The modern culinary scene has erupted into a bouquet of gimmicky, re-invented wheels. Balls whisks, toaster ovens, garlic peelers, salt pigs, bread cookers, Panini presses…. with most the only question is whether they have been reduced to uselessness through generalization, or specialization. In addition to being more novel than they are useful, these items tend to be either cheaply produced or very expensive. Unbelievably, some are even considered toxic to their owners. This landscape is reminiscent of a jungle where it is difficult to tell which resources are nutritious and which are poisonous.
But despite their needle-in-a-hay-stack status, there are still items that represent extreme value, and none more than a cast iron skillet. This item is inexpensive, durable, aesthetically beautiful, and capable of performing a wide variety of tasks extremely well. If there is one highly specific item that belongs in every kitchen, it’s a skillet or Dutch oven composed of heavy, black, cast iron.
The first virtue of cast iron skillets is their durability. Stainless steel and other materials are susceptible to scratching, staining, discoloration, warping and other varieties of damage. They can also be highly reflective, making scratches and blemishes glaring. In short, it takes some diligence to hide their age and under certain circumstances they can be outright destroyed. However cast iron can be subject to almost any abuse and be easily returned to pristine condition.
You could leave a pint of Velveeta smoldering over an electric coil for an hour, and all that would be needed to repair the skillet would be to continue heating it (in a hot oven, on some coals in a grill, or even over the same coil) until the contents were reduced to cinders. At this point you would simply allow the skillet to cool, empty the ashes and re-season the surface (more on seasoning later). Admittedly, I once had a friend crack one by removing it from a red-hot coil and dropping it into cold water…but nothing is idiot proof.
Its second virtue is affordability. A twelve-inch cast iron skillet can be purchased for twenty dollars. Comparatively, a brief trip to Amazon and a simple search for copper-bottomed skillets will immediately yield results costing in excess of two hundred dollars. A search for products made of enameled iron (whose only benefit over cast iron that I am aware of after extensive use is that they can be cleaned by traditional means), will easily reveal items costing in excess of three hundred.
Why so expensive? In a similar way to how copper wires transmit electricity, copper-bottomed pans promote an even distribution of heat. So as opposed to only the spots directly above the flame or coil heating up, and cooking the food unevenly, the surface of the pan heats up in a uniform pattern, and consequently your food does also. This is a lovely quality, however copper doesn’t have a monopoly on it. Cast iron is very dense, and its abundance of molecules causes its heat to disperse in an even pattern. This property is one of the contributors to the excessive cost of enameled iron. The other big contributor is that its smooth, durable surface is resistant to sticking. However (if you haven’t guessed), not as resistant to sticking as the surface of well maintained cast iron skillet costing less than one tenth of the price.
The biggest drawback to cast iron is that it requires a slightly new appreciation of what it means to be clean. A clean cast iron skillet has a smooth, oily surface that comes from being heated and rubbed with oil after use, and regularly (perhaps once yearly) covered with oil and placed in a hot oven for an hour. The problem with this is that it puts most people of their comfort zone because they can no longer rely on stringent soaps and heavy abrasives to purge their pans of debris. Since there is plenty of well-written guides available on the Internet; I will not go into specifics about pan maintenance. What I will say is that a well-maintained cast iron skillet is practically non-stick, and unlike nonstick surfaces, which cannot even be placed over high heat and suffer permanent as opposed to temporary damage from abrasive cleaning, cast iron is a great surface for searing.
In addition to being expensive and extremely vulnerable to damage, if placed over high heat it is well established that the coatings of Teflon pans break down. This degrades their non-stick status, but more importantly it releases elements that are carcinogenic to humans, and fumes that are outright lethal to small animals. So essentially, your incredibly expensive non-stick skillet can give you and your family cancer in the same breath that it murders your lovebirds from across the room. From a historical perspective, the use of Teflon is reminiscent of the old, and in retrospect almost comically stupid, practice of lining the insides of hats with mercury by hand. This inevitably caused brain damage and resulted in a cultural icon, mad hatters.
Why do dangerous, overpriced, and inferior items define the market? Much the same reason that Apple never figures out to put a camera in its first generation of their latest gadget. This is known as planned obsolescence; designing your products so they have to be replaced and increase repeat business. Unlike cast iron, stainless steel suffers aesthetically over time, and non-stick surfaces under the best circumstances will only last until a houseguest or child savages it with anything as dangerous as metal spatula.
If corporations prioritized and marketed cast iron, they would make a small, once-a-generation, profit. This model is obviously inferior to making huge profits once a generation (enameled iron), large profits a few times per generation (stainless steel), or large perhaps a dozen times per generation (non-stick surfaces). So unless you hate money, skip the overpriced circus of modern culinary trends, and remember that the best things in life are usually the simplest.
Sarah Walters is a writer, blogger, and contributor to several online dating sites, including http://www.onlinedatingsites.net.