By Bob Benenson
Some men were born to battle. Some were born to run. I, apparently, was born to be a home cook. And these days, I do almost all of my cooking with a mighty arsenal of cast-iron cookware. So much so that I have a superhero alter ego: Cast Iron Man.
Like many people who become obsessed with meal preparation as adults, I initially picked up my food jones at a very tender age. My stay-at-home mother was a good and prolific cook. As I grew up in New York City and nearby Yonkers, I was often by her side, tagging along to the grocery store and then watching her produce vast quantities of food for our small family in a windowless apartment kitchen.
Because that kitchen had barely enough counter space for one, I didn’t start cooking for myself until my first year living off-campus at Michigan State University. I only got serious about it when I moved to Washington, DC, in 1981. By the time I got married, and now 34 years later, my wife Barb has happily allowed me to pursue this most practical of hobbies.
My affinity for cast-iron cookware took some time to develop. The pieces were big and heavy, which made storage an issue in the tiny apartment kitchens to which I was long consigned. It needed to be kept “seasoned” with frequent coatings of vegetable oil to keep food from sticking to it and prevent rust. Because strong detergent can ruin that seasoning, clean-up requires a little extra elbow grease. Never put cast-iron cookware in a dishwasher.
But I also came to admire the qualities that make many people swear by these sturdy black pots and pans. Cast iron is an amazing heat conductor, which makes it perfect for the “keep it simple” cooking I prefer: well-seasoned meat and vegetables, seared or roasted, or sautéed to brown and seal in juices, then finished at a lower temperature.
There’s a good reason why cast iron is most associated with the term “indoor grilling.” Nothing produces cookout results on the stovetop or in the oven like this material.
I do an almost ridiculous amount of cooking on most weekends. On an average Saturday or Sunday, I’m loading up pans with well-seasoned chicken thighs and roasting them at 425°F for 12-1/2 minutes on each side, then at 325°F for 7-1/2 minutes on each side, finishing skin side up. Usually the skin is brown and crispy enough; if not, they sit under the broiler for a few minutes.
I also love vegetables, especially roasted. Asparagus is usually the first local vegetable that hits the farmers markets in early May. Put the stalks in a cast-iron pan, splash with a little oil, salt and pepper, maybe some garlic and onion powder. Roast them at 400°F for about 20 minutes, and they come out brown and crispy.
The tipping point for my complete conversion to cast iron was our move to Chicago in 2011. Our apartment kitchen is well-ventilated enough that high temperature stovetop cooking won’t automatically set off the smoke alarm and is considerably larger than my previous kitchens.
I’d already amassed a small cast-iron collection made up of a 10-inch skillet, a grill pan of the same size, and a 5-inch skillet. During the 2011 holiday season, I expanded my stockpile with a two-burner griddle that is a grill on one side and flat on the other, and a deep 12-inch skillet.
I’ve since added several more pieces, most recently a cast-iron bread pan, although most of my bread baking involves no-knead rustic loaves — from recipes perfected by Jim Lahey of New York City’s Sullivan Street Bakery — in my lidded cast-iron Dutch oven. Hardly a day goes by now when I do not use one and often more of these pieces for almost everything.
I keep some stainless steel pieces at hand for a few things, mainly cooking acidic foods such as tomatoes, to which cast iron can impart a metallic taste, and rice.
The cult of cast iron has grown rapidly in recent years. The latest statistics from the Cookware Manufacturers Association show there were $236 million in industry shipments of cast-iron cookware and its cousin, porcelain-coated steel, in 2015. That was nearly four times greater than the $60 million in 2006 and more than double the $110 million in shipments in 2011. Yet even with all the ensuing growth, cast-iron and enameled cookware still amounted to only 13 percent of total industry shipments.
It’s the only kind of cookware that is so heavy that you could include it in your power-lifting routine. There’s even a hint of danger: Almost all cast-iron equipment has uninsulated handles that command use of industrial-strength hot pads to keep from accidentally branding yourself for life.
Many people prefer the convenience of cookware with non-stick coatings (though well-seasoned cast iron becomes virtually non-stick with use). You can find cheaper cookware, though this can be a false savings because cast iron wears like, you guessed it, cast iron, and most popular commercial brands, such as Lodge (maker of almost every piece I own) are very affordable. Well cared for, a cast-iron pan can last the rest of your life and beyond.
Not sure cast iron is for you? Start small, (the smallest item I have is six inches in diameter and feather-light compared to the bigger pieces), and test drive it. Cast iron cookware is easy to find, as nearly every department or home store, specialty retail site or e-commerce retail site carries it.
You may decide it’s too high-maintenance or heavy-lifting. All I can tell you is that my cooking skills took a giant leap forward since I became Cast Iron Man, and my wife seems to agree.
Photo Credit: Bob Benenson
Bob Benenson is communications manager for FamilyFarmed, a Chicago nonprofit that helps farmers and food producers succeed by connecting them with buyers, sellers, investors and consumers. Bob is a resident foodie, accomplished photographer and former longtime political journalist.