The Virtues of Cast Iron Cookware

by Kathy | Disclosure

Le Creuset Dutch Ovens

If you find cooking a frustrating thing there is a very good chance that the cookware you have has an awful lot to do with it. Thin stainless pans and hand-me-down cookware make cooking so much harder than it has to be.

Now, I’m no great cook nor did I ever plan to devote enough attention to cooking to reach such a lofty level of skill. Rather I’m a good enough cook so ordinary cookware looked fine to me. I started out cooking with what I could find that wasn’t too expensive and seemed reasonably healthy. For me that meant stainless steel pans bought mostly at grocery store sales. But in the process of changing from a novice to a good enough cook I learned that cast iron both plain and enameled are so much more forgiving of an absent-minded cook like me! They are so much easier to clean and care for and if carefully selected they last essentially forever making them the most frugal choice over the long term.

Now I cook almost entirely with cast iron pans. I still have a few good stainless pans that I use for times when I need things to heat up quickly but have for the most part been slowly replacing my stainless with enameled cast iron. Since I have a little kitchen I’m trying hard to reduce and consolidate my collection of pots, pans and ovenware at the same time. I’m finding it a bit hard though … who knew you could become sentimental about a pan ;-).

Why cast iron is a great choice

Cast iron heats up slowly and uniformly. It holds heat for a long time. This helps prevent scorching and the necessity of babysitting your dish moving it from one side of the pan to another or shifting it on the burner. You can safely make the pan super hot … it won’t damage the pan at all. This makes searing meat much more successful. Love the flavor that just slightly burning food creates? Cast iron make this possible.

Need to take your dish from the stovetop to the oven? No problem, cast iron can handle it … no extra dishes to wash. Whether it’s enameled or not cleanup is a breeze since they both have a non-stick surface. The only drawback I see is the weight, which I hadn’t thought about much until a cook at a gourmet food store mentioned it to me. Maybe since he’s a pro and cooking for long hours it mattered more to him so he reserved cast iron for special dishes only. For the average good enough cook who’s just in the kitchen for relatively short time the weight really doesn’t matter much.

Just plain cast iron like Granny had

Vintage Wagner Cast Iron

A vintage Wagner cast iron skillet …

For plain cast-iron pans vintage pans just cannot be beat! Since cast iron lasts essentially forever there are quite a lot of really good pans at resale shops, garage sales and little out of the way antique shops. Quite enough for everyone that wants one I’m sure and at good prices that rival the cost of new pans. New pans can be had easily as well. Be aware that they come pre-seasoned with soybean oil so you may want to consider redoing the seasoning if you decide to go this route.

There’s always a lot of concern about the seasoning and care of cast iron pans. I sense that some people are reluctant to try cast iron because they think it’s finicky and needs special care. I’m going to confess something that will get me in trouble with the vintage cast iron collectors. I’m not really very careful about the care of my vintage pans. I let food sit in them sometimes, I let water sit in them too from time to time, a big no-no. I wash them with a tiny drop of detergent. Oh, the horrors! But you know what? They can handle it. I’ve been doing this now for a couple of years with any marked rust damage. Sure, my seasoning probably isn’t as good as it could be. Maybe I should work on that :-).

Enameled Cast Iron

It looks like there are lots of choices for enameled cast iron dutch ovens. Saucepans and other types of pans have fewer manufacturers making them, it seems. Of course the gold standard for enameled cast iron is Le Creuset. I have a few of these myself found mostly on sale or craigslist over the years since they can be pretty pricey. But there are other brands to be found at the big box stores and online that are getting some decent reviews online. So I’d check around to see what’s appealing in your price range. Or wait it out and buy Le Creuset as you can find it affordably.

Use enameled cast iron pans for most any kind of cooking you might want to do. Just keep in mind that the pan heats slowly and retains heat for a long time. Le Creuset says their pans are dishwasher safe but recommend hand washing to be extra safe, but hey, that ain’t gonna happen in my house. I’ve been putting them in the dishwasher just like any other pan without problems for years.

Will my cast iron pan overload my family with iron?

A few have voiced concerns over iron that gets absorbed by the food cooked in a cast iron pan. The thinking is that some people may be getting to much iron in their diet and the extra iron from the pan is just not a good idea. I’m really not concerned for a few different reasons. First, for everyone that is getting too much iron there is someone not getting enough. About 14% of babies 1-2 years old suffer from iron-deficiency anemia. About 9% of all females 12-49 are iron deficient. So this is a positive benefit for them. Second, considering that generations prior to the 20’s used cast iron almost exclusively without experiencing noticeable harm gives me a warm fuzzy feeling of security. And finally, if you are really concerned simply choose only enameled cast iron. Iron leaching into the food from the pan is only an issue for raw cast iron pans … enameled pans don’t leach iron into the food at all.

