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What is Cast Iron Cookware?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Lindsay D.
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2016
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Cast iron cookware is a very old form of kitchen equipment, created when molten iron is poured directly into molds shaped like skillets, cornbread pans and other bakeware. Cast iron cookware is still highly regarded for its even heating, versatility and durability. Many professional chefs choose cast iron cookware over modern pans because of its natural nonstick qualities and ability to withstand high temperatures without warping.

For pioneers and settlers, cast iron cookware was likely to be their only form of kitchen equipment available. Large cast iron pots provided a sturdy platform for soups and stews, while skillets allowed for pan frying wild game or creating buckwheat pancakes. Baked dishes could be created in cast iron cookware such as dutch ovens or cake pans. Cast iron skillets could even be placed directly on a camp fire without damage.

As aluminum and other lighter metals began to replace cast iron cookware, many household cooks still held on to selected pieces for either sentimental or practical reasons. Some cast iron cookware has been handed down from generation to generation as a form of family heirloom. Proponents of cast iron believe that modern cookware cannot provide the even cooking temperatures needed to make quality cornbreads and country-style biscuits.

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Owning a set of cast iron cookware does require a little research and preparation, however. One important element of cast iron cookware is a process called seasoning. Commercial cast iron pans and bakeware should clearly designate whether or not they are preseasoned. Seasoning involves applying a coating of cooking oil and salt to the surface of the cast iron cookware and heating it in a hot oven for several minutes. After cooling, the oil and salt should be wiped out with a clean paper towel or kitchen cloth. This seasoning process forms a natural nonstick coating and fills in any crevices formed during the casting process. Never wash cast iron cookware with soapy water- eventually the seasoning will be washed off and the pan will rust.

When shopping for modern cast iron cookware, make sure the pieces are being sold for kitchen use. Decorative cast iron pans sold in old-timey gift shops may not be suitable for cooking. Pans and skillets should be very heavy for their size. Some modern manufacturers do not use pure iron in their 'cast iron' models. There is such a thing as cast aluminum cookware, which is noticeably lighter than its iron cousin. Many kitchens today use at least one cast iron pan as a griddle for pancakes and sandwiches, along with a cornbread pan for use in a hot oven.

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anon48725
Post 3

The ironic thing about the whole cast iron vs. soap debate is that well seasoned pans don't need to be cleaned with soap, while also being unaffected by it. And poorly seasoned cast iron isn't as non-stick and therefore might benefit from cleaning with soap, while at the same time that soap can remove the partial seasoning. My guess is that many pans aren't very well seasoned, or are on their way to becoming well seasoned, but aren't there yet, so the manufacturers such as Lodge err on the side of caution and advise people to never use soap. However, there are some folks who aren't going to be comfortable using a pan they can't wash with soap and water, as to them that is the only way to properly clean any cooking utensil, and for these people to be deterred from using cast iron because of the "no soap" myth is a tragedy. Here's a suggestion. Research "cast iron seasoning soap" and read some of the results. I have, and what I've found is that many people are parroting the "don't use soap" line, while just as many are claiming that they wash their cast iron with soap all the time and it never affects the seasoning. Very few people are claiming that they ruined their seasoning by using soap. From this, I conclude that there is a lot of folklore and momentum behind the "no soap" advice, balanced by many counterexamples from people who use soap and have no problems, and a few people who have actually used soap and destroyed their seasoning. And, lest you think I'm basing my opinion solely on the "wisdom of the internet" - I'm not. It is also based on the science behind the polymerization and cracking of the fat that produces the seasoning in the first place. Oh, and another thing that's great about cast iron is even if you somehow destroy your seasoning, the pan itself is just fine and can be cleaned (using lye, or by running it through a self-cleaning oven cycle, or other more exotic methods) and re-seasoned, and be none the worse for wear. Of course, it would be a shame to wipe away all those great layers of seasoning on your grandmother's skillet, so don't let me talk you into using soap if you don't want to. But for those who might have a really dirty pan or who wouldn't feel it was clean without using soap, my advice is: don't worry about it.

anon48548
Post 2

Um, well, yeah. If you say so. I'm going by the folks at Lodge, who turn out a few million cast iron cookware pieces every year and their cleaning methods agree with this article. Use a nylon scrubber and hot water. Dry thoroughly, then oil before storing. They say don't use soap. I figure they know what they're talking about, since they've only been doing this for the better part of a century. So, I don't use soap. I have my grandmother's cast iron skillet. I have no idea how old it is, but I follow these methods and it cooks beautifully.

anon48404
Post 1

Seasoning does not involve using salt. Salt is sometimes suggested as an abrasive material for cleaning cast iron. The seasoning process takes longer than "a few minutes" and involves two sub-processes: polymerization of some type of fat (oil, shortening, etc) into a protective coating, which is best achieved just below the smoke point of the fat used, as well as "cracking" the fat by heating it just past its smoke point, releasing carbon which turns the pan black and creates a durable nonstick surface. These two steps must be repeated several times to build up the characteristic black glassy nonstick surface for which cast iron is so well known. Researching "carbon matrix" "cast iron" polymerization' should provide much more information on this subject. Finally, the prohibition against cleaning with soap is incorrect - a well seasoned (some people refer to it as "cured") pan will not be damaged by cleaning with soap. This myth may have its origins in the process of making soap using lye, because lye will remove the seasoning from a cast iron pan.

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