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Jul 15, 2010 09:05 PM

Getting rid of (most) cast iron

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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  1. Yes, thermal conductivity of cast iron is an issue. It really is a trade off sometime. Would one prefer to have the even heating from a copper or an aluminum core cookware? Or would one want the relative nonstick and yet nice crust provided by a cast iron pan? I do agree cast iron cookware have real limitation and I think you hit the major points very correctly.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

      Thanks. Personally, I find I don't have a problem with sticking in copper cookware (and very little in cookware with a thick core of copper or aluminum). At least in my experience, the better heat transfer means that it's less likely to have hot spots, and unless you're using a pan that's too hot in general, it's the hot spots that cause burning and sticking more than anything else.

      That property actually prompted me to acquire a couple more thick copper pans (mostly vintage on eBay and such). It's not quite the non-stick of cast iron, but it's almost as good except for the stickiest jobs. And honestly, if it's that sticky, it will probably make a mess in my cast iron anyway... I just don't bother doing caramelized things in it anymore, for example -- the hot spots would create burned on carbon patches.

      So, for me it really comes down to the better crust, which can be very nice on some things. Well, that and the heat capacity, which is good for searing and long stewing/braising.

    2. there are definitely tradeoffs. In addition to uneven heat, they take forever to heat up and are very slow responding to changes in temperature. They're good for low and slow in the oven and for some things on the stovetop, but certainly not everything. For sauteeing, for instance, I always go with copper or clad or disk stainless.

      1. I agree with pretty much everything here.

        The problem is especially pronounced in larger pieces because they diffuse heat so slowly that you can't keep the areas far away from the burner hot without turning the burner up to the point where the areas on/near the burner overheat.

        Cast iron really shines in the oven though, where the omnidirectional heat heats everything evenly. I usually only use my large cast iron skillet if i am making cornbread or upside-down cake or some other stovetop-to-oven dish.

        my 9" cast iron skillet heats pretty evenly, though.

        This site has some very visual information on how even cast iron heats.

        I do bacon in the oven as well; perfect, flat, and crisp. Every time.

        1. I love my cast iron pans - but this is why most of us have more than one kind of pan. No pan is right for every single application. I have 4 cast iron pans (one is for corn bread, divided into those little wedges - i like it because of the crust to interior ratio) and two of them I use mostly for searing, etc, just like you said. I also have all-clad pans, non-stick pans, enameled cast iron etc. Different pots and pans for different applications.

          2 Replies
          1. re: flourgirl

            I believe this is also why many people are against buying one big set of cookware (made from the same material).

            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

              I agree with everybody here. Now I only use the CI pan for searing when I dont feel like firring up the grill.

              I made some pork Jaeger schnitzel two weeks ago with panko breadcrumbs and I was frying it maybe 1/8" to 1/4" of oil and there were spots that came out darker (burnt) than the rest of it. That was the last straw. I am going back to my calphalon for frying and getting carbon steel for high temp cooking.

          2. A "trick" to get ANY decent cookware heated evenly is to apply heat to the perimeter. Think of it this way: any spot on your pan can be heated either by directing a heat source to it, or by absorbing heat from warmer spots next door.

            The middle of the pan has heat flowing in from all sides, so it can take care of itself. Any heat source applied in the middle of a pan will create a hot spot. The edges only have heat flowing in from one side, so you need to direct heat there or the edges will be cooler.

            This is basic heat transfer and applies to all materials, which is to say there is no material or combination of materials that can cheat this rule.

            Learned this trick cooking with camp ovens -- coals always are placed on the perimeter.

            17 Replies
            1. re: MikeB3542

              Excellent explanation for heating distribution to the center vs to the edge.

              1. re: MikeB3542

                I absolutely agree. I've used the trick of swirling the cast iron around on a burner to get even heating, but it gets tedious with such a heavy pan after a while. Preheating in the oven is another solution, but that doesn't deal with the problem of maintaining temperature when moved to the stovetop.

