Food Snob Chronicles — Cast Iron: The original (and still the best) non-stick all-purpose cookware

So much for a mystery. Since you know where I’m going with this, I’ll get right to the bullet points.

Cast Iron Cookware does:

  • have better thermal capacity than most other cookware metals, including copper, aluminum and stainless steel;
  • conduct heat 5 times better than stainless steel;
  • have non-stick properties to that of the leading ‘non-stick’ cookware; and does
  • last forever (if properly cared for)

Cast Iron Cookware is also:

  • heavier than most other cookware;
  • not nearly as attractive as the stuff you bought at Bed, Bath & Beyond; and
  • subject to rust — for cooks who don’t exercise some routine

Debunking the myths
Cast Iron and hot spots — It’s true. Cast iron skillets do not disperse heat as evenly as their copper or aluminum counterparts. Why is this not really relevant? Because good cooks know their pans. Besides, the cheaper the cast iron, the more likely you are to have ‘hot spots.’ At least in my experience. (I’ve not experienced this phenomenon with Lodge brand — made in the USA.)

Soap — I don’t use it on my cast iron. I simply empty the pan, add some water and bring to a boil. This loosens the food particles and offers some sterilization (without chemicals, mind you). Wipe with a paper towel. Leave over a hot burner for a minute or two. Add a little oil. It’s as clean as the Paula Deen cookware that comes from your dishwasher. — Can you use soap? Sure. Just make sure to add a little oil to help re-season the pan.

Extra Iron in the diet? — It depends on the source. But, the most reliable sources (American Dietetic Association and Journal of Food Science, among others) claim that such is true. All this means to you, really, is that all of your cells will really appreciate you for the oxygen that you helped provide them. But, you also might want to keep a can of oil nearby, just in case your joints begin to rust like the Tin Man.

Tomatoes and cast iron don’t mix — I’ve heard this for years. While my cast iron skillet rarely sees acidic foods, my cast iron Dutch ovens have cooked many pots of chili, spaghetti sauce and lasagna — recipes with acidic ingredients. If anything, the acid helped add a little more iron to my diet. As for the Dutch oven? No noticeable effects whatsoever.

Seasoning & Re-seasoning
Have a new pan? If it’s not preseasoned from the factory (such as many pans are these days), turn on your oven to 350ºF. Rub a generous amount of vegetable oil all over the pan. Place in oven for about an hour. — Your house will be smoky, so open a window and turn on the exhaust fan. Let it cool in the oven. That’s it.

So, someone left your cast iron skillet in the sink with water? Well, after you smack them around a little for breaking a major cast iron rule, just use some steel wool to remove the rust. Dry the pan completely (a stove top burner works well); then follow the directions for seasoning.

Alternative seasoning method: I learned this method as a Boy Scout and it works like a dream (without a smoky house). Break in your new unseasoned cast iron skillet by deep-frying in it. Make sure you rub a little oil on the outside of the pan once you’re done cooking.

Cooking in cast iron
Learning to cook in cast iron is really no different from learning with any other pan. Get to know it. Understand that it doesn’t lose heat very quickly, unlike its shiny counterparts. Learn where the hot spots are (if you own a decent cast iron skillet — such as one made by Lodge — you might not even notice hot spots). Fry in it. Sear in it. Bake some cornbread or a pineapple upside down cake in it. Love it, because it will probably be around much longer than you are.

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Cast iron ain’t just for skillets! In fact, I own a handful of cast iron Dutch ovens for outdoor use. They are seasoned and treated in much the same way as the stuff you use on the stove top. But, they also have cast iron lids that might need a light coating of oil after cooking (since you use charcoal on the top and bottom of pan to ‘bake’ your meal).

If you’ve never tried this method of cooking, treat yourself to a 4-qt model — available at your local outdoor store for about $50 (for Lodge brand with legs and a handle). Also, get yourself a set of pliers for removing the hot lid after cooking.

There’s one thing you should never do with a cast iron Dutch oven: line it with aluminum foil. I’ve seen it done a million times and those people should be ashamed. It’s like going to a foreign country and eating at a McDonald’s … or casting pearls before swine.

The following recipe is one that really satisfies on a camping trip — and at home, as I realized a few weeks ago when our kitchen floor was jackhammered to replace a pipe below the foundation. It’s also really fun.

