Cast Iron Cookware – Why You Should Use It

*This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission if you purchase something through the link (at no cost to you). Thanks for your support!

PS. Throw Out Your Teflon Pans

You read all about how to take care of your cast iron pan (or maybe you didn’t, in which case you can click here), and now you’re wondering why on earth you should bother. You already know how to take care of a Teflon non-stick pan. Why go through the learning curve to use cast iron? Why do all these homesteading websites insist that cast iron is amazing? Are people just crazy? Do homesteaders just like extra work?

No. Most homesteaders do not like extra work. It seems like we do, but we don’t. Really. Also, cast iron pans are not extra work.

Continuing My Cast Iron Tale

About a year after owning but rarely using my cast iron pan (a 12″ Lodge), I was in the market for new non-stick pans. I was annoyed, because I’d only had my current non-stick pans for a year and they were already scratched.

I want to make a note that I had all sorts of ideas about what you could and could not cook in cast iron. These ideas were completely wrong and based on random things I’d heard from other people, not my own experiences. But I only used my pan about once or twice a week, for things like bacon and steak. I loved the results, but it never occurred to me to try and use the pan for any dish outside of the “list of things you cook in cast iron.” It wasn’t that I was convinced I COULDN’T, but it didn’t occur to me to question the assumptions that I had. Let this be a lesson: Question Assumptions. Always question assumptions. Not questioning things can’t lead to innovation, and innovation is what makes things better.

Questions + Creativity = Innovation = Good

Back to my story.

I knew that once non-stick pans start to get scratched they should get replaced, since the non-stick coating is rather cancerous if you eat flakes of it. I was doing some research on the safety of this issue, hoping that I wouldn’t really need to buy new pans already. Some people claimed you should never use non-stick, whether they are scratched or not, because Cancer. They also said that the pans are coated with polytetrafluoroethlyene (PTFE), which gets emitted into the air when the pan is overheated. This is toxic and stuff. This is somewhat true – anybody with a pet bird knows this, because pet birds are highly susceptible to this gas and can die if exposed. Whether or not the gas effects people is debatable.

Some people made it sound like you would die if you cooked on a Teflon pan ONE TIME, other people said that was pseudo-science and the pans were perfectly safe. However, unfortunately for my wallet, everybody agreed that you shouldn’t use scratched non-stick pans, and everybody also agreed that it’s really hard to never scratch your pans. I was frustrated because I am careful with my cookware – I only used wooden utensils, I did’t use harsh scrubbie thingys for washing dishes, and I stored them carefully. Nevertheless, after a year, they had scratches.

I should add that I hate spending money and I absolutely detest having to replace stuff that, in my opinion, shouldn’t need to be replaced. It makes me cranky. It also usually makes me stubborn.

“I’m NOT buying new non-stick pans!” I declared loudly. “I shouldn’t have to buy them, so THERE.” I glared at my non-stick pans.

Making this declaration felt good, but it wasn’t very helpful, so I did what any good millennial does: I turned to Google.

Ding, ding ding!

The primary alternative to nonstick pans? Cast iron. Hey, I already had (and used) one of those! Hesitantly, I tried frying eggs in my cast iron, without cooking bacon first. It worked. Even more hesitantly, I tried making scrambled eggs in my cast iron. It also worked. I told my friends, and they shook their heads. “You’ll never be able to make stuff like pancakes without a non-stick pan” one of them told me. So I made pancakes. And guess what? It worked. Fish also worked. In fact, everything worked. And stuff generally tasted better, because that nice patina on a cast iron pan adds nice flavor to food.

Anyway, I threw out my scratched non-stick pans and did not buy new ones. And now I’m going to try and convince you to do the same thing.

Why You Should Use Cast Iron

Reason #1:You will never, ever need to replace your pan.

Unless, for some reason, you leave it outside in the elements long enough for the bottom to rust through and get a hole in it. If you do that, you have failed horribly and will need a new pan.

