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can someone explain cast iron to me?

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I've been cooking on our all clad stainless steel for the past 6 years. It works amazingly well and is still gorgeous. But I keep reading recipes that recommend cast iron. Can someone explain its best uses? If it's relevant, we are a mainly vegan household. Thanks SO SO much in advance!!

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  1. If stainless steel cladding cookware (All Clad) have been working well for you, then you don't have to worry too much. To give you a few brief answers, cast iron cookware have a few advantages.
    First, cast iron cookware (after seasoned) is more nonstick than stainless steel surface cookware. For foods which readily stick to stainless steel surface, cast iron cookware are much better.
    Second, cast iron cookware can handle much higher temperature, and therefore extremely well for high temperature cooking
    Third, cast iron cookware work amazingly well as bakeware too.

    There are many other points too, such as cast iron cookware are much cheaper and cast iron cookware are easier to fix and regenerate.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

      thanks, this is so helpful!
      I've seen cast iron cookware that is pre-seasoned. Is there anything I would need to do before using this type?

      1. re: noya

        Many cast iron cookware today are pre-seasoned. They are done so more for storage/shelf life (anti-rusting).

        What to do with preseasoned cookware are very much debateable. Some people will simply do one light seasoning at home and start cooking. Others will strip off the preseasoning layer and restart.

        In theory, a good preseasoned layer does not have to be striped and removed, but that is in theory. In practice, a lot of preseasoned layers are poorly done. As such, many feel it is better to just restart the seasoning instead with a poor base -- just think of a poor primer layer for wall painting.

        Again, if your current cookware is working out for you, then you don't need to get a cast iron cookware.

    2. Cast iron isn't pretty: it's heavy and requires hand washing without soap.

      Its charms include even heating on the stove top and the ability to take a serious steak from the stove, after a proper searing, to a high-temperature finish in the oven.

      A properly seasoned cast iron skillet is wonderfully non-stick. It will last forever.

      1. I pretty much only use CI for many of the reason already outlined above. However if you are cooking successfully with your current cookware then don't sweat it. Are there recipes you are afraid to adapt on the all clad? If so I say still try it and see. Your all clad might surprise you.

        CI, when well seasoned, needs very little maintenance. You just need to wipe it out or scrub with water and dry over heat. However CI pans are like pearls, if you don't use (wear) them they pine. CI pans are best when used often. I have 3 CI skillets I use every week, multiple times. The small one is just right for eggs and omelets. The medium one is for sautéing veggies, cooking smaller proteins and making things like frittatas and upside down tarts. The largest is great for cooking for a crowd, pancakes, french toast, grilled cheeses, toad-in-the holes, etc. Personally I wouldn't use anything else but I don't think you *have* to have one.

        11 Replies
        1. re: foodieX2

          Since I've been having a hard time coming up with any compelling reason for a vegan cook to have an iron skillet, unless it's to make (non-dairy) cornbread, I'm with foodieX2 on this one. I have a lot of them and use them constantly, but my cooking is either vegetarian or omnivorous, and there are some things in both those categories that CI seems to be made for. Not so much vegan.

          Another thing: steve h. repeats the long-held dogma that iron is even-heating, but that's been shown repeatedly not to be at all true. Iron is in fact one of the least heat-conductive of any flameproof materials; I think only the old stovetop Pyrex pans of borosilicate glass are less conductive. What an iron pan will do is retain heat, so once it's at a particular temperature it WILL hold that heat evenly, even if the flame under it is uneven.

          1. re: Will Owen

            steve h. stands with his comment. Conductivity was never the issue. A quality cast iron skillet will distribute heat evenly.

            1. re: steve h.

              Hi steveh,

              You may stand with your comment, unfortunately, you should stand corrected. There are countless threads on this site where this issue has been exhaustively debated and the scientific evidence is sound. The low coefficient of thermal conductivity means the the metal doesn't do a very good job of moving the heat across the pan. This is not to say cast iron is bad cookware, only that other metals used for cookware transfer heat energy better.

              1. re: mikie

                Conductivity was never the issue. When heated, cast iron is quite serviceable. It's also very competent when placed in a hot oven.

                I stand with my comment.

                1. re: steve h.

                  Making a subtle point on an Internet forum is like pouring a bucket of water into the ocean and trying to measure the rise in sea level.

                  There are IMO two approaches to cast iron, one scientific, and regardless of your cooking prowess, you can't change the laws of physics. Thus, CI is a poorer conductor of heat than aluminum or copper. Which means the heat from the flame (can't speak to induction) takes longer to reach all areas of the vessel.

                  The other approach is more intuitive, and relies on the results you get based on what you cook and how you cook it. My wife took a class from a professional confectioner on making caramel . His first choice was copper. Makes sense, quick and even to heat and quick to cool so you don't over cook and burn the caramel. Surprisingly his second choice was enameled cast iron. From a physics stand point the complete opposite of copper. It works. Slow to heat may mean slow to scorch and you learn when to remove the heat, yet it continues to cook as it's slow to cool. Can't say for sure, but that's my guess.

                  Point is, if it works for you, that's great, it's not the same discussion really. Science is what it is, your personal results are what they are. And yes in an oven, where heat comes from all directions, cast iron is great, it has good thermal mass.

                  1. re: mikie

                    Nicely done, mikie. It's occurred to me, after reading your comment and what steve h. keeps saying, that "distributes heat evenly" and "even heating" are not the same thing at all. And it can be REALLY difficult to know which someone means when they talk about distributing heat.

                    steve h., in his first comment, writes "Its charms include even heating on the stove top" but later he says that he doesn't mean conductivity.