Dutch Oven Lasagna

Lasagna

Lasagna cooked over coals is comforting — and fun.

2 lbs — Ground beef, browned and drained
23 oz jar — Your favorite spaghetti/marinara sauce

3 cups — Shredded Mozzarella
2 cups — Ricotta
1/2 cup — Grated Parmesan
2 — Eggs
1 TB – Italian seasoning (or 1/2 TB each of dried Basil & Oregano)

14 oz can — Artichoke hearts, drained and quartered

1 cup — Water
8 oz — Sliced fresh mushrooms
2 cups — Fresh spinach

About 15 lasagna noodles (I use the oven ready, but it’s not necessary)

Start about 24 pieces of charcoal in a charcoal starter. In about 10 minutes, they’ll be ready to cook with.

Combine 2 cups Mozzarella, Ricotta, Parmesan, eggs and seasoning. Set aside. Combine ground beef and spaghetti sauce. Set aside.

Layer the bottom of the Dutch oven with lasagna noodles. Spread about one-fourth of the meat/sauce mixture over noodles. Spread about one-third of the cheese mixture over meat. Top with a handful of mushrooms, spinach and artichoke hearts. Repeat until you have three full layers. Finish the top layer with remaining meat/sauce mixture, spinach. Season with additional Italian seasoning, if desired. Pour water around the outer edge of the assembled lasagna.

Place lid on Dutch oven. Disperse 12 charcoal briquettes beneath the vessel. Scatter another 12 briquettes on the lid. Bake for about 45 minutes. Top with remaining cup of Mozzarella and bake for another 15 minutes.

Serves a family of 5, with enough for the neighbors.

Comments

  1. I love using my cast iron pan. I’ve had it for years and like you, I use it for everything from chili to steak and potatoes. Oh and onions…it’s the best for caramelizing onions. :)

  2. Amen and amen.

  3. The only thing I would be able to do with a cast iron skillet is whack an intruder over the head should one break into our home.

  4. I love my cast iron skillet. It turns out the best seared scallops ever. I appreciate all the information you’ve written, some things I knew and a couple I didn’t. I’ve never used soap on mine and screeched when I saw my husband doing so. At least now I know that it’s not doomsday.I buy the Lodge brand and every time I walk by the display am tempted to buy that Dutch oven. And why am I so leery that this charcoal trick works … even when I’ve read about placing half the coals on top in many other recipes. I must give it a try. And I’m loving this recipe with the artichoke hearts. And one last thing, I read that first comment… I’m still caramelizing onions in my non-stick … why haven’t I thought about getting out that cast iron?

    • Lea Ann – The charcoal method is anything but a ‘trick.’ It’s tried and true and is used by cast iron ‘clubs’ across the US. I grew up using that method to cook everything from biscuits to beer bread. I originally developed my pumpkin cobbler recipe for a cast iron Dutch oven. Please, please, please give it a try! (You’ll be glad you did!)

      Cast iron Dutch ovens aren’t for everyday cooking — not for me anyway. But, it really is fun to have 3-4 of them going with main dishes, sides and desserts.

  5. I use cast iron pans…and must have developed wrists worthy of a tennis ace over the years but they cook well and last for ever.

    My elderly neighbour in France showed me her cooking technique when she had to be working all morning: she put her stew ingredients into an earthenware pot with a concave lid, put the pot deep into the hot ashes on the hearth and piled more over the lid….so she could get out into the fields and still have lunch ready for the family.

  6. kingmidget says:

    Looks and sounds incredible. And I love our cast iron pans.

  7. The two best reasons for cast iron – they are super cheap and last forever! I’ve been using the same cast iron pans for 25 yrs and they’ve seen many anodized aluminum and nonstick “challengers” come and go. I do, however, prefer my copper for sauces and more intricate stuff..

  8. A fabulous post Adam, from start to finish. Some of my first uses of cast iron was boy scout camping trips…all of the tips presented here for use and care of the cookware is spot on. Admittedly I’d have not thought to use cast iron for lasagna, but now I’m inspired. Cheers!

