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Cast iron pots and pans?

post #1 of 23
Thread Starter 
Are cast iron pots and pans that much better than the regular stainless steel? I'm considering buying some cast iron, but don't know if it's worth the investment. And if so, anyone know where the best brands and places is to buy some?
post #2 of 23
Well, it's not so much a question of better as better for certain things. The disadvantage of cast iron is that it weighs a ton, and if it's not enameled cast iron you have to season it instead of regular washing. The advantage is that it heats very evenly and thoroughly -- enormously better in this respect than stainless steel. So if you make a steak, for example, stainless steel loses a huge amount of heat when you put the steak in, so that you don't get a great crust without cooking it longer than you might otherwise wish; in cast iron, this is a non-issue, because it just holds on to its heat and you get a beautiful crust. I could go on, but in essence anything that requires high, steady, even heat will do wonderfully in cast iron. One disadvantage is that very acidic ingredients, like wine and tomatoes, will tend to remove some of the patina on the pan and give a slight metallic flavor that some find objectionable.

On the whole, non-enameled cast iron is less expensive than good stainless. An excellent standard brand is Lodge, which has been around for donkey's years. Supposedly the older Lodge pans were better than now, and there are collectors around who snap up old pans for a lot of money, but I can't say I've had any negative experiences with my recent-vintage Lodge pans.

Enameled cast iron can be very expensive indeed. The best-known brand is Le Creuset, which costs a small fortune but has the immense advantages that (a) you can serve your dish directly in the pan because it looks nice, and (b) you can give it to your grandchildren because it'll last forever.

If you are not familiar with seasoning a pan (which is unnecessary with enameled), there are a number of posts around here that tell you how to do it, common difficulties, and so on. But suffice it to say that after initial seasoning, which is just a process you do, the point is that you don't really wash these pans -- certainly you don't scour them. When you've finished cooking, you wipe everything out with hot water, a soft sponge or brush, and maybe a little soap. Then you put it over high heat until it's dry, turn off the heat, and add a dab of oil and sort of wipe it around with a couple paper towels or a crumpled newspaper or the like, and you leave the pan to cool off by itself. This takes very little time once you're used to it -- no more than serious scrubbing, really, and it's easy work. Over time you develop a patina on the pan by doing this, and that makes the pan more nonstick than any nonstick pan ever developed.

I would say that the principal disadvantages of cast iron for those really unfamiliar with them are (a) the weight, which is considerable; (b) the washing/wiping process, which can freak out people who are used to scrubbing everything to the bone; and (c) the appearance of a really well-seasoned pan, which can be kind of unsettling if you're used to everything being shiny all the time. My mother won't touch them because of b and c: she wants everything to shine always, and she scrubs and scours at the drop of a hat. If you're not bothered by b and c, just go to a big hardware store and heft a 10" or 12" skillet and see if the weight is OK with you, bearing in mind that you're not going to toss this pan like you might a lightweight skillet -- it's not a great thing for stir-fry: you just leave it sitting on the burner and cook in it, mostly. But obviously if it's going to kill your back pulling it out of the cabinet to cook with, that's a problem.

Once you've gotten a cast iron skillet reasonably well seasoned, you will quickly find that almost any kind of searing, sauteeing that doesn't involve tossing the pan, all that will be much easier and produce better results in the cast iron than in stainless.
post #3 of 23
Some people swear by cast iron but the fact is cast iron is not suitable for all jobs in the kitchen. As Glotjoe says, uncoated cast iron (Lodge brand) is inexpensive compared to stainless steel. You can buy a 12" skillet for less than $30 and it will last forever.

Instead of buying a set, I would suggest buying a single piece to see how you like it and buy more as you need them.

I can fry an egg in my 10" skillet (and no sticking) which I have had for more than 15 years now. I wouldn't dream of doing a marinara sauce in it though.
post #4 of 23
>and maybe a little soap.<

Not even a maybe about it. Soap should never be allowed anywhere near cured cast iron!
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
post #5 of 23
$11 precured 10 0r 11# cast iron skillets at Target.....
Or estate sales, I've picked up some really cool ones for $5-10. It is something I make sure my sons/nieces and nephews all have.

Cornbread is incredible in cast iron, love the sear and also like being able to go from stove top to oven.
cooking with all your senses.....
cooking with all your senses.....
post #6 of 23
Cast iron is a wonderful thing as part of an ideal cooking set.

Everyone would like plain cast iron, 12" "chicken fryer" (frying chicken, steaks, etc.), small skillet (eggs, etc.), cornbread pans, and a reversible grill/griddle.

Everyone would like a round and an oval enamled cast iron casseroles.

After that though, cast iron becomes more of a pain than a pleasure.

