Cast Iron Myths


Introduction
There are thousands of sites on the internet with information about cast iron. Many of them contain good information, many of them don't. And then there are the Facebook groups. Oh, Lordy! Just like there are Facebook Lawyers and Doctors and Immunologists, there are Facebook Cast Iron experts. While we do not claim to be experts in cooking, collecting, or identifying cast iron, we do have some experience with using and seasoning cast iron pans and have read much information about using cast iron. So we present here a list of common myths based upon our experience and "research."

The best way to season cast iron is <fill in the blank>: There is no best way to season cast iron. The best way is whatever works for you. For what it's worth here is how we season our cast iron: How To Season Cast Iron.

When seasoning your cast iron, you must place your pan in the oven upside down: No, you don't. This is supposedly necessary because if you don't, your seasoning oil will pool in the bottom of the cookware. If your seasoning oil will pool in the bottom of your pan, you are using way too much oil.

When seasoning your cast iron you must place foil in the bottom of your oven to catch drips: Again, no you don't. If there is the slightest possibility of your seasoning oil dripping from your cookware, you are using way too much oil.

The best oil for seasoning cast iron is flax seed oil: This myth arises from the fact that it has a low smoke point and polymerizes more quickly. However, it is expensive, it smells, and it produces a brittle layer of seasoning that can eventually flake off. We would recommend you avoid this fad.

Seasoning cast iron in the kitchen will produce clouds of smoke: Not if you do it correctly. We have never smoked up our kitchen while seasoning our 14 heirloom skillets.

Proper seasoning is thick and black and shiny: Not really. If your pan is properly seasoned, you won't be able to even see the seasoning other than the seasoning will obviously change the color of the pan. Thick layers of seasoning are prone to chipping or flaking. You want a thin layer of seasoning that is molecularly bonded to the cast iron. Here's what our perfectly seasoned #8 Griswold skillet looks like:


Cast iron heats really evenly: This myth probably arises from the belief that cast iron holds a lot of heat, and therefore the heat must be distributed evenly across the pan. But no, cast iron does not heat evenly. This is because heat travels slowly in cast iron. In other words, cast iron is not a good conductor of heat. This allows spots over the flame to get really hot before the heat travels to other spots that are not over the flame. If you want even heating, you need to place your cast iron pan in the oven so the whole pan heats.

Cast iron holds more heat than other metal pans: Well, yes and no. A cast iron pan will indeed hold more heat than a comparable aluminum pan, but that is because cast iron pans are made heavier than aluminum pans in order to give them more strength. Cast iron is brittle and can break. As far as the amount of heat cast iron can hold, the specific heat of cast iron (a measure of the amount of heat it can hold) is actually about half that of aluminum, meaning a pound of aluminum will hold twice as much heat as a pound of cast iron. Cast iron pans hold more heat because they are much heavier than aluminum pans.

Cast iron is as non-stick as a non-stick pan: Your cast iron pan may be seasoned to perfection and really non-stick, so non-stick that you can make an omelet in it or fry an egg with no problem. But it is still not anywhere near as non-stick as Teflon, a material so non-stick that scientists had to develop new technologies just to get it to bond to the cooking surface of a pan. Yes, your pan is really non-stick, but can you dump a load of cold eggs into your pan, slowly heat it up with no oil, then slide those cooked eggs right back out without a spot left behind? We thought not. You can do that in a Teflon pan. So just make sure your cast iron pan is well seasoned and that you pre-heat it well before adding any food, and you should have no problems whatsoever with sticking. But no, it isn't as non-stick as pans with non-stick coatings.

Never wash cast iron pans with soap: Another nope! In the old days when soaps contained lye, this was indeed true. Lye will destroy the seasoning on a cast iron pan. Easy-Off Oven Cleaner contains lye, for example. When cast iron collectors restore pans covered with decades of unspeakable crud, they use lye. But today's soaps and dishwashing liquids do not contain lye or any other chemical which will attack the seasoning of your pan. Don't put your pan in the dishwasher and don't soak it for hours in soapy water, but feel free to use a little soap to clean your pans if necessary.

Don't use metal utensils on your cast iron or you'll ruin the seasoning: It's fine to use metal utensils as long as you don't deliberately try to gouge the surface of your pan. The seasoning layer on your cast iron is chemically bonded to the iron and won't simply scrape off.

Modern cast iron is just as good or better than antique: This myth stems from the fact that the iron used today is the same as the iron used 100 years ago, so today's pans must be just as good as antique pans. While it is true that iron has remained the same, the method used to make cast iron pans has changed resulting in slightly inferior pans being produced today. Both antique and modern pans are made using a sand mold that produces a pan with a pebbly surface. However, antique pans were machined and polished to a smooth surface that produced a decidedly superior product. Also, antique cast iron pans were generally lighter than today's pans.