  9. I am still using cast iron skillets (several sizes) that belonged to my great-grandmother. Those amazing pans started their life with her in 1910 – still perfectly black, perfectly seasoned, still perfectly performing. The secret is knowing how to treat them. I’ve done everything from fried chicken to a die-for skillet fudge pie, baking cornbread in the oven, and yes, once using one to whack an intruder. Cast iron skillets are so versatile and the iron you cook in is much better for you than wretched aluminum. My 35 year Cuisinart professional stainless steel cookware runs a distant second.

  10. Helpful, informative and yum! A new appreciation for my skillet.

  11. kentcooks says:

    The best review of cast iron cookware I’ve seen in years! And you’re right on the money regarding Lodge…if you’re gonna go cast iron, go Lodge. I’ve built my 14 piece collection of the years by watching yard sales. You’d be amazed at what the “I can’t be bothered” crowd will sell for a few dollars. Keep up the good work, Adam.

    • Thank you, Kent. And thank you for bringing up the whole garage sale angle. It’s true. There’s really no such thing as a ‘used’ cast iron skillet. Rather, it is seasoned.

  12. Adam, hands down I think cast iron is the best thing to use for cornbread. You being a Texas dude should know that!

  13. Debra Lindholm says:

    So glad to know that I actually can “smack them around” a bit after letting one of my pans soak! I have cast iron pans that were my great grandmothers…they are my absolute favorites.

  14. I have quite the cast iron collection, many of which are vintage and have soulful memories attached to them…I did a post on FB about cast iron and got >100 comments…have saved these for a blog post given the energy it created int he foodie community…when I write this blog, I’ll link your post to mine!! Great post…you’ve done all the technical and scientific work…I’ll add in some emotional/soulful words!! xo

    • Thank you, Ally. I’m not fortunate in that way — owning cast iron that belonged to someone from a bygone era. I suppose I’m the one getting the ball rolling. I just hope that someone wants the collection when it’s all said and done. — I look forward to reading about your memories. :-)

  15. First, that lasagna looks amazing! My stomach is growling. Second, I’ve only cooked with cast iron on occasion and loved it, so we recently bought our first pan for ourselves. It’s pre-seasoned and the surface is rather textured. It’s really not living up to my expectations, and food frequently sticks and burns. We just seasoned it ourselves, so hopefully that will improve it, but do you think it has something to do with the texture? I also received a couple of old cast iron pans from my dad since then, they need some TLC but I’ll try to clean them up and maybe I’ll have better luck with them.

    • If food is burning, the pan might be too hot. Cast iron holds heat like no other pan. Try lowering the heat just slightly. If you want to experiment with the pan, wait until your next loaf of bread starts to go stale. Spray some oil in the pan (oil — not Pam) and play around with toasting it. By the second slice, you’ll start seeing the real difference between the cast iron and the other stuff.

      Feel free to email me. I’d love to help you fall in love with your cast iron. Once you do, it’s an unconditional love.

      • Thanks for the tip on the heat – I did notice it cooks hotter, but maybe I still have the heat too high. I’ll play around with it some more. I’m not giving up yet!

  16. I have always thought they were too heavy too handle but I think I have changed my mind after your wonderful post. Can you use on really high heat? Or won’t i need to. Can I stick in my weber q? What do you recommend I buy first to give it a go? Thanks!

  17. Love, love, love my cast iron. I only have three, but they are my go to pans for anything I want to do, i.e. camping, broiler, oven, burners. I’ve been eyeing the Lodge enamelware dutch ovens for some time now. Just have to work it into the budget. :)

    • I confess: I once owned an entire set of Le Creuset enameled cast iron. (It was a gift.) I never could understand why they enameled it, except to rust-proof it. What is it about the enameled cast iron that attracts you to it?

      • Originally because it was the only ones that were cast iron and did not have legs. But a quick look at the Lodge page, I just realized that all this time I’ve been looking at what they call their Camp Dutch Ovens. With that simple question you have saved me some considerable money! So thank you. I do still think the enameled ones are pretty. :)

  18. Hold the presses! That’s how you clean cast iron? Well I’m going to try that. My husband is the cook around here and I clean up. He loves cooking in cast iron and I think its a pain in the a… to clean. Water to a boil loosens the stuck stuff, ok.

  19. I agree with you on the cast iron. I can tell you that dropping a cast iron dutch oven on bare toes is bad for your toes. The good thing is that the dutch oven holds up just fine.
    Fantastic lasagna & I love the addition of the artichoke – that’s great idea.

