Buying Cast Iron cookware

Recently, as I’ve been getting more into preparing food over going out, I’ve been paying more attention to cookware.

I’m not a gourmet cook. I do stove top frying and sauteeing. I do a lot of fish, pasta and mixed vegetables. And what I’ve found works best (at least for me) is cast iron skillets. Why cast iron? It holds heat evenly and consistently, without hot spots (if it’s quality cast) and it is better non stick than coated pans.

Cast iron is not all the same, however. Modern cast iron (post mid 1940s) is not as good as the more vintage skillets for a couple of reasons. The iron ore used after about1940 is said to be of a lower grade than previous ore. As a result of impurities, there can be hot spots and uneven heating. In order to maintain strength, the newer cast pans are thicker and heavier to compensate. The lack of the skilled tradespeople required to sculpt these pans is also a factor in the newer and heavier pans.

Not only does the extra weight make them harder to physically handle but also less responsive to heat manipulation from the burner.

Cast iron takes longer to heat than stainless or aluminum but it maintains its heat for much longer.  When cooking with cast one turns down the heat after the initial heat-up and lets the pan do more of the work. A thinner pan will be more responsive to heat input.

Older, thinner and purer cast iron are therefore better cookers and easier to handle.

As well, older cast iron skillets were hand ground after removal from the mold. The cooking surfaces, after conditioning, were like glass. Newer cast is pebbled because the cost of hand grinding led to its discontinuation as a cost cutting measure.

The end result is that modern cast iron is less non stick as well as less effective.

I’m afraid I don’t know much about Canadian cast iron as most quality products seem to be American.

There are several quality manufacturers of cast that date from about the 1880s. Griswold is the most desirable manufacturer (for collectors) followed by Wagner. Other well known brands are Vollrath, Wapak (known for thinness and lightness) and Favorite Piqua. The latter two happen to be what I own and enjoy.

If you are interested in cast iron there is a wealth of information available. One site I particularly like is The Cast Iron Collector (www.castironcollector.com).

The most important part of owning cast iron is learning to clean it properly. Water and soap are enemies of cast as it causes rust. A well seasoned iron pan (seasoning essentially involves heating the pan in the oven or stove top with cooking oil) is easily cleaned with a simple damp cloth while still hot and then allowed to dry and cool gradually. It is then lightly coated with oil and is ready for the next use.

The antique pans can be quite expensive to buy on eBay. A #9 or #10, the most versatile sizes, can run $50 and up (plus delivery) for the best sought after brands. They can often be found, however, at garage sales and the like for $5 or $10 and, unless they are badly damaged or warped, can be re-conditioned to perfection with a bit of effort.

A modern Lodge cast iron skillet can be had for $30. Personally, I would say if you can afford it, try a vintage skillet and you will never look back.

I must say that I don’t think I have used anything but cast iron on my stove top in the past year.

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