned, new on sale for $12 or so) and I use it every single day.

Unseasoned skillets are cheap. Seasoning is easy.

So if you're looking at a single cast-iron purchase, start with the 10-incher. Don't be a size queen.
posted by action man bow-tie at 2:26 PM on March 26, 2007

"what else do I need to know specifically about choosing the right piece before buying my cast iron?"

Darn, keeping us on topic. Mostly you need to know what you are going to do the most. My first ones were 8 inch skillets, good for frying tortillas and beans, and making eggs and omeletts. General purpose stuff. Saute some meat, put in a can of vegetables, cover it, put the burner on low, let it "stew" for 30 minutes and you have dinner.

They didn't come with covers, I just used generic ones I found or aluminum foil.

Soup? saucepan, though nonstick is better for that purpose.

Macncheese? Same as Soup.

Basically anything really watery is going to be better off not in cast iron.

A 10-incher would be a good first buy. As action man bow-tie says, it won't wiegh too much, and you can do a lot with it. More if it comes with a glass lid.
posted by lysdexic at 2:44 PM on March 26, 2007

Best answer: General purpose cast iron pieces have a lot more utility and practicality than ones with lots of features. A plain 10" skillet with a good handle, and pour spouts on both sides will be used 20x more than a wedge pan. A griddle is great if you have a gas range with the burner heat to drive it, and make pancakes and sausages for a family every Saturday and Sunday - but not so practical for electric ranges.

Lids for cast iron are another issue. Dutch ovens come with lids, but if you're buying and using standard skillets most often, getting splatter screens, or lids that fit will be necessary, particularly if you are used to cooking in cookware with lids, which concentrate heat, especially on electric ranges. By comparison, without lids, cast iron on an electric range will take much longer to come up to temperature, and may never get as hot.
posted by paulsc at 2:57 PM on March 26, 2007

cast iron on an electric range will take much longer to come up to temperature, and may never get as hot.

Preheat it in a 500-degree oven and it will...
posted by dersins at 3:02 PM on March 26, 2007

I used to spend time washing and seasoning my cast-iron pans until I got my first nickel-plated cast-iron skillet and it's GREAT. It has all the heat-distribution and -retention advantages of cast iron, but it doesn't rust and never needs seasoning. Leave it in the sink, wash it with soap, let it air-dry in the rack, it's fine. It's a lot more expensive, but it's really a one-time investment and totally worth it.
posted by nicwolff at 3:03 PM on March 26, 2007

"what else do I need to know specifically about choosing the right piece before buying my cast iron?"

Weight. How it feels in your hand. How much food you actually cook at one time.

I got a very large Le Creuset for too much money that's hardly used; it's just too heavy, and I don't normally make ten-egg omelettes. It's great when I want to cook up a huge pile of veg, but it mostly just sits in the cupboard. It's impossible to tilt and shake the thing around as I'd like. The handle is shoogly, too. I've had better luck with thrift-store finds.
posted by kmennie at 3:08 PM on March 26, 2007

Response by poster: kmennie wins the award for best use of the word "shoogly".
posted by gauchodaspampas at 3:17 PM on March 26, 2007

Oh, finally someone mentioned my favorite source: the thrift store. Cast iron is pretty hard to break (besides its being somewhat brittle--don't drop it!), and the pots last forever, so I just like to pick them up at thrift stores. I've got a dutch oven and 3 pans that I've picked up this way; highly recommended.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 4:07 PM on March 26, 2007

Just go to the flea-market and buy some old seasoned stuff. Cheaper and sometimes much better quality.
posted by guruguy9 at 4:17 PM on March 26, 2007

Best answer: I'm a little late on this point but I haven't seen it mentioned before, so here goes:

All of the cast iron pans I've used and owned were either personal heirlooms or garage-sale finds; when I was starting out my own kitchen I got in touch with an old family friend who spends summers touring garage-sales, and had her keep her eyes out for me; she picked up a few good pans.

