Cast-Iron Cookware, Not Just for Grandma
To this day I still remember watching old westerns as a child and laughing at Gabby Hayes, most often referred to as "Cooky", as he scooped some unknown concoction from an oversized cast-iron pot and slopped it onto the plates of icons such as John Wayne or Roy Rogers. Gabby would not think of using any other form of cookware to prepare the "vittles" for those "young whipper snappers". It was an essential part of every wagon train and cattle drive in the early days of America.
Since the 15th century, cast-iron cookware has been more than a mere instrument for preparing meals. Mary Ball Washington, George's mom, bequeathed her cast-iron cookery in her will. (The National Museum in Washington DC has several pieces on display.) Lewis and Clark refused to travel to the Pacific Northwest without their trusty skillets manufactured from this ferrous material. Cast-iron cooking utensils were an investment, a family asset to be passed down to successive generations.
How is Cast-Iron Manufactured
The process of making cast-iron cooking utensils has not changed significantly over the past several centuries. Pig iron (raw iron ore) and scrap steel is blended and liquefied in a 2,800-degree furnace. After removing the slag (impurities which rise to the top of the molten material), the amalgam is poured into sand-clay molds (casts) where it is allowed to cool. The sharp edges are removed utilizing a combination of vibration and shot blasting and any additional imperfections are eliminated with grinders.
Benefits of Cast-Iron
In the 1940s cast-iron cookery lost its popularity owing to the introduction of flashy, lightweight aluminum cookware. The heft of the older ferrous utensils required a little muscle and agility to maneuver. However, the benefits of the material and construction far exceed the energy required to manipulate these behemoths of the kitchen.
Cast-iron is durable and solid. It has excellent heat retention and diffusion properties, which provide a sizzling, uniform heat across the entire cooking surface. The cookware is relatively indestructible while requiring low technological manufacturing processes. Cast-iron can withstand exceedingly high cooking temperatures, ideal for searing and frying. A properly seasoned implement is non-stick and will not flake, crack or scratch. All this, coupled with the health benefits of providing additional iron to prepared foods, make this the perfect cookware for all culinary applications.
What is Seasoning?
Cast-iron cookware is comparatively inexpensive to other nonstick utensils. It may also be purchased at garage sales or flea markets. However you acquire you equipment, it may require cleaning and seasoning prior to that first use.
New cast-iron is very porous due to the manufacturing process. The surface has microscopic pours which produce a rough surface. To correct for these imperfections and create a smooth finish that will resist food adhering to the cookware, a curing (seasoning) process must be applied. The seasoning procedure fills in these deformities with oil, evening out the surface and protecting the iron from the elements.
Caring for Cast-iron Cookware
Once you have acquired and seasoned your new cast-iron cookware, there are a few simple rules you should follow to insure many years of satisfactory service.
- Do not use soap - soap will remove the season, which is essential for its nonstick qualities and protection. Wash in hot water using a brush with natural or stiff plastic bristles.
- Do not use a wire brush or steel wool - again, this will remove the all-important seasoning.
- Do not allow cast-iron to soak in water or allow it to air dry - this can produce rust. Hand dry or put it on a burner and heat it until the water evaporates. Afterwards, coat the surface with a thin layer of vegetable oil.
- Never put cast-iron utensils in the dishwasher.
- Do not pour cold water on a hot pan - this can cause it to warp or deform
As cooks, we are always looking for the latest gadget or gizmo to make our culinary lives easier. We will spend significant amounts of money to acquire cookware that will heat evenly, resist scorching and clean up quickly. In this search for the ultimate kitchen utensil we may overlook mom’s old pot that has been hanging on the wall as a decorative accessory. It is time to pull it down, clean it up, and cook the way mother taught you. Happy meals to you!
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