Cast Iron

Getting rid of (most) cast iron


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Getting rid of (most) cast iron

athanasius | Jul 15, 2010 09:05 PM

As a longtime user of cast iron, I recently found myself storing most of it away in the basement. I still occasionally use a big skillet, a tiny skillet from my great-grandmother (perfect for frying an egg or two), and a dutch oven. Oh, and one of my other skillets has been demoted to a steaming pan for bread-baking. But I finally grew tired of fighting the rest of the pans, the griddle, etc. (I have about a dozen cast iron pans and pots overall.)

I've gradually come to realize that there are real limitations on usefulness for cast iron. Why? Because of its uneven heating. That's it. For 95% of the stuff I do in the kitchen, there's a pan that can do things much better, usually because it heats more evenly.

My pans are incredibly well-seasoned. I can fry and egg or cook an omelet in them without ever worrying about sticking, etc. Off flavors aren't really a problem, and I don't find clean-up or the weight to be difficult (my few copper pans are heavier). Drying the pan thoroughly (by heating it) and smearing it with oil after heavy use is an extra step, but I'm willing to do the maintenance. But over the past year or so, I've found myself gradually shifting to other cookware, because I was just tired of the unevenness of heating in cast iron.

Cast iron is fine for slow-cooking over low heat. It's great for searing over high heat. Its browning is often superior. But unless I'm cooking a pot of chili for hours in my dutch oven or searing a steak at 600 F, I can't justify using the pans. With the normal heating used for most dishes, I know whatever's in the center of the pan will end up much more done than the stuff on the outside (if not burned when I'm in a hurry and use too high of a heat without tending to it frequently enough).

I suppose people with very large burners might find this to be a little less problematic. But on my standard gas stove, with what are normal-sized burners, the heat transfer is simply so poor in cast iron that it's truly a pain to cook.

I used to pull out the griddle to cook pancakes. It spans two burners, and it looks like you should be able to cook for a crowd easily. But really I could only cook about four pancakes at a time over two burners, because the rest of the griddle wouldn't heat properly -- and even those four pancakes were never done evenly. (Yes, I always heat slowly and evenly for such things... it doesn't make a difference.) And I gave up on the "reversible" feature with a grill on the opposite side after annoying cleanup and tons of smoke from the griddle-side latent seasoning. (I haven't used my actual cast iron grill pan in years either, since all it seems to do is make grill marks without the radiant heat necessary in an actual grill -- searing in the skillet cooks more evenly, faster, and tastier.)

One morning I didn't feel like getting out the griddle, and I just cooked the pancakes on another random pan I had sitting around -- it was like a revelation. The pancakes were evenly cooked, and I could use the whole pan without worrying to flip just the right way to try to get some minimal amount of even cooking.

Omelets were the same. I always thought I was getting an advantage to preheating the cast iron so well, which would instantly cook the egg and thus fluff it up better -- but I found similar results in a preheated stainless or aluminum pan. And now I didn't have to worry about turning down the heat as much when adding cheese and other filling ingredients that needed heating, but which would often cause the center of the omelet to brown.

Sauces and such? Why bother? I just have to stir continuously. Same thing with most stuff cooked over anything from medium-low to medium-high -- I just need to keep stirring or flipping to get anything near even cooking. Pan-frying? If I'm using enough oil to consider it frying, I get similar results in any pan, again without the unevenness. Browning might be slightly better, but it's often not worth the effort.

The last straw was bacon, the perennial favorite for cast iron. For months now, I've been slow-roasting my bacon in my toaster oven (the full oven when I'm making it for a crowd) at 250 F for a couple hours. (If I'm in a hurry, I can always crank the heat.) Better than any bacon I've ever had, and it makes even cheap supermarket stuff taste amazing, with a combination of buttery melt-in-your-mouth fat and/or the perfect crispness. And -- I don't need to worry about burning, I don't need to worry about splattering, I don't need to cleanup the grease that bounces out onto my stove, and I always can pull it out at the perfect doneness. Sure, I cook could the bacon on very low heat in the cast iron and tend to it constantly for a half-hour, but why, when the same thing can happen untended in the oven? (The rendered fat, which I often reuse, is also perfectly clear with no burned bits.)

Basically, I only have two uses now -- a skillet to sear steaks, and a dutch oven for slow braising. For everything else, there's simply better cookware. Oh, I guess I still do fry an egg for myself in my great-grandmother's pan, but I've about given up on the unevenness for multiple eggs at a time in a larger skillet. Similarly, I'll make a grilled sandwich for myself in cast iron, but if I'm making more than one, I'll do it in a pan where I don't have to flip things seven times to make sure the sections close to the middle of the pan don't burn. (Yes, I've tried lower heat. I still need to flip or move things around, and it's not worth the extra time.)

If I only had one pan, I could believe it was a junk piece of iron or something that heats unevenly. But since this problem is consistent, I realized the issue was the material. (I never had illusions about the conductivity of cast iron, but I was surprised at the results I got when going back to other cookware.)

I know there are a lot of cast iron fans out there. I used to be one of them, and I still have a few uses. But with such uneven heating, how do people cope with it as all-purpose (or near all-purpose) cookware -- as many people around here seem to?

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