The thing that makes all of these pans great is that they have a machined cooking surface; the surface of the pan has been ground smooth, and if it's clean enough you can see the tiny rings were (I guess) something like a circle-sander did its work.

In contrast, all of the new cast-iron pans I have seen in stores (I haven't looked particularly hard) are raw iron; the metal on the cooking surface looks the same as the metal on the sides of the pan, i.e. sort of rough and bumpy. These pans might be fine for cooking meat, but (in my experience) they aren't capable of, say, frying eggs without residue like a machined pan is. This isn't such an issue if you're willing to keep cleaning it, but the thing I enjoy most about my pans is that if they're being treated well they only ever need a quick wipe down with a paper towel, mostly for moisture, and then they're good to go.

I'd be curious to hear if anyone else is aware of this sort of machined vs. rough iron phenomenon. I remember hearing something vague about it a long time ago, and I think somebody said that there's basically nowhere that makes machined cast-iron cookware anymore, but I have no source and no idea if that's true.

Either way, I think vintage pans are the way to go.
posted by cmyr at 5:12 PM on March 26, 2007

Besides being heavy, the heavier (thicker) skillets cook better (more evenly), which is the whole point of getting cast iron anyway. So get the heaviest skillet, for its size, that seems to have the most weight in the bottom of the pan, that you think you will use considering both weight and size. (Oh, and considering the type of cooking you do, for example picking the skillet up and using it to toss pancakes....)
posted by anaelith at 6:43 PM on March 26, 2007

cmyr-You're absolutely right about the machined cooking surfaces on older pans. It makes a huge difference.
posted by OmieWise at 6:54 PM on March 26, 2007

Best answer: "... I'd be curious to hear if anyone else is aware of this sort of machined vs. rough iron phenomenon. ..."

If you can see "machining marks" in your cookware, that is exceedingly poor machine work, or more likely, the rings were a cast pattern intended to increase the surface area of the pan, and make heat transfer more efficient. Automotive brake rotors and drums, which are the most commonly machined cast iron parts made, should present an absolutely smooth finish when freshly cut, and they are typically machined on the cheapest, least accurate lathes or on-vehicle cutting systems imaginable.

Some things are "machined" to leave decorative marks, but visible marks are generally a big no-no in machine work, as they are points where stress cracks will easily form in wear, particularly where a part is repetitively heated and cooled. I think if you looked very closely at your pan, under magnification, you'd find that its ridges are not cut at all, but have the typically rounded corners of sand cast grey iron. And note that sand cast grey iron can have very, very fine finish, if the casting "sand" used is properly specified, set and wetted. To the point that straight cut face gears can be routinely and cheaply cast, without needing or benefiting by tooth machining, thereafter.
posted by paulsc at 6:56 PM on March 26, 2007

Well, there you go about the machining. I should have said that you're correct about the smoother interior finish on old pans, as I know nothing about machining and so have no idea how that smoother surface was achieved. paulsc sets the record straight.
posted by OmieWise at 7:13 PM on March 26, 2007

A good seasoning will even out the rough spots in the surface and make even raw iron pans easily non-stick. How long this takes depends on how often you use it.

In my experience, the Lodge Logic line reaches this point after about 4-5 cycles of "cook with a lot of oil, rinse and scrub, heat to smoking, rub with oil, cool", after the initial seasoning.

While I do have a soft spot for my 11" skillet, which was the first piece I got and which has acquired a jet black seasoning layer over the years, the Lodge Logic 10" chef's skillet has the most pleasing and versatile shape I've found. The rounded edges really help and it's compact so it heats evenly. This picture varies slightly from the model I have which is a few years old.
posted by Caviar at 6:56 AM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

You should also check out thrift stores, where people often dump perfectly good cast iron cookware that needs only a little TLC (like scraping off rust) to be good as new.
posted by O9scar at 2:21 PM on March 27, 2007

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