A standard 12″ cast iron pan from Lodge, a reputable cast iron pan manufacturer (made in the USA!), is $20 on Amazon (buy it here). Standard 12″ non-stick pans from brands like Farberware, T-Fal and more are also $20 on Amazon. I’m not giving you a link because I don’t want you to buy those.

You will replace your cast iron pan…never. You will replace your non-stick pan every year until you die (assuming you cook a lot and replace your pan when it starts to show scratches on it). Let’s do the math. We’ll assume you live to turn 85.

(85 – (your age)) * $20 = ?. Since I made the switch to cast iron when I was 23, you could estimate by this equation that I will have saved $1,240 over my life time by not using non-stick pans.

Oh, and bonus, you can probably pass your pan onto your kids, and they can use it for their lifetime. I know people who have their grandmother’s cast iron pans, and they are still in beautiful condition.

Reason #2: Everything tastes better.

Seriously. That patina on the pan adds a little flavor to your food. On top of that, letting food stick just a little bit can actually be good – you get what professional chefs call “fond”. You get more fond on stainless steel pan, but you can get it on a cast iron pan too. Fond makes good gravy, good onions…good everything.

Don’t believe me? Saute some onions in butter in your nonstick pan. Then do the same thing in your cast iron. Now tell me which onions taste better. Go on; I’ll wait.

Reason #3: No health concerns.

Like I mentioned before, there are some unclear health concerns surrounding non-stick pans. They contain these things called PTFAs, which are potentially bad for you. Basically, if the pan gets too hot, they get released into the air. These fumes are definitely bad for pet birds, because they kill pet birds. People argue about whether or not human inhalation of these fumes results in reproductive problems or just flu-like symptoms. Some people say that unless you mis-use your pans by heating them excessively, you won’t breathe in the PTFAs anyway.

In addition to the fumes, ingesting bits of Teflon coating is possibly linked to problems. In addition to PTFA exposure, people eating nonstick coating would also be exposed to PFOAs, which are linked to cancer. Both PTFAs and PFOAs stay in the body for a very long time. Cooking properly on an unscratched Teflon pan is perfectly safe, but let’s be honest: how often is one cooking properly on an unscratched Teflon pan? Not very often.

Some companies are making different types of non-stick pans that don’t include Teflon to avoid these effects, like ceramic cookware. All of these alternatives universally lose their non-stickiness after time, scratch easily, and are expensive. They are also completely unnecessary.

The only health risk of cast iron is that you might get too much iron if you simmer tomatoes in the pan for a long time, and then eat the tomatoes. But you shouldn’t be doing that anyway, and unless you simmer acidic stuff in cast iron, you won’t be getting any iron in your food.

Reason #4: They’re pretty!

Okay, this is subjective, but I think cast iron cookware looks cool. It’s vaguely antiquey and farmhousey. I love it when people figure out how to display their cast iron in the kitchen. My cast iron lives in my oven, but someday I’d like to hang it up because…it’s pretty!

Reason #5: Retains Heat.

Once the pan gets hot, it STAYS hot. This can be very helpful if you’re using an electric stove, which isn’t great about heating things evenly, or well. It’s also super helpful if you want to keep your dinner hot for awhile before you eat it.

Reason #6: You can use any utensils you want.

Yes, you can use wood and silicone, but you can also use metal. You won’t hurt your pan if you turn your steak with a metal fork. You won’t hurt your pan if you put another pan inside of it for storage. Basically, as long as you keep it dry and greased, you won’t hurt your pan, period.

Reason #7: Cast iron is oven-safe.

There’s a lot of fancy recipes that expect you to have an oven-safe pan, that you transfer from the stove-top to the oven mid-way through cooking. With a cast iron pan, this is no problem. They even make cast iron lids for if you need to keep the pan covered.

Reason #8: You can take them camping!

You can cook all sorts of things in a cast iron dutch oven that you put in the coals of a campfire. No special camping gear required.

Have I convinced you yet?

“But”…you say. “But..”

No buts. Whatever bad things you’ve heard about cast iron are probably wrong.

Cast Iron Myths

Myth #1: It’s Too Complicated to Take Care of It

I would like you to imagine that you just bought your Grandma a dishwasher. She’s never had or used a dishwasher before. When you show her the 6 different cycle options and all the buttons, she seems confused. Then you start talking about how you should hand-wash your knives, and need to make sure to put plastic tupperware on the top rack only, and she shakes her head. “No, no,” she said. “This is too complicated. I’ll just keep washing my dishes by hand.”

Now, you know dishwashers aren’t complicated. They’re easier than handwashing, you think. You also know that it would make Grandma’s life easier if she’d use a dishwasher, and you know that it might help her arthritis to not be scrubbing dishes all the time. You figure that if you can just convince Grandma to try it for awhile, and get used to it, she’ll probably like it.

In this scenario, you are Grandma and the dishwasher is the cast iron pan. Cast iron care isn’t complicated, it’s just different from what you are used to. Give it 3 weeks of daily use. Suddenly, you won’t know why you ever thought it was complicated. I actually think cleaning my cast iron is less of a pain than cleaning my stainless steel, because half the time, you don’t have to actually “clean” cast iron (see my previous post for specific instructions).

Myth #2: Everything Sticks!

If you crack an egg into a cold cast iron pan without any grease, then try to turn the burner to high and quickly cook the egg…yes, it will stick. Badly. But if you pre-heat the pan and add some butter (or bacon grease, or oil, or tallow, or whatever), it’ll be fine. With fancy Teflon pans, people are used to not adding grease, or adding a tiny amount for flavor. Be liberal with your butter. And DON’T WORRY – if you’re using high quality fats and not something toxic like vegetable oil, it won’t make you fat. I promise.

Also, before you complain that it takes too long to heat up the pan, I want to point something out: Imagine this sequence of events:

  1. Make coffee
  2. Turn on burner and put on Teflon pan
  3. Immediately cook eggs
  4. Eat.

Or…

  1. Turn on burner and put on cast iron pan
  2. Make coffee
  3. Cook eggs
  4. Eat.

Notice. These things will take exactly the same amount of time. But the order of events is different. Like I said, using cast iron exclusively is just a matter of getting used to something different – it’s not actually more time or effort.

Myth #3: I Need Nonstick for Tomatoes

Okay, it is true that you should not make your tomato sauces or acidic dishes in your cast iron cookware. But guess what? They make stainless steel! And no, your food won’t stick to that either, although it’s harder to master than cast iron (since cast iron is already somewhat non-stick due to the patina). Preheat the pan, preheat the grease, and cook. And if you mess up and something sticks…well, then, I guess you’ll have to scrub it and do better next time. The nice thing about stainless is that you can soak the burned pans (don’t ever soak a cast iron pan. That’s a good way to get rust). I might discuss dealing with stainless steel cookware in a future post.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I will (grudgingly) admit that there are a few downsides to cast iron. There’s downsides to everything, right? BUT THERE ARE SOLUTIONS!

Actual Downsides…With Solutions!

Downside #1: Cast iron doesn’t heat evenly.

Once the pan is hot, this isn’t a problem. But if you try to cook something and start with a cold pan, the whole pan won’t heat at quite the same rate, and you’ll struggle. When people talk about how “evenly” cast iron cooks, they are referring to what happens when you add food an ALREADY HOT pan. It does not actually heat up evenly. So the solution, of course, is to pre-heat your pan.

Downside #2: Cast iron is heavy.

If you are older, this could be a problem. You could limit your cast iron use to smaller sizes (like 8″ pans), or you could use carbon steel. Carbon steel has properties very similar to cast iron, but it is much lighter. You still don’t need non-stick pans, but cast iron might not be the answer for you.

If you are young and physically able, and you are complaining about cast iron being too heavy, then you should get stronger. Be innovative and use your pans as free weights. Why not? They’re heavy. You already have them (and if you don’t, you should buy them). MAYBE I’LL MAKE A CAST IRON WORKOUT VIDEO! We can set it to 1970s disco music and do cast iron air punches!

Too weird? Moving on…

Downside #3: Cats lick them.

