Laura Dean Bennett
Since ancient times (at least 3,000 B.C.), molten iron was being put to good use in China, Anatolia and Assyria, where it was considered a precious metal – more precious than gold.
Iron was used to make weapons and tools, such as plow blades and axe heads, as well as ovens, decorative items and art.
Metal workers were so important to their societies that they often held the status of chief or shaman of their tribes.
Ghengis Khan was an iron smith before he became the most famous conqueror of his age.
It took until about 200 B.C.– with the invention of the wok – for cast iron to be widely used for cookware.
2000 to 1000 B.C. While iron was still a precious metal, as attested by the iron artifacts found in the royal tombs of Alacahoyuk, Anatolia, and by cuneiform tablets in Assyrian which state that iron was more valuable than gold, it was increasingly used to make weapons and tools in addition to luxury and art objects. The principle of the Renn kiln involves reduction of the iron ore with charcoal to obtain sponge iron (loupe or luppe), which is a mixture of slag, charcoal, pure iron, and unreduced iron ore. The sponge iron is then forged and cleaned of residuals to produce a malleable material.
In modern kitchens, just as it was in our grandmothers’ kitchens, a cast iron skillet can be the hardest-working piece of cookware you own.
It is most likely our most durable piece of cookware, being passed down from generation to generation.
Cast iron cookware is made by pouring an alloy of molten iron into a sand mold and allowing it to cool before breaking away the sand.
Every cook should have at least one piece of cast iron in the cabinet, or maybe, like many of us, have an ever-growing collection of it displayed proudly, like art.
Part of the beauty of cast iron is its versatility.
A cast iron skillet can be used on every type of stovetop, in the oven, on the grill or over a campfire.
It cooks evenly and holds in heat, which makes it perfect for searing a steak. There’s no better way to get a ribeye with a crusty exterior and a rosy interior like the one you get when you cook it in cast iron.
It will fry chicken or bacon, simmer chili or bake biscuits.
Perhaps cast iron cookware was once thought to be a little old-fashioned, but in recent years, this classic cookware has become fashionable again.
A new crop of cast iron skillets – lighter weight, more highly polished, and even pre-seasoned – has made an appearance on kitchen shelves.
Unless you have pre-seasoned cast iron, seasoning before use and in between uses is necessary. And there’s the question of how to clean it.
Maintaining cast iron need not be intimidating. It’s just not a big deal.
I usually clean my cast iron with a stiff bristled plastic brush and coarse grained salt.
I know you’ve probably heard that soap is a big no-no. But there are occasions when soap and water are called for.
And if you have a well-seasoned skillet, it will take a lot more than soap and water to disturb its patina. But there are a couple of no-nos … Soaking a cast iron pan is not a good idea and never put it in the dishwasher.
If there are pieces of anything stuck to the pan, a square edged wooden spatula will scrub them off without disturbing the seasoning.
After cleaning, thoroughly dry your skillet.
You may want to heat it over low heat for a minute to make sure to remove any lingering moisture. Use a paper towel to rub a very thin layer of oil onto the cast iron, and wipe out any excess oil.
If it seems that cleaning has removed some of the seasoning, re-season it.
Just use plenty of lard or oil and place the skillet upside down in a hot oven for about a half hour or so.
Make sure to have an oven liner or a piece of foil in place to protect the bottom of your oven from dripping oil.
If you are nesting cast iron skillets in your cabinet, put a piece of newspaper, a cloth or a paper towel between them to prevent any scratches in the seasoning and absorb any remaining moisture which could lead to rusting.
If you are lucky enough to have inherited cast iron from your mother or grandmother, clean it up, season it, use it and cherish it. It will be one of the most versatile and hard-working tools in your kitchen.
You may decide to add to your collection.
These days, vintage pieces of cast iron are becoming harder to find, and are becoming pricey. But you can still get lucky and come across cast iron at auctions, in consignment shops, flea markets and yard sales for reasonable prices.
If you are new to the world of cast iron, you might want to start your collection with a 10-inch skillet. It can do almost everything. And if need be, add a 12-inch skillet to your collection.
Don’t be afraid of buying cast iron with some rust on it. Rust can be removed the same way as cleaning a cast iron skillet after cooking something sticky in it – with a stiff brush and coarse salt.
One of the best things about cast iron is the flavor it imparts to food.
There’s something about the seasoning of a cast iron skillet that makes everything cooked in it taste so good.
One of the other things I love about cast iron is its history.
There’s something romantic about using the same piece of cookware that your grandmother, or someone’s grandmother, may have used. Just imagine the thousands of meals cooked in a piece of cookware that’s been around since before the first World War or maybe even the Civil War.
From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, American cast iron was in its heyday. Cast iron was a big industry, producing millions of pieces of cookware, as well as steam radiators, wood-burning stoves, bridges and even buildings.
For those of you who want to begin a cast iron collection, there are collector’s books available at your local library. Read up on the history of the many American vintage cast iron manufacturers, modern cast iron manufacturers and the qualities of each.
And there is also a ton of information on the Internet about cast iron.
Cast iron is so much more than classic cookware. It’s part of our history and our culture. It connects us to our past.
And it even looks great just hanging on a wall.