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
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!