Carbon steel is significantly lighter and more responsive than cast iron and heats almost as evenly. It also develops the same non-stick properties. Which, somehow -- mirable dictu! -- I can keep going with occasional soaping but NOT scouring. On balance though, KY's NEVER is probably better advice -- how often do you need soap but not scouring? If it weren't for their reactive nature, I'd say get all carbon. I like the way it handles, it's non-stick features, and it's responsiveness that much.

Multiple ply pans with an aluminum or copper exterior or core and a stainless insert are probably the best all around answer to creating the core of the cook set because they are non-reactive, and heat evenly -- more evenly than cast or carbon.

You shouldn't cook high acid foods in untreated cast iron or carbon steel for a longish period. Iron and steel are less reactive than aluminum, but you don't want them for your only choice.

Enamel over cast iron (and there are less expensive brands than La Creuset, just as good), has some clean up and chipping issues. If you don't mind your cooking tools getting grotty, and are willing to baby it -- no problemo. On the other hand, if you're an everything shiny diva, it will drive you nuts.

All of this is pans. Pots are a different kettle of fish. Pots seldom need even heat transference all the way up the sides, so the side material and the bottom material don't have to be the same. You can get (inexpensive) stainless pots with disc bottoms and have the same performance as with expensive multi-ply. Still -- it's a drop down in quality that most home cooks usually don't make.

If you're creating a cooking set (batterie d'cuisine) multiple ply stainless steel is your best bet for the most important sizes skillets and sauce pans. After you've purchased their versatility, you can start exploring the niche goodnesses of other materials.

When it comes to performance -- everything but stick resistance -- you can't beat a heavy copper exterior over a good stainless insert. But it's so very expensive and the extra performance benefits (speed, evennness) are so very, very slight -- it's not worth it on a practical basis. If you like it and can afford it though ...

Anyway, combined with the wise words of everyone else who posted (and with all of whom I agree), that's it in a nutshell.

The more specific your questions are in terms of which type of pan or pot you're thinking of buying and the purposes to which you plan on putting it -- the more helpful are answers.

Please let us know what you're thinking,
post #7 of 23
Thread Starter 
Thank you all for your advice and information. I already have a whole set of stainless steel pots and pans. I was thinking of getting a cast iron skillet (for steaks etc.) and maybe a pot for making jambalaya or whatever else is good in cast iron pots.

I've only read that cooking steaks on cast iron skillets are much better than any other pans. Is this true? and what other specific types of dishes are better cooked in cast iron pots?
post #8 of 23
Ok so a few comments on what has been written so far,

First, from what I understand, cast iron is actually a terrible conductor of heat. That coupled with the fact that commercially sold cast iron cookware is generally very thick and heavy cause it to lose heat very slowly which is why it tends to sear better than most anything else. It's really all in the heft. HOWEVER, and I wish I could find the source for this but I believe it was in a random perusal of America's Test Kitchen, when cast iron skillets are employed on a stovetop, browning was found to be less even than other materials such as tri-ply or even non-stick. I imagine this will be disputed by some here, and again I can't cite the source but it would make sense given the fact that it's not a great conductor and stovetop burners are rather concentrated sources of heat. Consequently, it would follow that for a better, more even sear, you'd be wise to heat the CI pan in the oven on high for a good 30 min or so, then remove and sear on stovetop. Lastly, I believe the traditional way of cleaning CI skillets is to apply some course salt and run a bit of hot water and rub with paper towels.

For further reading on different materials' heat conductivity, check out this site Common Materials of Cookware - Equipment & Gear - Cooking For Engineers
post #9 of 23

I haven't read the artice you're citing to, so my response is solely to what you've written.

Cast iron ("CI" if you prefer) is not a particularly good conductor. As cooking materials go, it does make a decent heat bank. These properties are very much affected by mass -- and thickness in particular. Oddly, your analysis failed to address this.

Quaity CI cookware, which is to say heavy CI cookware, may be an inefficient conductor compared to aluminum or copper, but is suffiencienty efficient that a couple of minutes on the on the stove top is enough to preheat a pan to high heat, evenly. Half an hour in a hot oven is unnecessary.

Quality CI will heat more evenly than cheap stainless, which tends to be very spotty both as a consequence of its material properties and of its low weight. With cookware, quantity frequently trumps quality. That's why stainless with a copper washed bottom (like old fashioned Revere Ware) works no where near as well than a heavy aluminum cladding over stainless (like All Clad).

I have no idea what is meant by "even browning." But an attractive sear doesn't have much to do with it. A sear shouldn't be even, but variegated.