Good cookware can make a huge difference in your enjoyment of being in the kitchen. It makes a big difference to the success of your efforts! Cooking is so much more rewarding when things turn out more or less as you plan and clean up isn’t drudgery. So look to cast iron to make your life in the kitchen a little better!

A few links …

Subscribe to Granny's Vital Vittles
and get Granny's Kickstarter Meal Plan, for free!

  • Includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks
  • Matching shopping list complete with prices
  • Choose your own price range and quality of ingredients based on your own budget.

Find out EXACTLY how much a week of real food costs.

Talk With Us!

Granny LOVES a great discussion! A thoughtful, in-depth look from all angles benefits us all. If you disagree let us know! But please remember you're in Granny's house and be respectful of that. If you wouldn't say it in your Grandma's hearing please don't say it here! No name-calling or foul language. Those comments that don't respect Granny's home will be deleted.

Anne Kimball November 13, 2012 at 7:39 am

Hi Kathy, this is a great post! I only have one cast iron (you guessed it — a skillet!), but I’d like to replace old pots and pans with cast iron. Never thought about enamel, but now that I’ve read this, I love the idea! Thanks for linking up with TALU…

Joy Weese Moll (@joyweesemoll) November 13, 2012 at 9:44 am

Hopping over from TALU. I have my grandma’s cast iron skillet. Another plus: it’s heavy enough to provide a strength-training benefit!

Kathy November 13, 2012 at 9:53 am

I hadn’t considered the exercise angle … lol!

Debbie McCormick November 13, 2012 at 10:17 am

What an informative post! thanks so much for sharing. I have always been buy cheap until a couple years ago. I agree that you should buy something better quality so it will last. (TALU)

A. States November 13, 2012 at 10:53 am

I love my cast iron skillets. I have 9 in various sizes, 3 of which were my grandmother’s and another one I remember my mom using while I was growing up. I also have 4 dutch ovens that are used at our cabin for camp fire cooking. I don’t think any of mine are Wagner’s but I do have at least one that is a Wapak (made in Wapakoneta, Ohio). Thanks for the post.

Kathy November 13, 2012 at 11:59 am

Haven’t heard of Wapak … I should look that one up. I look through the antique stores here from time to time for old cast iron I can refurbish. I’m trying to learn all the old brands so I know what to watch out for. There’s probably some sweet deals in the lesser known brands!

AJ Collins November 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm

I don’t have much in the way of cast iron (just a griddle), I should look into it. My cookware is all Calphenon.. or however you spell it. (that is SO wrong) TALU fabu! :)

Kristie November 13, 2012 at 2:20 pm

I was wondering if it is okay to use metal utensils on enameled cast iron pans. I would be browning alot of hamburger so I would be turning meat and chopping it. I am considering getting an Lodge enamel cast iron 3 qt dutch oven to use as an all purpose skillet. Also, could you convince me :) that it is alright to just rinse cast iron with hot water?

Kathy November 14, 2012 at 9:44 am

I use metal utensils all the time with mine. They do leave marks inside the pan though. It looks like you can remove them with a scrubbie and baking soda, though I just leave them in mine … they don’t really bother me. If you want to play it extra safe Le Creuset makes a special cleaner.

On just rinsing, well I confess to not being very comfortable with that myself. After some dishes I just rinse very well, scrape and scrub with a stiff brush but for others I add a little dish soap … not much just a little drop. I’ve been thinking I should leave a little castille soap at the kitchen sink for this purpose. It wouldn’t be quite as harsh.

Lara Britt November 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm

My collection is still in Ann Arbor with my grown daughters. Too heavy to bring with me to Hawaii when I moved back with a couple of suitcases. I’m sure I will regain custody. I keep searching for pans here. Probably have best luck on the military bases…moving sales. TALU-ho!

Kerry November 13, 2012 at 3:02 pm

I’ll have to remember these tips for when I actually start cooking in my own house… some day! 😉

Chris at Hye Thyme Cafe November 13, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Great post, and I agree about the leeching iron. More people seem to be deficient, so it shouldn’t be a problem. From what I understand, packets of instant oatmeal and other items containing “reduced iron” are worse for you, and that doesn’t stop anyone from eating instant oatmeal.

My problem is definitely the weight. As someone with a back problem, just lifting it out of the cabinet might send me to bed for a week to recover! :( I have been meaning to at least pick up a skillet at some point. I’m forever reading recipes that sound like they would be perfect for a skillet, and there is nothing like being able to go from stove to oven without switching pans. I have a grill pan from Ikea that I popped the handle off of just for that reason. Love it! [#TALU]

Gudrun B November 14, 2012 at 2:59 am

love your post! i have just purchased an enameled pan in order to weed out the less healthy ones; I always hate that they are so darn heavy, but they cook so well!!!! i own a large dutch oven (or what ever they are called) and love it – the inside enamel is almost white and it discolored a bit with use, but it works well in the oven or on the stove ! I noticed you use gas, not sure how they work on those electric flat surface stove tops, i wonder… but i have gas as well
i will get some for my daughters for Christmas presents since Aldi here has them in the store for 29.99 i believe… gotta go spend some $$$ ; the pan was only $15 and has dark inside (i looked carefully so it was not that non stick stuff!) they are guaranteed for 2 years and NOT dishwasher safe but i do not wash any of my pots in the dw any way :)

Kathy November 14, 2012 at 9:33 am

I have a couple of enameled pans with dark interiors too … I’d have to say I favor the light colored ones. To me they seem a little easier to clean.