                    It becomes clearer later that he appears to mean the ability of CI to evenly distribute heat from the pan into food. A far different proposition from evenly distributing heat across the pan. Just a guess, really. Maybe he really does think heat it heats evenly.

              2. re: steve h.

                It is a relative thing. When you compare it to other metals used in cookware, copper and aluminum are much better at distributing the heat. If you are using it in a situation where the heat is applied evenly like the oven or on an electric burner sized to the pan, it would be less obvious. Some use this property to their advantage. Some have griddles made of cast iron and like that it has areas that are hot for cooking and just warm for holding.

            2. re: foodieX2

              <However CI pans are like pearls, if you don't use (wear) them they pine>

              I didn't know that.

              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                Pearls are enhanced by the natural oils on our skin, at least according to my moms old wives tales. The lose their lustor when not worn regularly. :)

                1. re: foodieX2

                  I've always heard that too. However, now being retired, guess I need to wear my pearls around the house, AKA Mrs. Cleaver, while cleaning up!

                  1. re: pine time

                    I think that is just an excuse to wear the pearl

            3. I just have to comment. I dont know if I will contribute much, but cast iron is such an emotional subject among foodies...

              You stated that you are largely a vegan household..and that you use stainless steel. Let me say that I am a firm believer in using what works for YOU. Any internet forum is full of blowhards that say you have to use this or that in order to be genuine or get this certain end result... I say bullshit. It's what works best for YOU.

              All of that said, I am also a cast iron fan.

              Cast iron excels and does things that other cookware just doesn't do as well.

              Bakeware...you can use a cast iron skillet to make cornbread that no other pan or method can rival. Hundreds of years of millions of southern cooks can't be wrong. It works...period.

              Meat.. the mere mention of the word is a pox to many vegan cooks, but cast iron (and carbon steel) do things with meat that stainless steel or non stick pans can only dream of. The Maillard Reaction...that interaction between cast iron, heat, and animal flesh that creates an umami and complexity of flavor that nothing else can even come close.

              Even if you just cook meat minimally, you want it to cook it well.

              Therein lies the strength of cast iron.

              Use what tool works for you. Use what gets you to where you wanna be, what taste you want to achieve.

              Cooking is a complex activity. Flavor depends on the interaction between ingredients, cooking techniques and cookware used. If the browning of foods, and the complexity of the Maillard Reaction are important in your cooking repertoire...then you should consider cast iron.

              If you can do well and are satisfied with stainless steel...save your money and be happy. What you have works...that's all that is important.

              4 Replies
              1. re: wabi

                <you can use a cast iron skillet to make cornbread that no other pan or method can rival>

                I can get very, very close by applying a liberal dose of oil to a heavy baking pan. Close enough that it's not worth keeping CI around.

                <The Maillard Reaction...that interaction between cast iron, heat, and animal flesh that creates an umami and complexity of flavor that nothing else can even come close.>

                1. When did the Maillard reaction become cast iron dependent? I didn't get the memo!
                2. OP is vegan, so why would she care about meat?

                1. re: DuffyH

                  "When did the Maillard reaction become cast iron dependent?" It didn't. But it is easier to get a good sear with a pan that retains heat, and therefore doesn't cool down as much when the cold meat hits the pre-heated pan. This is especially the case with a typical anemic home stove, where a long slow preheat will give you a cast iron pan that will stay plenty hot.

                  1. re: mwhitmore

                    Hi mwhitmore,

                    You'll get no argument from me there. I was responding to this particular statement,

                    "The Maillard Reaction...that interaction between cast iron, heat, and animal flesh that creates an umami and complexity of flavor that nothing else can even come close."

                    It quite clearly states that three things are needed, and that cast iron is one of them.

                    I think the best pan to sear depends on what's being seared, too, not just the power of the cooktop. Steak, fish, chicken,? Do you want to be able to control the heat? Cast iron sucks at that, but stainless excels. If my stainless pan is losing heat, I can very quickly pour more into it. Too hot? Also easily fixed.That's harder to do with cast iron.

                    I think each pan has it's virtues and neither is innately better at searing.

              2. I like older cast iron that has a machined surface. Most of the new ones are sand cast and have a rough surface. It is nonstick once seasoned. I bake in it occasionally, preheating it in the oven. Some people use cast iron for making pizza because you can get it so hot. I use it for cooking other things but they would not be relevant to your cooking.
                Here are some articles about cast iron and cookware in general.

                http://www.cookingissues.com/2010/02/...

                http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/06/ho...

                http://forums.egullet.org/topic/25717...

                http://www.cookingforengineers.com/ar...

                4 Replies
                1. re: wekick

                  I would guess even my old Griswold was sand cast, just finished better.

                    1. re: mikie

                      mikie, your old Griswold is better metal, too. All the old skillets I have are noticeably lighter than any modern ones, and ring like bells while my Lodge goes Clunk. Of course it's a grill pan …

                      1. re: Will Owen

                        Hi Will,

                        One thing I wish I knew more about is metalurgy. I know just enough to be interested, but not enough to make knowlegable conclusions. I know metal has a crystaline structure and I would assume this has something to do with the quality of the skillet. Maybe I'll learn metalurgy in my next life.

                  1. Thank you everyone, the generous responses have been so helpful.

                    1. Aside from its non-stick properties when properly seasoned and its virtual indestructibility, I was under the impression that cooking on cast iron can also add iron to your diet should you be iron deficient.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Cynic2701

                        You're right. If you cook something acidic, like tomato sauce or other foods that react with the iron in the pan, you'll get extra iron in the food.

                        Of course, an older, well-seasoned pan won't give up nearly as much iron as a newer pan, unless the acid eats through the seasoning layers down to the metal. So doing a quick pan sauce with wine might not add any iron from an older pan.