I grew up in a household that used cheap, non-stick pans and replaced them when they stopped being non-stick enough to be useful. When I moved out into my own place, I bought my own cheap, non-stick pans and started doing the same thing. However, there was always something unsatisfying about it. It seemed so wasteful to throw whole pans away (which is probably why my “no longer fit for use” pans are still in an out-of-the-way cupboard and not in landfill even though I don’t use them), I always went through months of frustration about my eggs or whatever sticking to the surface before I’d bite the bullet to replace them, and you have to wonder about the environmental concern of loads and loads of pans being manufactured that have a useful lifespan of only one or two years.
Conveniently, two months ago, just as I was coming to terms with the fact that our last non-stick frying pan had outlived its useful lifespan and was in need of replacing, YouTube recommended to me this Adam Ragusea video about why people love cast iron pans, even though he’s on the fence. Honestly I had heard of cast iron before but never actually considered it, because all that talk people do about “seasoning” and “preserving the patina” sounded intimidating and like way too much hard work. However, in that moment where I was grizzling about why can’t I just have an affordable pan that lasts forever, I was the prime audience to be persuaded to switch. I did a bit more research after watching that video but I think I’d ordered my 12in cast iron skillet before the day was out. Some of the factors behind this decision were:
- The longevity! So long as you take care of them, cast-iron cookware can easily outlive you. And despite this, the cost is not that much higher than short-lived non-stick pans.
- Many of the things people complain about with cast iron turned out to be not strictly true. For example, while decades ago dish soap was too harsh to be used on cast iron pans, in modern times you can totally wash them the normal way in the sink without damaging the seasoning. Just make sure they’re completely dry before you put them away.
- Another thing was people saying you can’t cook acidic ingredients, like tomatoes, in cast iron pans. Not only can you, but some studies have found that this is a great idea for people struggling to meet their RDI for iron, because the acidity helps you extract a little extra iron from the cookware. As a cis woman who doesn’t eat red meat, that was a big selling point for me! I do think you have to be prepared to reseason more often if you do this regularly, though.
- Once I actually knew what “seasoning a cast iron pan” meant, then sure, it’s a hassle, but it’s doable. At least there actually is a way to restore the surface to non-stick glory, instead of having to throw the whole damn pan away to buy a new one.
- As Adam Ragusea highlighted in his pinned comment,
The easiest way to maintain cast iron is to cook with it all the time. Our great-grandparents didn’t obsess over polymerization blah blah blah. They just cooked in the damn thing.That is to say, the more you use it, the less you even have to stress about reseasoning. Although as I have discovered… this only applies if you don’t use it to cook acidic foods like tomatoes.
So at this point, I’ve been using the skillet regularly for five weeks. I will say that my enthusiasm for cast-iron has waned somewhat, although I don’t think the trade-offs are so bad that I want to go back to buying a new non-stick frying pan every year. The major things I’ve noticed have been:
- As I mentioned, tomato sauces break down the seasoning like whoa. Using steel wool to detach baked-on bits of food that your regular dish mop can’t handle also breaks down some seasoning. Now some of this might be because my pan is still pretty new and doesn’t have as much seasoning as a mature, well-used pan. I think I just need to season it more often than just, you know, the day I got it and then yesterday. That said, I also think there are some underappreciated plus sides to broken-down seasoning, like getting more delicious char flavour in your food – it’s just a trade-off, because if you’re getting char flavour then you’re probably also struggling with a “sticky” pan.
- I’m still trying to work out what setting on my burner to use with it. The internet generally indicated to use a setting one lower than you would for non-stick pans (which was 4 in my case), but I’ve found myself longing for a 3.5, because while 4 does indeed seem too hot for anything but searing meat, 3 is not hot enough for my pan and results in it taking about twice as long to cook anything as my old non-stick pan did. This is probably the biggest issue I’ve had with it, to be honest.
- The pan is really heavy compared to non-stick. I have hurt my wrist (nothing serious, don’t worry!) multiple times trying to manoeuvre it. This is mostly my own fault, being too lazy to put on an oven mitt so I can carry it and distribute the weight across two hands. I still think it’s worth noting because if you want to make the switch, I really recommend not choosing that specific way to be lazy.
Overall, I feel like cast-iron cookware probably works better if you eat a lot of pan-fried fatty meat, like steak or chops or bacon. The heat-retention properties of the cast iron will give your meat a wicked sear, and the fat from the cooking oil and the meat will help maintain your seasoning, in a beautiful self-sustaining cycle. As someone who doesn’t eat any of those things, cast iron is less of a perfect fit for me. I still think it’s worth it, in the sense that I think its trade-offs are manageable and I really hate the wastefulness of non-stick pans and am willing to make some sacrifices for longevity. It’s just that if you’re a big meat-eater, then cast iron isn’t just a “I think the sacrifices are worth it” deal, it’s more of a no-brainer.
The main thing that prompted me to write this post now is, as I said, I reseasoned my pan yesterday. Prior to that I’d had a couple of frustrating experiences – banana pancakes, then a couple of days later fried rice, that despite lots of butter and canola oil (respectively) had lots of sticking issues. Then yesterday I did the whole reseasoning process – wipe it down with a thin layer of oil, place it upside-down in the oven, bake at 220˚C for an hour (the exact temperature is up for debate but this is just below the smoke point of canola oil and seems to result in a perfectly polymerised surface, from my two experiences). This morning I tried the banana pancakes again, and… perfection. Those pancakes were sliding around like a slip ‘n’ slide, and with a lot less butter than I had to use the first time, too. So again, I urge you: don’t be like me; the moment you start grumbling about your cast iron pan being “sticky”, reseason it. I was shocked at the difference it made. And now I can be less grumpy about past-me’s decision to buy cast iron, so yay!