Cast iron cookware fell out of favor in the 1970s. Automatic dishwashers, relatively new at that time, were unkind to cast iron and did better with the new “nonstick” pots and pans. At the same time, there were concerns about the energy efficiency of cast iron, which had to heat up before you could start cooking, and the effects of all the oil you would use when frying on cast iron. Now cast iron seems to be making a comeback. Some vintage cast iron pieces especially from the 1880s and 1890s are going for around $100 online. Meanwhile, less expensive but perfectly serviceable new cast iron pots and pans can be found at outlets such as QVC and Target.
TV chefs and nutritionists seem to be at the center of the cast-iron comeback. Some TV chefs have called for heavier use of cooking oil, the way it was done half a century ago, and that makes cast iron cooking easier. The circular cast iron griddle in my kitchen bears the name of a popular TV chef.
Some nutritionists are recommending cast iron cooking for people who are deficient in iron. Iron deficiency, they say, is a growing trend among adult women, though it remains rare among men. Traces of cast iron make their way from the cookware to the food, enough to make a difference, but in amounts so tiny that they are easily absorved — in contrast with food supplements, where most of the iron in the tablet goes to waste.
Another part of cast iron’s appeal is its durability. The latest nonstick pans can be destroyed in seconds if misused, but cast iron is likely to last for centuries even if you don’t use it perfectly — though it helps if you don’t leave it soaking in the sink for a day at a time. In an era when many people don’t own anything that’s designed to last a lifetime, cast iron provides a connection to the ages. A local dealer in old housewares says that he saw old-style cast iron cookware become a Christmas gift item for the first time last Christmas, with his stock completely cleaned out by Christmas Eve.
The durability of cast iron ensures that it will never be a big item in the stores. Once you buy a cast iron skillet, you may never need to buy a second one. But those nonstick pans? Despite advances in materials, they will still wear out and need to be replaced in a decade or less. The short replacement cycle for nonstick coatings ensures that stores will always feature those items first.
There are four essential tips on cast iron cooking for those who have never seen it done. First and most important, you may need an oven mitt to protect your hand when you pick up the pan. A new pan has to be “seasoned” before use: apply heavy cooking oil, such as coconut oil, heat up the pan to a cooking temperature, cool it down, and wipe it off. Cast iron rusts, so don’t put the pan in water (or the dishwasher) to wash it. And finally, don’t forget, cast iron pans are heavier, so they take several minutes to heat up.