CAST IRON PANS
7th December, 2020
They are non-stick, almost indestructible, never need washing and are more heat-efficient than other types of pan. On the cooker, the woodstove or directly in the fire, whether you're frying, searing, baking or stewing, the cast iron pan is the true all-purpose workhorse of the kitchen. A well-made pan, well cared for, not only serves for life, but can be handed down for multiple generations.
The earliest cast iron products date back to the 5th century BC, Jiangsu Province, China. The material itself likely arrived in Europe via the Silk Road, but it wasn't used in western cookware until the 1700s, whereupon, being cheap to produce and lasting indefinitely, it became the material of choice in both Europe and North America.
Early cast iron cookware was designed to be suspended by a handle over an open fire or to stand on legs directly above the embers of the hearth. After the popularisation of the domestic stove in the 1850s, flat bottomed skillets and pans that could sit directly on the stove-top became preferable. Many were cast with heat-rings on the bottom, allowing them to fit perfectly into the various 'eyes' of the stove (openings in the top, through which the flames could be in direct contact with the bottom of the pan).
The 1960s saw teflon-coated aluminium overtake cast iron as the cookware of choice, putting many old foundries out of business. Cast iron's indestructibility, however, has ensured its survival. Many thousands of pans are still in use today and old pieces can often be found in second hand shops for a song.
Dating Cast Iron Pans (Platonically)
A well cared for cast iron piece is timeless, the basic design having remained unchanged for nearly 200 years. This means that when you encounter a pan 'in the wild', determining its age can be tricky. However, slight changes in the manufacturing process have resulted in textural differences that can be used to distinguish a young pan from a true antique.
The traditional smooth, polished surface (which makes older pans such a pleasure to cook with) meant that a new owner would have to season it himself over time before it could be used effectively.
Companies that survived cast iron's dropping popularity throughout the 60s realised this. They needed to be able to compete with instantly usable teflon-coated aluminium cookware. The smooth finish was therefore supplanted by a rougher texture that allowed cast iron manufacturers to efficiently pre-season skillets, ensuring that the customer could cook effectivly with them right away.
Most modern cast iron pans still feature the rough, preseasoned surface, which does not necessarily indicate inferior quality; nevertheless, cast iron connoisseurs tend to prefer the polished surface of vintage pans, which also tend to be lighter.
Well seasoned cast iron is the original non-stick. The notion is that each time you cook with it, a microscopic layer of cooking oil remains on the surface of the pan, curing into a resillient black glaze. This is referred to as the pan's 'seasoning'. It creates a non-stick effect that makes for easy cooking and even easier cleaning. I fry an egg in cast iron and find that it slides right off when I tip it onto the plate. Some also claim the seasoning enriches the flavour of the food.
I, for one, also have concerns regarding the non-stick teflon coating generally found on modern aluminium pans. Teflon is potentially carcinogenic and, as we all know, the thin coating used on cookware has a tendency to wear away over time. Not only does this mean that teflon-coated pans have a short working lifespan (the mere blink of an eye, compared to cast iron) but it also implies that you will at some point ingest small quantities of the teflon coating, as dislodged particulates are likely to end up in your food. The manufacturers of these pans claim that the coating is not harmful at ingestible temperatures (only when overheated), but as a synthetic chemical I wouldn't recommend it as a dietary supplement. This brings me to my next point...
Unlike teflon, ingesting small quantities of iron is highly beneficial. Iron is one of the fundamental minerals required by the human body. It is necessary for growth, the creation of haemoglobin - which oxygenates the blood (giving blood its distinctive 'metallic' flavour), and myoglobin, which oxygenates the muscles. Iron also helps to prevent anaemia, reduces fatigue, improves sleep and concentration and boosts the immune system. It is naturally found in red meat, nuts, dried fruit and many types of bean, however cooking in a cast iron pan can also introduce significant quantities of iron to your diet (see references below for more info).
Cast iron is an excellent retainer of heat and is resillient enough to withstand high temperatures without damage. This, coupled with the fact that it heats its contents evenly, means that a cast iron pan is also effective as an oven dish - a feat which would destroy many lesser pans. Cast iron's thermal mass means that even when the heat source is removed, it remains hot for a long time and will continue to cook the food without further input. This versatility makes the cast iron pan ideal for small kitchens (such as a ship's galley) or a minimalist lifestyle, where double duty cookware is preferable. Its heat efficiency also means that the cook can save on fuel (whether that means gas, solid fuels, electricity or otherwise).