                I agree that when you have an option to change the size of your heatsource (actual fire, charcoal grill, some stovetops), this is a great solution. Unfortunately, I can't really do that on my stove.

                As for materials "cheating" the rules of heat transfer, well, I can't disagree with that. But an infrared thermometer tells me that my large cast iron skillet when preheated on my stove will often be 100 degrees F cooler near the edge than in the center, whereas a similar-sized preheated copper pan is often 1/10 of that difference. It doesn't cheat the rules, but better materials can almost make the transfer problem seem non-existent for cooking purposes.

                1. re: athanasius

                  Thank you for sharing the temperature differential for cast iron, I would not have guessed 100 degrees, that's quite a bit. I will have to get an infrared thermometer.

                  I was wondering what the maximum temp is on a cast iron pan, on the main burner when the knob is set to max.

                  It is interesting that the best heat conductors are roughly equivalent to the best electrical conductors. Silver is best, then copper, then gold and trailing is aluminum. Aluminum is 66% as good as copper but cheaper. Obviously gold and silver have a low melting point so they are out for cooking. Not sure what iron or steel are.

                  1. re: cajundave

                    I think that 100F difference, also dependent on the temperature range we are referring to. Are we talking about 100 F difference at 300 F or 100 F at 600F?

                    Here is a list of heat conductivity of some metals, you may find it useful:


                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                      Good point, I hope athanasius will share the temp at the center of the pan, I am curious.

                      The chart is interesting, copper is clearly very good and my theory is still holding because the chart heat conductivity is matching up with electrical conductivity. Look at this:


                      The reason one metal conducts better than another has to do with free electrons orbiting the nucleus of the atom and how much energy is required to release that electron.


                      I wonder if this is similar for heat transfer.

                      1. re: cajundave


                        You are correct that electrical conductivity is based on free electron. This is why metal conducts electricity. There is a correlation between electrical conductivity and thermal conductivity. There are exception, like your future diamond pan.

                        Diamond is a poor electric conductor, but great thermal conductor.

                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          So you may remember that I am an electrical engineer from the blender post.

                          You are a physics professor? Guess

                          1. re: cajundave


                            I went back to re-read the old post. Yes, now I remember you were talking about Vita blender. No, I am not a physics professor or a physicist.

                            I don't know how I should describe myself. It is a mix of a few things. Currently, I work as an analytical chemist, but I had a physical chemistry training as a graduate student, especially like chemical kinetics (gas-phase).


                        2. re: cajundave

                          An reply to an old post, but I will try some quick experiments with conductivity. A 100 F difference or more is pretty standard across temperature ranges.

                      2. re: cajundave


                        By the way, diamond is an excellent heat conductor. Its thermal conductivity is X5 of that of copper. So start saving money now.


                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          Ohh I would be in big trouble if I came home with a diamond skillet!

                          1. re: cajundave


                            I would think that your wife/girlfriend will be very happy if you come home with a diamond skillet.

                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                              I think my wife would hit me on my head with the diamond skillet!

                              I bet you could sear a mean steak in it. But would it stick?

                              1. re: cajundave

                                I can see the posts now, "What carat is best for...."

                                1. re: SanityRemoved

                                  Ha ha ha.

                                  Or we can have a quiz post like:

                                  You know you think too much about culinary cookware, when you...

                                  a) consider changing the color of your Le Cresuet for every day
                                  b) consider getting a laser scalpel as a kitchen knife
                                  c) consider making a skillet out of diamond

                                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                    I am pretty sure we can just skip pans and adapt to frying things in mercury; it wont boil until 670 degrees (!).

                                    and it's fat free!

                                    1. re: monocle

                                      I must ask you to also consider gallium (Ga) as well. It is solid at cold room temperature, but it melts at at a warm day temperature ~30oC (85oF). Think butter. It boils at 4000oF, much higher than mercury. It is half the weight as mercury, so it will be easier on your waist. Moreover, it is considered rather nontoxic :)

                                      Although I must admit that gallium is rather expensive (~25X more than mercury)