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A Black Iron Haven

Welcome to Cooking in Cast Iron

Posted by Rick Mansfield

Cast Iron Is Hot (Pun Intended)
We’ve now come full circle. Everywhere I go--whether a neighbor’s kitchen, the gourmet kitchen store, or a campfire in the woods--I’m seeing more and more cast iron. Now, even celebrity chefs have their names on their own lines of cast iron. But it wasn’t always that way. In spite of the fact that cooking in cast iron was the only way for most people to prepare meals for centuries, cast iron began to fall on hard times in the 1940’s with the development of modern artificial nonstick surfaces. And so in recent years, cast iron went into a kind of teflon-inspired exile. If you wanted to find a good cast iron pan, often you had to visit the hardware or sporting goods store (in the camping section, no less) or simply resort to mail order.

But of course, great cooks such as your grandmother who would have never dreamed of giving up her cast iron skillet or Uncle Ted who can’t imagine camping without his dutch ovens have remained true to the black iron. So, they aren’t surprised when recent studies tell us that those artificial non-stick coatings may not be so safe and healthy afterall. And suddenly lots of folks are starting to come back to cast iron.

A Cast Iron Renaissance
I believe we’re in a bit of a “cast iron renaissance.” I began to see signs of this two and a half years ago when Mark Bittman published an interesting article in the New York Times, titled “Ever So Humble, Cast Iron Outshines the Fancy Pans.” In the article, Bittman traces his own journey through twenty years in which after using more modern cooking surfaces, he had returned to an old standby: cast iron--in both his own cooking and in regard to what he recommends. And he’s not alone; suddenly there is lots of talk in the food industry about cooking in cast iron.

So what brought about this return? Well, perhaps a number of things, not the least of which is the sudden concern over chemically-based nonstick pans already mentioned above. But years ago, those modern pans also brought a seemingly bad rap for cast iron. The new pans were marketed as being much easier to use and care for than cast iron. And there was probably some truth to that. In the past, when buying a cast iron pan, the pan had to be “seasoned”; that is, you had to add a cooked on layer of oil or fat to the pan before it could be used. Plus, you had to be very careful how cast iron pans are cleaned. You can’t just throw them in the dishwasher like the “fancy pans.” And as people began to eat out more often, the lessons from the previous generations about how to care for cast iron were less frequently passed down to the next.

Then, just in the last four or five years, cast iron companies did something truly new for the first time in perhaps hundreds of years: they introduced pans that were pre-seasoned. While still in the factory, a coating of vegetable oil is sprayed onto cast iron pots and pans and then baked in furnaces creating that sought after black coating so eagerly sought after in cast iron pans before they even hit the stores. Now, I’ll admit, that initially I was not crazy about pre-seasoning. I thought that I could do it better on my own (and I still do). However, there’s one thing I can’t argue with. Companies like Lodge Manufacturing in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, state that during the period in which they had both pre-seasoned and non-seasoned pans on the market, the pre-seasoned pans far outsold the non-seasoned variety by a significant and wide margin. Resellers started ordering the pre-seasoned pans to the exclusion of the original non-seasoned pans. The differrence in sales was so significant that Lodge now no longer even sells anything but pre-seasoned and enameled cast iron.

I still think I can do the seasoning process better myself, but I’ve come to peace with pre-seasoning which I’ll write about at a later date. What’s important for right now, however, is that pre-seasoned pans have allowed cooks who were previously intimidated by cast iron to come back to the basics. That, and inflating fuel prices, which give way to higher food costs are allowing smart consumers to cook for themselves more often than perhaps in previous years. The family meal is making a comeback, and we’re discoving that the pilgrims, pioneers, and grandma had it right: cast iron is best for preparing almost any meal.

A Black Iron Romance
If you cook with cast iron long enough, it slowly wins you over. There’s something attractive about cast iron; it has its own culinary kind of seduction. I reach for a cast iron pan first now. If I don’t have something I need for cooking, I look to see if there’s a cast iron variety of whatever it is. I now even grill on the back patio completely on cast iron.

Since I got my first computer in 1982, I’ve always considered myself technologically savvy. But there’s something decidedly (and wonderfully) low-tech about cast iron. It’s solid in the oh-so-most-literal sense. I don’t have to worry about replacing it because a newer, more powerful, and more efficient model might come along. It is what it is, practically immutable with the exception that one way cast iron does change is that it gets better with age. The more you cook with it, the more non-stick it becomes.

I can pick up a cast iron skillet or a dutch oven, and I know that I hold in my hands a quality instrument that, baring great clumsiness on my part, will certainly outlast me. If the house burns, I can grab my family members, the pets, and the picture albums if time allows. The cast iron can be retrieved after the fire because it’s that tough. In the event of apocalypse, we can still cook in cast iron! Cast iron is solid, and its weight when I hold it in my hand says to me that it will still be with me when I come to the end of my days, waiting to be passed on to the next generation.

Striking While the Iron Is Hot
So why this website? Well, I and my other contributors consider ourselves “cast iron advocates.” As stated in our purpose statement, our goal is “to promote the use of cast iron cookware across all spectrums of culinary pursuits--from the gourmet kitchen to the old fashioned campfire and everything in between. Our goal is to both educate and advocate cooking in cast iron.” There are a lot of great cooking/culinary-related websites out there, and there are also quite a few sites that talk about the use and care of cast iron. We hope to provide something a bit unique by offering new articles every few days about the use and care of cast iron. Our goal is not meant to simply be informative in our primary posts, but to be personal as well.

Some of our contributions will come in the form of news, interviews and reviews. We will also post informative/how-to articles. Our goal is to create a monthly video podcast devoted entirely to cooking in cast iron--something that I haven’t found anywhere else. We’re setting up the home page of this site in the form of a blog, but it’s so much more than a blog. Nevertheless, you will be able to interact with the writers and other cast iron users through the comment system.

And perhaps you even have an idea for which you might want to submit free-lance style yourself. We’re not set up to pay for submissions yet, but we hope to be there one day. Regardless, we welcome your ideas now.

We hope that you will bookmark, subscribe to our RSS feed and/or check back here often. Whether you’ve been cooking in cast iron all your life or have a skillet rusting at the bottom of your pantry, we believe that we have something to offer you, and you have something to offer us.

Come back and check for new posts soon.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below, or you can contact Rick directly at