Brand-new pans can be pricey but the indigent minority need not be deterred. Raconteur's galley has three cast irons. A 'daddy' pan, a 'mummy' pan and a 'baby' pan. Daddy and Baby came from a dump (or 'recycling centre' as it prefers to style itself) in Devon for £5. Mummy came from a charity shop for £4. I frequently see them selling for similar prices in junk shops and, now that you know what you're looking for, I dare say so shall you! If you find one that looks rusty (not uncommon if poorly seasoned, stored in the damp or, God forbid, if someone tried to 'wash' it), don't be put off. See if you can get it for a discount and then follow the instructions below to get it spick and span again in no time.
No Washing Up!
If you find yourself averse, as many are, to washing up - or even allergic to the very idea, like me - then cast iron is for you. The non-stick effect of the oil seasoning means that any fragments left in the pan can be simply wiped up with a cloth. If anything does happen to get caked on, you can rub the pan with salt (which is abrasive), warm oil or a dry scrubbing brush and you will find that it easily gives up its spoils. If you especially enjoyed the food it made for you, show your appreciation by rubbing the pan all over with a little oil and drying it over the hob; this will keep it in fine fettle for many years to come.
The cast iron pan is sustainable: the resources expended to create it are far outweighed by its useful lifespan. A 'good quality' teflon-coated pan lasts between six months and five years - a shorter lifespan than the average dog - whereas cast iron pans from the 1800s are still perfectly usable (and indeed, still in use) over two hundred years later, as well as being functionally and aesthetically identical to those made today.
Rusts to Nothing!
Despite its extreme durability, iron is a natural element and is fully degradable. Keep a pan well seasoned and it will easily weather the harsh, somewhat saline environment of a ship's galley. But leave it unloved, outside in the weather, for long enough and it'll eventually rust away to nothing, adding iron to the soil, which can then by used by plants to synthesize chlorophyll. In this way, unlike many man-made inventions, the cast iron pan seems somehow at peace with the natural world. The material is as ephemeral as it is enduring; the design simple, and therein sophisticated. Whether in the hands of a peasant or a pioneer, epicure or emperor, the humble cast iron pan is never out of place nor out of reach.
Cast iron cooking technology is currently enjoying a modest revival as people recognise its manifold advantages over contemporary cookware. It is a good example of an old-fashioned, low-tech solution which has been displaced by inferior modern innovations. It is a sad fact of the capitalist economy that short lived products are more profitable in the long run. After all, why sell a pan that lasts 200 years when you can sell many more which must be replaced after six months? The Fifth Empire sets out to discover and disseminate knowledge and technologies, new and old, which benefit both people (making their lives happier, simpler and more fulfilling) and the environment (by being small-scale, simple and sustainable). Cast iron pans reflect both these values well.
HOW TO SEASON A CAST IRON PAN
If your pan is black, lustrous and sufficiently non-stick, it is already seasoned. Keep it happy by cleaning it soon after use, with salt, oil and elbow grease. Ensure that it doesn't get wet. If it does, dry it over the flames. I cannot stress how quickly it will start to rust if left damp. If rust appears, remove it with steel wool and reseason as follows.
I. Begin by scrubbing the pan - top, bottom and handle - with an abrasive tool, preferably something that won't leave inorganic fibres behind. Consider a luffa or tawashi.
II. Next use steel wool to remove all traces of rust and old seasoning. You will notice the black surface turning silver as the old seasoning is abraded. Now and again, add a little oil and wipe with a cloth until the cloth comes back clean.
III. Once you have stripped the pan of rust and carbon, heat the oven to 180°C. You can also do this on the hob, but oven is better for all-round heating.
IV. Coat the bare surface of the pan with oil - top, bottom and handle. The higher the oil's smoke point, the better. Vegetable oil, flaxseed, grapeseed, rapeseed or soybean all have a good reputation.
V. Place the pan upside down in the oven for one hour. Once it's cooked, remove from oven, allow to cool somewhat, and apply oil again while the pan is still warm. Rub it in with a cloth. If the cloth remains clean, the seasoning was successful. If you are still wiping off filth, repeat step V until it's clean.
VI. Once the seasoning has cured clean, you can start using your pan. Maintain it with regular oil rubs, dried on a gentle heat over the hob.
Reading & Resources
Photos from Wikimedia Commons