Laurel November 14, 2012 at 10:23 am

My dad offered me his mom’s cast iron skillets and I turned him down. This was years ago and I wouldn’t have known how to cook in them or clean them. Now I’m buying up cast iron and have a tiny square Wagner that is just big enough for 2 eggs.

One of my big skillets has a thick bubbly looking seasoning on it. I’d rather it looked like yours. Do you think I should scrub it off and start over? I heard you could burn off the coating in a self-cleaning oven…

Kathy November 14, 2012 at 12:40 pm

I think I would take it down to bare metal first. I’ve heard of a few ways to go about it … a self-cleaning oven is supposed to work great! Mine isn’t self cleaning but I do have a pile of tree trimmings we burn a couple of times per year. It produces *a lot* of coals! So I plan to bury my flea market finds in there. Supposed to work well!

Jen November 16, 2012 at 11:14 am

Ha, Ha. You may have seen that I featured an article on the potential dangers of cast iron pans. I am still not sure what I think about that although the information is compelling. I do want to stray closer to being able to afford ceramic covered cast iron. I think that will give me a bit more peace of mind. . . . but it’s so dang expensive!

Kathy November 16, 2012 at 1:15 pm

I did see it :-) … I included Sarah Pope’s article too for those that haven’t seen it. My fallback position has been, when in doubt do as people used to do ;-). Cast iron is a very traditional form of cookware. I’d like to dive into the subject of whether or not we are at risk from too much iron from a historical perspective at some point. I’m wondering whether this was a concern prior to the last 5 or 10 years. I suspect not … before that doctors and average people were greatly concerned about not getting enough iron. But I’d like to confirm all that.

Enameled cast iron sure can be expensive … I’ve collected mine slowly over about 10-12 years. I check Tuesday Morning, Le Creuset outlets, William Sonoma outlets, TJ Maxx, and Craigslist from time to time. Most of the time I don’t find anything but stuff that’s close to full price. But every so often I find something priced low. The pan in my hot chocolate post I found on Craigslist with a matching large saucepan, $40 for both saucepans. The girl I bought them from had redecorated and these colors didn’t fit anymore. The yellow dutch oven in the pic I found at William Sonoma outlet about 5 years ago. They had several hundred of them all for $40 each!

Kathy November 16, 2012 at 3:37 pm

Also, forgot Sur La Table … at their stores they have a clearance rack where they sometime have closeout enameled cast iron. I think they have 2 or 3 different high quality brands. If I were shopping online I’d check eBay … while shipping for these pans is high you can sometimes find older vintage enameled cast iron for prices that make it worthwhile.

Robin @ Thank Your Body November 24, 2012 at 4:15 pm

I love my cast iron cookware. It’s the best. And I love that it will last forever!

Thanks for linking up to Thank Your Body Thursday! Hope you’ll come back this next Thursday!

kristy @ Gastronomical Sovereignty November 25, 2012 at 3:10 pm

i also love cast iron. like crazy. i do worry from time to time that it doesn’t get cleaned properly etc but it doesn’t stop me from using mine. haha. i love it! i’m glad we’re on the same page, my friend.

thank you for sharing your post with us at the Wednesday Fresh Foods Link Up! i look forward to seeing what other seasonal & whole/real food posts you have for us this week! xo, kristy

Mark September 24, 2013 at 10:20 am

Just wanted to let you and everyone else know that Lodge Cast Iron now puts out an enameled series. While ALL Lodge cast iron cookware is manufactured near Chattanooga, TN, Lodge sends their iron ware to China to be enameled. I don’t particularly like the idea of a traditional, family owned, American manufacturer would allow their products to be finished in China instead of America, I must say that I have both the extremely expensive, French made, La Crueset enameled cast iron AND the Lodge enameled cast iron and I can’t tell ANY difference in quality, craftsmanship, longevity, or cooking ability between the two brands. And, Lodge is 3-4 times less expensive! Huge difference in price, no difference in quality. You can find the Lodge enamel pieces in a limited selection at most Walmarts. If you are after something specific, ideally you should make a trip to one of the Lodge discount stores. There is one near the Lodge plant in South Pittsburg, TN, near Chattanooga, and another in Sevierville, TN, very close to Gatlinburg, TN. If all else fails, order exactly what you want directly from Lodge on their website.

Previous post:

Next post: