There aren’t many things you will find in a kitchen that will give you a better bang for your buck than a good quality cast iron skillet.
Cast, as you can probably imagine, from solid iron. These pans are as simple as they come. They offer fantastic versatility in your cooking, are fantastically inexpensive, and will more than likely outlive you. Can't say that about your hand mixer now, can you?
If you’ve just landed and are not familiar with a cast iron pan then here’s a quick crash course in what they are and why you need one in your kitchen.
The first thing you’ll notice about your new pan is that it is very heavy. It is just a solid lump of iron that’s been pressed into a shape of a pan after all so don’t be tempted to try any kitchen aerobatics with your food otherwise the only thing you’ll be getting that night is a long wait in A&E.
Secondly, they hold heat INCREDIBLY well. This is arguably the biggest benefit to using cast iron with the amount of heat they hold and the evenness to which it is distributed across the surface, you can cook your food to perfection every single time.
Lastly, they get better with age. That's right, the more you use your cast iron pan, the more you will benefit from it. When you cook fats and oils at a high temperature in your pan they will actually polymerise and adhere to the surface.
This is known as “seasoning” in the cast iron fandom and is built up over many years, sometimes even generations, to form a shiny and reflective surface. This seasoning of your pan is essential to giving it a non-stick sheen.
Have you ever wondered why your grandma's cast iron pan was shiny like a mirror? That's decades of seasoning right there.
What is it about cast iron that makes it perfect for steak?
The benefit of cooking your steak in a cast iron pan is hard to overstate.
Cooking a steak perfectly requires the application of heat perfectly. Cast iron is one of the best heat containers out there.
As soon as your room temperature (or cooler) steak hits pretty much any other kind of pan it will immediately suck a vast amount of heat out of the material. While this isn’t anything to be overly fearful of, as it is the essence of cooking, you will want to try and reduce this immediate heat dissipation as much as possible to ensure the crispiest sear.
This is where cast iron is king. The thick base of the pan is like a huge heat reservoir that will gladly accept the kiss of your cool steak and gladly transfer its blistering heat over without causing any massive drops in temperature like you would find in other kinds of pans.
Happy with the sear you’ve achieved in the pan? Another benefit of a cast iron pan being one lump of metal from bowl to handle is that you can take the entire thing, steak and all, off of the flame and transfer it directly to an oven without any hassle. While this is a steak-focused article, it's worth getting a cast iron pan if for just the “cast iron pizza” recipes alone.
What are the drawbacks of using cast iron?
Well yes, anything this good must have a few drawbacks and a cast iron pan is no different.
The first drawback, and we’ve touched on this briefly, is that the pan is heavy. I don’t mean it's going to need both hands to transfer from hob to oven but you will need to take extra care when moving and adjusting your pan. You can also forget about fancy flambés and flipping pancakes unless you have cast iron wrists to go with it.
Another drawback, albeit one that’s becoming less and less of a problem in modern times, is the fact that your pan will need seasoning before it can hope to be as useful as your usual repertoire of cookware.
While you can purchase “pre-seasoned” pans these days, namely Lodge being the leading brand, they’re not going to be anywhere near to a pan with decades of use so the non-stick properties are going to be almost non-existent when you first unwrap your new pan.
It takes a lot of time, a lot of fat, and a lot of patience to build and maintain a mirror glaze of seasoning that will be as non-stick as your trusty Tefal. Therapeutic labour of love for some, just another headache for others.
Finally, and arguably the largest drawback, is that cast iron pans can be needy.
Forget washing the pan with a nice strong soap and a good scrub. If you try that you can wave goodbye to the decades of seasoning you’ve built up.
Also, if you’re one to “leave things to soak” then skip the cast iron. These pans need a delicate yet thorough cleaning, an application of oil, and then a good spell in a hot oven to re-season after cleaning. If you do leave your new pan to soak or put it away without oiling and drying THOROUGHLY, you will just return to a pan full of rust.
There is a school of thought where these pans should be treated the way they were intended to be when they were first introduced hundreds of years ago.
You would never have seen Billy the Kid carefully re-seasoning his cast iron pan after cooking up some steak and eggs over the campfire, however, he probably wouldn’t have minded the flakes of rust and burnt leftovers in his breakfast. Maybe I’m just fussy but id prefer to avoid Tetanus with breakfast.
So, is it worth it?
If you’re a real steak lover who wants the absolute best and is willing to put in the extra work to maintain a cast iron pan then you really can’t go wrong by adding one to your collection.
If, on the other hand, you’re more after a quick dinner and shove back in the cupboard job then perhaps stick to the more modern methods of cooking.