Stove top browning other than searing usually requires enough oil in the pan that the actual browning is more about immersion conduction than contact conduction. This usually breaks down into sauteing and pan frying. Cast iron is by no means the best material for sauteing. The pans are too heavy to handle properly. On the other hand, few things fry as well.

post #10 of 23

Even browning was perhaps a poor word selection - I meant even heating throughout the pan and in this particular study CI didn't hold up as well as clad stainless. The clad stainless in question was All-Clad so you're right, the cheaper, flimsier, thinner, lighter stuff would probably have even more stark hotspots on stovetop cooking. As for getting the pan hot on stovetop vs. oven, i hear your point - I guess the study is suggesting that when compared to higher quality stainless (read: All clad), CI just doesn't heat as evenly despite it's capacity to retain lots of heat.
Obviously, pan frying (or any immersion conduction technique) takes away the necessity for even pan heating as the liquid becomes the cooking conduit; and even cheap stainless will yield adequate results. I'm assuming we're all talking about old fashioned searing where the pan is doing the work, not oil or water.
post #11 of 23
All of which goes to support the notion that cast iron is not ideal for all jobs and nor is stainless, aluminum or non stick. Choosing the best tool in your arsenal for the job is what matters.
post #12 of 23
I have an antique Griswold cast iron frying pan that we use almost exclusively for venison steaks. I wouldnt cook venison steak in any other pan. I also have a cast iron dutch oven that is wonderful for soups and stews.

I love my cast iron pans.
post #13 of 23
Thread Starter 
Just PJ,
Are the cast iron dutch ovens only good for soups and stews? What else are they also better for?
post #14 of 23
Frying. Beyond that, sure, the big ones aren't good for a lot. But of course, if you eliminate soups, stews, and frying, there aren't all that many other things you'd use a large pot for.
post #15 of 23

It seems to me (and a lot of other people) that a really good cookset is going to have at least a couple or three quality, clad, stainless frying pans, and a couple or three quality, clad stainless sauce pans at its heart.

Setting aside the ultra-luxuries like copper clad, there are a number of very good clad lines -- the major distinctions between them seem to be handle comfort, looks and price.

A word about copper. All-Clad copper clad is looks only. The outer copper layer isn't thick enough to make any sort of performance difference. Even with the good stuff like Matfer and Franck, performance differences are tiny -- especially compared to price. That said, if you can afford it, you love it, you want it -- buy it.

It's not important whether or not you pick everything from the same set. If you want it to match, that's not wrong. I can't overemphasize that once you reach a certain level of quality, everything is pretty much alike. An All-Clad LTD of a given shape isn't going to do a better or worse job than a Calphalon Tri-Ply.

Quality in terms of multi-ply, stainless performance can be usefully defined by the thickness of the conductive layer -- whether it's aluminum or copper; and the feel of the pan in your hand.

Some pan handles can take a lot more heat and still feel comfortably, but I'm afraid I can't tell you much about that.

As to which clad stainless: I like the Vollrath clad line, but that probably reflects my own cooking background and kitchen aesthetic more than anythinhg else.

As you add to your sauce pan set, you'll want one or two pans with flared or rounded sides -- respectively, windsor pans and sauteuses aka "chef" pans. They're fabulous for reduction and whisking, which are major when it comes to sauce making.

Regarding pan alternatives -- which is where we came in: If your stainless cookware isn't best quality, I'd start with two skillets -- whichever sizes you use most frequently; and two sauce pans -- again, you're most frequent sizes. After that I'd add two or three carbon steel frying pans, and a 12" cast-iron chicken fryer. FWIW, a heavy, aluminum chicken fryer is a great alternative. You're just not going to use it for burgugnones, sauerbratens, etc.

You'll want to use carbon steel instead of stainless for eggs and pretty much all saute work So choose your sizes accordingly.

Quality carbon: Keep it simple. Vollrath or Matfer/Bourgeat (regular, not blue steel) -- not that there aren't others just as good, but there are some that are too lightly built to hold up. If you have a preference, make sure the side of the pan has the roll you want -- either rounded (aka Lyon) or flared. AFAIK Vollrath is flared only. Vollrath has a wider handle, more comfortable for smaller handles. Matfer/Bourgeat come with a couple of different arches -- not that you'll get a chance to pick. They're the same old skinny cast-iron handles the French have used forever -- like it or don't. My experience is that small hands don't like French handles, but large hands do. In other words, it's more a matter of strength than fit.

When it comes to cast iron -- Lodge or used. Lodge pre-seasoned and plain Lodge makes no never mind. Seasoning a cast iron pan is no big deal.

Another no-brainer is a largish, enamel over iron, oval casserole and a slightly smaller round one. La Creuset has the rep, but it's enormously overpriced. Lodge (the same Lodge who makes the regular cast iron) recently introduced some good quality, attractively priced, enamel over iron. There are some other alternatives. We can get into them when you're serious.

