Caring for, and bringing back cast iron cookware
I can’t remember a time when cast iron pots didn’t dot the landscape of my life. Both of my parents were enthusiastic cooks and cast iron pots were their utensils of choice. I loved to watch a large Dutch oven of my mother’s vegetable soup simmer or my father’s short-order specials — gooey grilled cheese sandwiches, pancakes with bacon fried into the batter — sizzle in a skillet. Today, my cabinets are filled with every size imaginable cast iron pot, some more than 60 years old, making them vintage treasures.
The older a cast iron pot is, the better. Over the years, sauces, roux, and even mistakes seep into the pores of the pot’s surface, allowing flavors from the past add depth to the present fare. I can’t prove it scientifically, but I believe that foods cooked in a cast iron pot taste better and richer than those cooked in any other surface. No pot retains heat better or is more durable than cast iron. The health benefits are indisputable: food simmered in a cast iron pot has higher iron content than food that is cooked in other metals. Those are the upsides.
The downsides are that cast iron requires more care than stainless steel, aluminum or other surfaces. It takes patience and skill to remove built up gunk from cast iron, although I find the experience therapeutic. Some cooks use salt paste to gently scrub off unwanted residue. I use a fine steel wire brush and softly rub the area until it is smooth.
Lodge, founded in 1896, is the oldest and largest cast iron pot company in the country, according to Mark Kelly of Lodge Manufacturing Company. In the past five years, sales have doubled, thanks in part to the Cooking Channel, where chefs routinely cook in cast iron. In a bow to young, less patient cooks, Lodge now sells only “preseasoned” pots. As a cast iron purist, I find this appalling, but Lodge sales increased 40 percent once the company made this change in the product.
So, where can you find heavy, timeworn cast iron pots? If you’re lucky, as I was many years ago, an old family friend will discard a few. My first two — a two-quart saucier and a three-quart Dutch oven — were given to me by my Aunt Molly, who was throwing them away. The pots had decades of soups, stews and gumbo build-up, making them glisten with a rich black patina. I’ve bought some at estate sales and junk stores. I’ve even fished a few out of friends’ garbage cans. The uglier, rustier and more beat up the better. I love the process of bringing them back to life.
Old hardware stores like Clement’s and Harry’s Ace, both on Magazine Street, are great sources for new pots. “There is no qualitative difference between a Lodge pot purchased at a high end store like Williams-Sonoma and Lodge cookware bought at Wal-Mart,” says Kelly. “It’s the same metal chemistry and thickness.”
I’ve had friends call me with cast iron “emergencies” and a few scorched pots have been left on my doorstep with notes asking for help. One friend calls me “The Cast Iron Whisperer,” a title I cherish.
Recently, I was on the hunt for an umbrella stand to place outside my front door. While wandering through an antique store on Magazine Street, I spied a small, grungy item that could hold several umbrellas, although I was pretty sure that wasn’t its original use. It was heavy, with bits of rust and green dotting its surface. I knew it had to be cast iron, and my heart sang!
I brought the stand home, reverently scrubbed it down with a wire brush, and oiled it with a thin coat of mineral oil. Then I left it outside to bake in the sun. Lord only knows how old it is or what its original use was, but it’s heavy old cast iron, and that’s enough for me.
Lodge Manufacturing Company’s Tips for Cast Iron Care
After cooking, clean pot with a stiff nylon or steel brush and hot water. Rarely use soap or a harsh detergent or put a hot utensil into cold water. Thermal shock could cause the hot pot to crack or warp.
Stuck on food can also be removed by boiling water in the pot. When residue is loosened, remove, towel dry and apply a light coating of oil into pot.
Don’t let your pot air dry as this can promote rust.
Store in a cool, dry place or in your oven.
Never, ever wash your cast iron in the dishwasher.