Okay, this might just apply at my house, but my cats are very belligerent about jumping on the counter trying to lick my cast iron pan. I suppose this proves that cast iron tastes good, but it’s also super annoying, and kinda unsanitary. This is why my pans are stored in the oven. The cats can’t open the oven. They can open cabinets…and drawers…

So seriously, why are we still talking about this? You should get cast iron. And throw away your Teflon. You don’t need Teflon. Buying Teflon is basically throwing money down the drain, possibly contributing to cancer (?), and making food taste worse. Don’t do that.

Buying Cast Iron

If you are convinced, and you want to get some cast iron, you should totally buy them through my links, because I will get a small commission at no charge to you! Just click the pictures to  go straight to Amazon.

But whether you buy them through my links or not, here are the cast iron cookware items that I recommend.

12″ Skillet. I have this one, made by Lodge, and it’s great. I use it all the time. Anyone cooking family-sized meals needs a nice, big, pan. I have the silicone pan handle as welll, although I bought  that separately.

10″ Skillet. I got mine from a garage sale, so I don’t know what brand it is, but here’s a link to one made by Lodge. This is the type of pan I use most, for everything from eggs to steak.                                     

8″ Skillet. I don’t have one of these, but if you’re cooking for 1 or 2 people on a regular basis, you might want one this size instead of the 10″.                             

6″ Skillet. I can’t imagine myself using something this small in my kitchen, but I might buy one someday for camping. It could also be useful if you cook for 1 and are in need of a lighter pan.

Dutch Oven. I got mine from someone’s basement, but you can get one here. These are AMAZING for stews and roasts that you cook in the oven. They come in a variety of sizes; mine is just a 5qt, but there are bigger ones if that suits your needs better. Just make sure you re-oil your dutch oven well after using it, to prevent rust.

Waffle Iron. This was a gift last year, and I won’t lie – it’s a pain to season. It comes unseasoned, so it requires several times through the oven to get a nice, glossy finish, and it’s annoying to brush the oil around all the bumps that are in a waffle iron. However, it makes great waffles and – bonus – you can take it camping and make waffles over the campfire. I love camping, so that’s a big plus for me.

Grill/Bacon Press. I don’t actually own one of these, but my sister does and it’s awesome. I want one (Mom? Do you read my blog? Want a birthday idea?) You use it to keep stuff flat in the pan – it’s useful for bacon, pork chops, and anything else that tends to curl and otherwise not touch the pan bottom while it’s cooking. This also can take the place of a specialty quesadilla or panini press. You can even use it get liquid out of washed or frozen spinach, whey out of cheese, and more. It’s not necessary, and any heavy object would theoretically work, but I think the cast iron ones are space efficient and durable: a perfect combination.

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Cast Iron Scraper Things. If you buy one accessory for your kitchen, buy these. They make clean-up a dream, and they’re super cheap. I use them for my cast iron pans, but I also use them for my stainless steel pans, my baking sheets, my roasting pan, cleaning my stove, scraping labels off of jars, and more.

They make other cast iron equipment, including grill pans, loaf pans, cupcake trays, and more. They also make specialty scrub brushes, and Lodge manufactures some sort of cream that you spread on the pan to keep it seasoned.

But I’m not going to endorse those items.

I hate “specialty” gadgets. I don’t want to own 20 different pieces of cookware, each of which can be used for only one thing. Why would I buy “seasoning cream” when I can use the oil or grease I already have in my kitchen? Why would I buy a grill pan when I already have a pan that cooks exactly the same stuff? I prefer to stick with skillets and Dutch ovens, and so that’s what I’m going to recommend to you as well.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that cast iron is amazing and you should use it forever. Maybe you’ll buy a cast iron pan. Maybe you’ll even buy it off of Amazon and give me a commission. That’d be cool.

But maybe you already have access to a cast iron pan … but it’s been sitting in a basement or a garage for who-knows-how-long, and is kinda rusty. Stay tuned for Cast Iron Part 3, where I will explain how to fix your rusty old pans into beautiful, utilitarian kitchen items.

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