Cast Iron Kitchenware: History, Advantages, and Selection of the Kitchen Icon
Since the founding of this country, Americans have prized cast iron cookware. By the beginning of the 20th century, the cast iron skillet was a common household appliance, renown for frying and searing. In the South, cast iron pans are not only beloved for preparing a favorite treat, cornbread, but is part of its history. Many areas of the South are rich in iron. Birmingham, Alabama, for example, has very little history in agriculture. Only after the iron industry took advantage of its “red mountains,” full boulders rich in iron, did the city rise to fame. My Grandfather grew up down the road from a local cast iron company, Birmingham Stove and Range, taking in pig iron to cast ovens and hollowware for most of the 20th century. Florence’s Martin Stove and Range served as another cast iron foundry in Alabama. Other foundries existed around the South, such as in Georgia and Tennessee, and up North in Pennsylvania and Ohio, each one, throwing out cookware to help feed America. Cast-ironware is not merely history, though, but remains an integral part of every well-stocked kitchen. Today, I write of the history and virtues of cast iron and next week the best way to season and maintain the living piece of America.
One of the earliest American cast iron kitchenware is the Dutch oven. Since early Americans principally cooked over the hearth, they needed cookware with legs or handles to properly cook. The Dutch oven filled the order. The Dutch oven, with its legs to place on the coals, and the flanged lid to hold coals, and handle to place on a crane above the coals, quickly grew in prominence through the 18th century and was highly valued through the following century. Estelle W. Wilcox’s writes in The Dixie Cook-Book (1883) of the Southerner’s love of the piece, saying, “during the war the soldiers were delighted to get possession of one of these ovens to bake their pork and beans in or their corn bread or ‘pone.’” She concludes by adding, “ there is no oven which bakes pork and beans and imparts the same delicious flavor…”
The skillet is another important, and probably better known, cast iron piece for the kitchen. Early skillets, called spider skillets, had legs for cooking over the fire like the Dutch oven. As stove and ranges became more available during the latter half of the 19th century, the skillet we know and love became widely produced. Prominent cast iron companies, such as Griswold, Wagner, and Lodge produced skillets at this time that remain sought after today. Often, manufacturers, such as Birmingham Stove and Range, produced these skillets specially made to complement their stoves. (If you have an old skillet you may see a number cast with it. This number does not indicated the inches in diameter but what size, and therefore, what place the skillet fit in on the stovetop.) Also, at this time, articles for making breads were produced, including the waffle iron and cornbread pans. Breads baked from cast iron produce crispy edges that cannot be replicated.
Popularity of cast iron kitchenware fell during the 1960 and 70s due to the emerging prominence of Teflon coated nonstick pans and popularity of glass-ceramic cooktops (more difficult to cook cast iron on). Many foundries sold out or went out of business. As for my Birmingham Stove and Range, it sold well during the 70s, marketing wood ovens well during the energy crisis, but soon sold out in the mid-80s. Today, Lodge alone survives as the only American cast iron kitchenware manufacture.
Advantage of Cast Iron
With the wide variety of modern cookware, the cast iron appliances may seem a bit antiquated. After all, didn’t the invention of the non-stick pan replace the hunk of iron? True, the Teflon-coated aluminum pans made many cooking scenarios easier and proved superior to cast iron in some ways, but in others the modern stuff sorely lacks.
The heart of cast iron cookware is, well, the cast iron. The metal naturally possesses different qualities from other metals, like aluminum or copper, giving the piece its separate purpose. The large differences of cast iron from other metals is its heat capacity, heat emissivity, and conducting properties.
Heat capacity is the specific heat, the amount of energy required to change the metals temperature, multiplied by the mass of the metal. Given the specific heat and the large mass, cast iron cookware possesses a larger heat capacity than all of my copper and aluminum nonstick pans. This means that while it takes a while to heat up, once heated, it will not easily cool down, making it perfect for high-heat applications such as searing.
Heat emissivity is the amount of energy released in the form of thermal radiation. Something with low heat emissivity, like polished stainless steel, have a very low emissivity measurements meaning only the foods in contact with the pan are cooked. The dark surface of cast iron allows for high heat emissivity, where even the foods not in direct contact with the pan get cooked.
Thermal conductivity is the metals ability to transfer, or conduct, heat. Compared to aluminum and copper, cast iron is a very poor conductor. This means that while your other pans may heat up relatively even over your stovetop eye, the cast iron will develop hot spots in the middle and remain cool for much longer around the edges. To get around this, preheat your cast iron
Preheating cast iron kitchenware is one absolutely necessary for cooking. Not only does preheating eliminate the cast iron’s poor conduction, but also brings out the piece’s good qualities. Thanks to cast-ironware’s high heat capacity, a hot skillet enables you to place a large amount of food to be fried or seared at once without causing a rapid decrease in temperature. Further, the cast iron’s seasoned surface shines (literally and figuratively) under high heat, best preventing the food from sticking. To preheat, place the cast iron in the oven and heat to 350°. If in a hurry, just place the cast iron on the eye of your stovetop and heat until smoking. This preheating can be dry, which, by the way, would warp any other pan, or with a little oil.
Choosing Cast Iron Kitchenware
Cast-ironware are built to last; they are merely a hunk of metal for goodness sake! Pieces often last generation after generation and get better after every meal. Most often, therefore, your grandmother’s kitchen is the best place to find good cast iron. These pieces are not only well seasoned from years of use, but also have superior construction compared to the ironware of today. Until the 1960s, cast iron implement production relied much more man-labor. Under this system, workers hand-sanded the insides of the pots and pans, making them smooth as apposed to their original cast pebbled appearance. As production became more automated, this step was dropped. While new ironware may become very nonstick over time, it will never be as good as the old stuff. The polishing process not only made the pans smoother but opened up the pore structure of the iron. With the structure open, more oil is able to work in and form a well-anchored seasoned surface.
When looking for good antique cast iron, look at the piece’s condition. Cast iron is relatively brittle, compared to other metals, and easily rusts if neglected. A good pan or skillet should be free from cracks and have minimal rust. Some rust is OK, and can be removed if desired. My uncle, Johnny Harris, collects local antique pieces and restores them, even removing the rust via electrolysis. If you don’t have an electrolysis system set up, however, you may want to skip the real rusty ones. Don’t worry about the seasoned finish; re-seasoning cast iron is fairly simple though one already seasoned is a bonus. Of course, new cast iron kitchenware exists on the market already seasoned and ready for use. Lodge, as mentioned early, remains a fine American brand.
My Favorite Lodge Pieces
Lodge Seasoned Dutch Oven 7 Quart – This dutch oven can be used for just about everything from frying and browning to cooking low and slow on the stovetop or in the oven.
Lodge Cast Iron Grill Pan 10.25 inches – Chicken never tasted so good as when cooked in this grill pan.
Lodge Iconic Frying Collectible Frying Pan – I love that this piece has the handle on one side. Lodge skillets can be heavy.
Lodge L8CB3 Cast Iron Cornbread Wedge Pan, Pre-Seasoned – Perfect for getting the crunchy surface area on all sides of the cornbread while the inside remains creamy!
Lodge Seasoned Cast Iron Deep Camp Dutch Oven – 12 Inch / 8 Quart – Perfect for cooking meals straight over the fire in my fireplace during the winter. This is a staple piece for camping.
Lodge EC6D43 Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven, 6-Quart, Island Spice Red – This is a gorgeous favorite perfect for stove to table entertaining.