I consider myself a pretty practical woman — I generally don’t buy things that don’t serve a purpose and serve it well. However, I will be the first to admit, I am a fool for some cute kitchen gear.
It’s ridiculous I know, but there’s something about a robin’s egg blue mixer or a polka dotted casserole dish that makes my inner Suzie Homemaker squeal with delight. So when my husband said he never wanted us to buy enameled cookware again, I was irrationally disappointed.
Years ago, before I joined the die-hard world of cast iron addicts, I was baking pies in Paula Dean stoneware, whipping up sauces in vivid Rachel Ray pots — sure I love to cook, but I love it even more when the tools are cute.
However, my husband had been listening to Paul Wheaton’s permaculture podcasts, and was coming to the realization that a lot of those pretty pans and dishes were coated in not-so-pretty ingredients. Not only was there the notorious Teflon, but those patterned and coordinated pans were releasing trace amounts of nasty glazing and paint chemicals into our food and air every time we used them.
Though in the U.S., many yucky ingredients have been banned from use in cookware, the simple fact is that you don’t wind up with a purple polka-dotted casserole dish that can withstand 500 degrees Fahrenheit without some serious chemical engineering, and after giving it some thought, I decided I didn’t want that touching my food.
After doing some research on cast iron, we started collecting antique pieces, cleaning and seasoning them, and working them into our cooking rotation. New cast iron just doesn’t compare to the old stuff — it’s rough (from lack of use), and not well seasoned. Start scouring eBay for some beautiful antique cast iron instead.
It’s a bit of an adjustment at first, going from regular cookware to cast iron. This is cookware in its purest, most simple form, and therefore you have to pay a bit more attention to how you handle it.
For starters, you don’t really wash cast iron cookware. If you buy an old piece that has some buildup or rust on it, this is really the only time you do anything abrasive to it, but even then, you have to be pretty careful with the process. Because this is untreated iron, any water left on the cookware can cause it to rust.
Secondly, since cast iron doesn’t have Teflon or anything else on it to make it non stick, using this pan requires it to be seasoned to keep everything from baking onto it. What this means is that using oils, you just have to cook with it, over and over again, and only scrape and wipe it when you’re done. Those oils eventually create a smooth surface that is naturally non-stick, and allows you to simply scrape and wipe the pan when you’re done, rather than rubbing it with salt or some other manner of cleaning.
If you do decide to start using cast iron cookware, you’ll want to invest in a few solid, straight-edged metal spatulas for this reason. Not only are they sturdy, but that nice, straight edge makes for a handy tool for the occasional scraping you might have to do initially as you build up seasoning on your pans.
As far as oils go, there are a number of different schools of thought on which ones are the best to use with cast iron cooking, all with their pros and cons. Me personally? I say it depends on what your needs and values are. Here’s my quick rundown on the various oils you can use, and their pros and cons:
Bacon grease. Personally, this one is my go-to. Every morning my husband and I make a couple of strips of bacon, drain off the excess fat into a grease catcher, and then throw our eggs in the pan. This keeps the pan seasoned and makes us breakfast all at once, and we don’t have to use any oil to keep the pan happy. Bacon grease has a relatively high smoke point: 375 degrees.
Olive oil. Olive oil is readily available and has a pleasant flavor to it, but it’s an oil I’ve come to use less and less, for one simple reason: the smoke point. At anything above 320 degrees, olive oil releases volatile compounds and starts to break down. Since medium heat is about 300 degrees on a stovetop, the smoke point of this oil is just too low for my taste.
Safflower oil. I wish I could love safflower oil, but this one has a hopelessly low smoke point: just 225 degrees. It’s flavor is mild and well suited for various types of cooking, but it’s not good for much beyond a salad dressing or homemade mayo.
Grapeseed oil. This is another nice, mild-tasting oil, and one that I frequently buy in bulk — it’s my go-to choice for deep frying. With a smoke point of 420 degrees, grapeseed is much more stable than most other oils, and is usually pretty cheap, too. Here's the stuff I buy, Massimo Gusto.
Shortening. A lot of people really like using shortening, but I am just not crazy about the ingredients in it. Hydrogenated oils from corn and soy just don’t fall under ideal around here.
Coconut oil. I know coconut oil is lovely for a lot of reasons, but I hate that I have to scoop it out of the jar every time. I know, I’m lazy. Coconut oil’s smoke point is 350 degrees, so it’s not a terrible option, but I definitely prefer bacon grease when it comes to solid fats. This is a matter of preference as many people have success with coconut oil.
Palm oil. Palm oil has a nice high smoke point, sitting pretty at 450 degrees. It’s flavor is mild, and it’s reasonably priced, too. The only reason I don’t really use it is because of the issues with unsustainable harvesting going on right now. If you do decide to use palm oil, make sure you do a little research on who you’re buying it from, and whether it was grown and harvested responsibly — WWF has a guide on certified sustainable palm oil. Otherwise, the environmental consequences of the palm crop are too high to justify its use without being certain of the farmer’s practices.
Like most things in life, there are a dozen different ways to season, clean, and use cast iron cookware, but one thing’s for sure: With the proper conscientious care, this is cookware that will be around when your children’s children are cooking.
Not only is cast iron devoid of what we’ve lovingly come to refer to as “toxic gick,” it also leaches a notable amount of iron into your food as you cook with it. Unlike aluminum and copper, iron leaching is potentially a good thing. However, it is questionable whether these pans act as a tool and a dietary supplement, all at once, because the iron they impart on your food may be in a form that your body cannot use. The best advice is to use only well seasoned pots and pans.
It may seem like a stark change, but after a while, this became second nature to me. A little while later, we gave up our microwave, and our 10-inch Griswold skillet became our new way to heat up leftovers. And let’s face it: Is there anything that bacon grease doesn’t improve?
So yeah, I did it. I gave up my cute pots and pans in favor of these clunky behemoths. But you know what? Now, I walk past the colorful pots and pans at the store, and I give a wry smile. Oh Fiesta cookware, your vibrant seasonal colors have no power over me now.
Destiny Hagest is personal assistant to Paul Wheaton, founder of Permies.com and RichSoil.com, as well as a content curator and freelance writer. You can catch Destiny hanging out in the forums at Permies.com quite regularly, and visit her LinkedIn profile, and follow her on Twitter. Read all of Destiny's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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