Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
When I was in my 20s, I thought Teflon was the coolest thing. You could fry an egg on a Teflon pan and it was like it wasn't even touching the surface. It was SCIENCE!
Then someone told me I was supposed to throw out a Teflon pan when it got scratched or else terrible things would happen to me. With the way I cook, all my pans had scratches. This was an impossible quest — and limp-wristed cooking with a little nylon spatula is about as appealing to me as watching Univision cover the Guatemalan amateur curling championships. I also discovered that aluminum was linked to Alzheimer's, so even if the Teflon didn't kill me, I figured the aluminum beneath it was bad for some... reason... I... can't... remember.
With a heavy heart, I ditched my Teflon and got some good stainless pans. They scorched food at first, but I got pretty good at pre-oiling the pan and being careful to watch the heat.
Then at some point 10-15 years ago, a friend re-introduced me to cast iron cookware. I say "re-introduced" because when I was a kid we had a couple of my great-grandmother's (I believe) old cast iron pans that ended up relegated to the carport, rusting away. My mom had never learned how to cook on them or care for them. They were heavy and all the food stuck to them, so they got kicked out of the kitchen. Sadly, they were long-gone by the time I learned from my friend how to really use cast iron.
The key to being happy with cast iron is keeping it well-seasoned. Seasoning is a process of heat-bonding oil into the pan so it maintains a glossy black surface. The pans I use now are so slick they're almost Teflon-esque — however, unlike Teflon, they're not going to off-gas toxic fumes if they go over 500 degrees or give me horrible diseases if they get scratched. I can even use my favorite steel spatula without worrying that I'll scratch anything.
Plus, unlike Teflon pans, cast iron pans will often last for generations. Most of my pans were purchased from antique stores and have the unmistakable glint of vintage American craftsmanship from the mirror-smooth cooking surface to the well-crafted handles. There's something wonderful about using a tool that's stood the test of time and still works wonderfully.
Beyond their durability and lack of potentially toxic ingredients, cast iron pans also add some iron to your diet every time you cook. Hard to beat that. Cast iron holds heat, too, meaning that I can heat a pan up, cook a meal, then bring it to the table on the pan and it will stay warm for some time.
Unlike more finicky cookware, cast iron also works great for camping and off-grid uses. I've cooked with them over my rocket stoves, over open fires and even over a slick Silverfire TLUD stove. I picked up last year in case of hurricanes or a grid-down catastrophe that takes out the electrical grid.
I would say the reason most folks fail at first is their lack of familiarity with maintaining cast iron. It first requires a good seasoning. Here's my video on seasoning cast iron the SIMPLE way.
Once you season, you just need to make sure you don't strip the seasoning off with harsh detergents or excessive scrubbing. Note: some modern manufacturers, such as Lodge, don't polish their pans to the high level you'll find on older pans, so you'll often have more trouble keeping food from sticking until they break in. You can even sand them down if you like, then season them. After seasoning and years of use, even my newer Lodge cast iron frying pan is so slick now that I can fry eggs and have them almost float over the surface like they did on my old evil Teflon death pans. That said, if you start with a well-treated antique pan, you'll have that level of cooking nirvana almost instantly. I simply wipe out my pans after cooking and hang them back up and they stay seasoned indefinitely.
Though I make soup and stock in stainless steel pots, I use cast iron for all of my frying and some of our baking. A homemade pizza is marvelous on cast iron—and bacon and eggs work like a charm on a well-seasoned pan. Bonus: cast iron pans make a great close-range weapon. Once you make the switch to cast iron, you won't go back. Like common sense, sound money and a low obesity rate, some things never should have gone out of style.
David Goodman (AKA David The Good) is a garden writer and author of Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting and Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening as well as three other books. Sign up for David's Survival Gardening Newsletter at The Survival Gardener for a free copy of his Top Ten Survival Crops comic book. Read all of David's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.