While many fans of the current pebbly pans claim that the rough surface is actually superior to the smooth polished surface you find on antique pans, these claims just don't hold up under close scrutiny. Claims that the pebbly surface is easier to season and more non-stick are just not true. Claims that the pebbly surface sears a piece of meat better are also simply not true. The only area where a modern heavier pebbly-surfaced pan might be better is in that being heavier, they can retain heat longer. For our money, however, the antique pans are far more desirable than a present day Lodge skillet, for example.

That said however, a number of present-day companies have been producing cast iron pans with smooth polished surfaces. The Field Company, Smithey Ironware Company, Butterpat Industries and Stargazer Cast Iron come to mind. Of these modern pans, we have only used pans from The Field Company. They are indeed a worthy successor to the antique pans, although they are heavier and typically more expensive than many antique pans you can find on eBay. Antique cast iron pans are collectible so the price of any given pan depends on its age, condition, rarity and desirability among collectors. However, you can easily find antique cast iron pans in great condition and at far lower prices than the modern pans.

Antique cast iron used better iron than modern cast iron: Nope. As we explained in the previous myth, the iron is the same. The difference stems from how the iron was turned into a pan.

Antique cast iron was rough just like modern pans. Wear over time made them smooth: We're not sure where this myth came from, but clearly this is false. Essentially, the myth claims that the antique pans were sold with a pebbly finish, but over the years, wear from using metal utentsils and years of seasoning made them smooth. But it's easy to debunk this myth. First, you can still find unused antique cast iron pans with their original labels still attached. These pans are smooth. Second, you can also find antique cast iron pans that still have the swirl marks from the original machining process.

Antique and modern cast iron pans use the same process of using sand molds as the initial step. And both antique and modern pans come out of the molds with a rough pebbly surface. However, antique pans underwent a second process after the pans were broken out of the molds, they were machined to a very smooth surface. Modern pans omit this second process and thus end up with that rough pebbly surface.

Never cook acidic foods in cast iron pans: Here's another "well, yes and no" myth. So, maybe it isn't really a myth. However, in moderation you can certainly cook acidic foods in cast iron pans if they are well seasoned. The seasoning keeps the acid from interacting with the iron. However, you might be able to taste metallic flavors in tomato sauce after it has simmered for 30 minutes. So, while you can definitely cook with acidic ingredients in your cast-iron skillet, you have to be careful. An acidic food can have a brief stay in a well-seasoned pan with no dire consequences. You should also be careful to remove acidic foods from the skillet after they finish cooking; donít let them sit too long in the warm skillet. (And of course, none of this applies to enameled cast-iron skillets like LeCreuset; the enameled coating makes it safe to cook acidic ingredients for any length of time.)

You can't use cast iron on electric/induction/glass top stoves: Wrong, wrong and wrong. Cast iron pans will take longer to heat up on electric stoves and you should exercise care if you have a glass top stove to prevent scratching, but yes you can use your cast iron pans on all of these surfaces.

The seasoning on a cast iron pan can affect the flavor of your food: This is false. The seasoning is a relatively inert layer of polymerized oil. It won't dissolve or break down during cooking and impart any flavor to your food. And as long as you clean your cast iron pan and get all the food off so that nothing remains except the seasoning, your pan won't cause flavor to carry over from one cooking session to another.

Cast iron is unbreakable: Another nope. While it is heavy and durable, as a metal, cast iron is brittle. Drop it on a concrete sidewalk and you may very well break it in two. The cast iron groups on Facebook are littered with pictures of cast iron pans broken in shipping because the shipper failed to pad the item sufficiently.

Cast iron will provide you with dietary iron: Let's just put this one to rest. It's pretty simple. The seasoning on the surface of a cast iron pan will prevent food from coming into contact with any iron. No dietary iron will make its way into your food.

Cast iron is porous: This myth claims that cast iron somehow acquires voids when it cools because they don't add the molten cast iron fast enough. Say what? Cast iron, properly manufactured isnít porous. Cast iron pans are made from grey cast iron which contains flake graphite. In a machined surface, the flakes at the surface are damaged by the cutting tool and this results in very small microscopic voids which intersect the surface. These voids are only "skin deep" and get filled when you season the pan.

The best way to clean cast iron is <fill in the blank>: There is no best way to clean cast iron. The best way is whatever works for you. You can do a quick soak and wipe. You can do a quick wash with soap followed by a thorough rinse and wipe. You can use kosher salt as an abrasive to deal with tough stuck-on food. You can use a chain mail scrubber to also deal with tough stuck-on food. Whatever does the job without damaging your seasoning is the best method.

The best way to restore a nasty cast iron pan is to throw it into a campfire: This myth says that if you have a really nasty pan that you can't clean using convential methods (or if you are too lazy to use conventional methods), you should throw it into a camp fire and burn it all off. While this might indeed clean the crud off the pan, you are taking a significant risk of cracking or even breaking your pan. We would only use this method if we were ready to throw the pan away and decided to give it one last chance. Even then we wouldn't do this. A couple of days soaking in oven cleaner inside a garbage bag is just as likely to clean the pan.


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