  20. I have 2 cast iron pans–One was my dad’s that he didn’t want any more, and the other belonged to my great-grandmother. I don’t use them nearly enough. There is nothing better than fried chicken cooked in cast iron, except maybe bacon. I’ve never tried the boiling water method to clean mine…I usually just scrub it under hot water. But I might give that a try–Seems a little less labor-intensive! :)

    • Fried chicken in cast iron is definitely heaven. Bacon is outstanding in cast iron — especially if it’s cooked outside. (There’s just something about bacon cooked outside that makes it better to me.)

  21. Joe Reaves says:

    We bought a cast iron set from the Lodge factory in South Pittsburgh, Tennessee about three or four years ago. It is my go to for any and all cooking with the exception of my Waffle House egg pans. I have one for regular eggs (over light/medium, scrambled etc) and a larger pan for omelets.

  22. I love everything about this one. I swear by my cast iron.

  23. I’m making this on our Fall camping trip! It looks amazing…..Thanks! :)

  24. If its used for all purpose then its really cool cookware.And by reading this at least i learn how to make Dutch Oven Lasagna and hope it also taste like yours mate:)

    Lodge Cast Iron Dutch Ovens

  25. Mary ann says:

    I have made this recipe while camping. It is wonderful. I mix the cheeses and egg at home before we go. Makes it quicker. Next time I will add Italian meatballs (quartered) instead in place of ground beef. Yumm both ways I’m sure

  26. Do you have to pre- cook the noodles?

    • adamjholland says:

      John — I use the oven-ready noodles, but I’ve also used regular uncooked noodles. No pre-cooking necessary. :-)

  27. Teresa Stebbins says:

    I’m fortunate enough to own my grandmother’s skillet which my mom used as well. They are a valuable family heirloom ! We also bought a big dutch oven that we cook soup in over a fire outdoors, hanging by a tripod. It’s a favorite of many of our friends, but I’ve never thought to try lasagna and can’t wait to give it a try!

  28. rtcowgirl says:

    Here’s a couple tips: I bought some galvanized dog pans that fit perfectly under the Dutch Oven. It keeps the feet from poking through the Denier cases I made for storage. Get an extra one to set your chimney in and one for under each pot. This lets you cook on a sidewalk or parking lot without making a mess. Coat pot with Olive Oil for storage, it doesn’t get stale so fast. Roll up a paper towel to place between the pot and the lid for a little air to get in. Love the recipes here, thank you!

    • adamjholland says:

      Thank you, Cowgirl! I like the idea of the large dog pans. Back in the days when I camped every other weekend, I used large galvanized sheets (they sort of looked like large baking sheets). I preferred them, as they were easier to store. Glad you stopped by! :-)

  29. Hi, great post with excellent info. Which size dutch oven did you use for your lasagne recipe?

    Cheers

  30. Soap should not be used when cleaning cast iron pans. RInsing it off and letting the water boil is enough.

    • adamjholland says:

      With typical cooking, no it shouldn’t. (And I rarely find the need to use it.) Still, soap doesn’t ruin cast iron. Glad you stopped by. :-)

  31. Question for you… do you season the INSIDE and the OUTSIDE of the pan and lid? Doesn’t veggie oil make it kind of sticky/tacky as it oxidizes a bit? I had one years ago (and I mean like… YEEEARS) ago but when they rusted…. I gifted them to my cousin who wanted them. I thought they were gonners…but now I’m sick to death of my Paula Deen skillets now having everything stick to them because the coating is coming off. :( I’m thinking I need both. I have to have something I can pick up on my own…. and I’m not exactly He-Man.

    • adamjholland says:

      Yes, April, I season everything inside and out — including handles. I’ve had a few instances where there was some tackiness on the outside of the pan, but it’s usually early in the pan’s life. My cast iron right now is as dry as can be on the outside. I added a little oil to the Dutch oven lid after I cooked last time, but there’s no tackiness. Have you considered carbon steel? It’s lighter than cast iron.

  32. Jeanette Prudt says:

    We make Dutch oven lasagna over coals like this recipe, with pouring boiling water around the edges. It cooks the noodles, and is so good some of our camp licked it clean !

    • adamjholland says:

      Sounds interesting, Jeanette. Can you explain that process? (How much water? When do you pour it in?) Thanks!

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