For large pots, look for inexpensive stainless with a disc bottom. Everyone should have a good small stock pot/steamer/spaghetti set. That's a large stainless pot, either clad or disc bottom, 10 quarts or larger, with a glass lid, a spaghetti strainer and a steamer insert. One of the things which makes one set better than another is how deep the spaghetti strainer extends. The closer to the bottom of the pot, the better (gives you more room to cook your noodles). Add a 16 quart (as big as it gets with a 12" diameter bottom) for those HUGE projects (tamales, clam bakes, beef stock) and you have a pretty good set.

post #16 of 23
Oh my no. The cast iron dutch oven is a highly versitile tool. since it is cast iron you can bake in it. I have used mine for pot roasts, chicken. You can also make desserts in it as well.

I would reccomend The Dutch Oven Cookbook: Recipes for the Best Pot in Your Kitchen Written By: Sharon Kramis & Julie Kramis Hearne that i recently reviewed for Cheftalk.com. Another suprisingly good cast iron book I have used in the past is The Scout's Outdoor Cookbook written by Christine and Tim Conners. This book is written for boyscouts and scout masters who use cast iron almost exclusively.

Hope this is somewhat helpful to you and be sure to check out the book review section of Cheftalk too.

post #17 of 23

How can you tell what the thickness of the conductive layer is? Do all brands disclose this? I was recently shopping around for a multiclad fry pan and just went with the heaviest and most comfortable figuring it's got the most aluminum. Wish I couldv'e known the thickness. And FWIW Tramontina makes alot of good quality triply pans for cheaper than anyone else, as well as some good enamel coated dutch oven for around same $ or less than Lodge. See Walmart's website.
post #18 of 23
>Frying. Beyond that, sure, the big ones aren't good for a lot.<

I beg to differ, Chris. If it's a real Dutch oven, that is, one with three legs and a recessed lid, than it's the most versatile cooking tool there is. There is no common cooking technique that can't be done in it.

Not saying it's the best for all purposes. But you can sear, pan fry, deep fry, braise, dry roast, and bake in a Dutch oven. You can simmer and poach and boil. You can..... well, you get the idea.

If it's not a true Dutch oven, then it's slightly less versatile because baking in a kettle can be awkward. But all the other techniques are doable.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
post #19 of 23

I would imagine that CHris wasn't trying to suggest that a Dutch oven would be incapable of doing those things but just that there's a pan or material out there that can do all those things better or easier. For instance, to properly saute, it's really best to have something slightly lighter with an extended handle - like a multiclad fry-pan. Again, the Dutch oven is capable of doing this but it's not ideal. I think you're approaching it as if you were on a desert island and could only have one pot/pan. If so, i would agree with you.

P.S. I realized I addressed you as KY to abbreviate. If u prefer I don't use those particular letters, no problem. :)
post #20 of 23
Don't know about all, but many do.

Makes sense to me.

You got there intuitively.

Whatever works. I don't really know Tramontina, they may well be "best for the money." Hard to compare prices though when so many things are on sale.

It's sort of important to know the type and guage of the stainless interior (and exterior if that's stainless). Not that you need to worry. National brands are fine.

But FYI, you're looking for an 18/8 or 18/10 interior -- that means it won't scratch too easily. An 18/0 or 18/2 exterior will work well for induction -- but will scratch. It's important to know because: It's a good rule to avoid any product which uses the term "surgical stainless steel" in its ad copy. Although it sounds meaningful, it's really an oblique measure to the amount of chrome in the mix which in turn relates to the steel's rust resistance. Rust proof ism't an issue in modern stainless cookware any more. They're trying to hose you. You see this particularly in "waterless" cookware and other "health" cookware. By and large the cookware is light guage stainless -- of lesser quality than you'd get with Farberware or Revereware. And by and large, the health or healthier claims are fake.

The core of my set is old Calphalon (original) anodized aluminum. If and when it ever wears out enough to need replacement, I'm thinking Vollrath. I doubt it's any better than Tramontina or other competitive multi-plys, but its got a great look. Industrial ugly with gator grip handles. Who could resist?

Again: whatever works. Actually, I think I first saw the Lodge enamel-over at Wal-Mart.

post #21 of 23
>P.S. I realized I addressed you as KY to abbreviate. If u prefer I don't use those particular letters, no problem.<

I'm easy, eediot. Y'all can call me anything 'cept late for supper. :D
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
post #22 of 23
Thread Starter 
What brands are best that are in stores now? All I see are Le Creuset, Cuisinart and some others. Is Le Creuset that much better than other brands in stores?
post #23 of 23
Lodge is the company that I have bought from before. You get a bit more bang for the buck with them i think , but go to Amazon.com on the link from the forum and search for cast iron and you will get a bunch of different makers.
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