Cast iron skillets are a staple of American cooking. They can be used in many ways and are versatile. Additionally, they have a long lifespan, being used for generations. But, are they worth the cost? Is there a time when they would be a better purchase than other types of cookware?
When to use cast iron skillet?
- If you got tired of replacing non-stick pans every 2 years and want a durable pan and less trips to the store.
- If you know about non-stick coating and its potential health risks.
- If you want something that retains and distributes heat better : Iron is highly conductive, that means the heat distribution is fantastic. The high conductivity means it also does a good job of getting the heat into the food. That’s why food tends to brown better in a cast iron pan than elsewhere.
- If you want to cook a different variety of things, They’re great for searing meat and roasting veggies. Cast iron skillet is great to sear meats and then stick them in the warm oven to finish off. Seasoning will give you a glassy layer that protects your skillet and makes it nonstick.
- If you want to experiment a perfect mix of old school taken to the new level. Last mid century modern of sorts.
- Cast iron pans help you get more iron from food.
What you can cook on a cast iron skillet:
- Frying : with oil or butter or both
- Roasting : meat, chicken, vegetables…
- Searing then roasting
- Baking : bread, cornbread, pies, make cobblers and other sweet treats
- Panini-style sandwichs
- Sauce making : Caramel sauce, bechamel, pasta sauce …
- Warming up foods : by adding a bit of water, cover it up tightly, and warm up food instead of in a microwave
- Cooking frozen food
- And any food that requires a high temperature for a proper sear, and then a lower heat to finish cooking and make a good layer of fonde for pan gravy, like a good thick steak.
What you better don’t cook on a cast iron skillet:
- Fried eggs in cast iron: if you don’t want to cook the eggs with a lot of oil or butter.
- Cast iron can discolor some ingredients, for example when you caramelise red onions, they become cloudy greenish-black instead of dark brown. Eggplants that have been cooked in cast iron for a long time also acquire this greenish-black color. (it doesn’t affect the taste though).
- Cooking acidic foods (like tomatoes, lemon juice, vinegar) in cast iron for a long time (usually when it exceeds 30min cooking time). For example, simmer a tomato-based sauce for a long time, when the tomatoes disintegrate, the metallic flavours come out of the pan into the sauce.
Does food really taste better when cooked with cast iron cookware?
Cast iron has specific properties that create an environment where flavours come together and add flavour through a process known as the Maillard reaction. The right conditions between the ingredients create new flavours.
The Maillard reaction takes place within a certain temperature range and produces thousands of flavours. That’s why we fry things, browning means more flavour.
In terms of the specific conditions in which the spread of flavour takes place, it is paramount to maintain a constantly high temperature. Nothing happens below 285°F, and well over 350°F things go from brown to burnt very quickly.
Cast iron heats up slowly, sometimes it feels it’s taking too long. Although, that’s what keeps the cast iron skillet hot. Also the heavy weight of a cast iron skillet retains heat energy and allows it to drain slowly, meaning there will be no drops in temperature when adding the ingredients.
Cast iron improves flavour through its unique ability to stay warm, which extends and maintains the most suitable conditions for creating new flavour compounds. It is more difficult to burn food, and it is easier to maintain a constant high temperature in cast iron. It also requires little maintenance and improves with age.