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Cast Iron

15 January 2009


low tech writer

These essays are now also available in book form, printed on real paper


A number of years ago, we decided to buy a nice frying pan for our kitchen. We briefly considered nonstick (Teflon or whatever sciency coating is out there these days), but we simply had seen too many of them become un-coated with use. Was this our fault? Maybe. Maybe we weren’t careful enough with the dreaded metal tools. But the question is meaningless: we will never buy a coated pan again.

We decided to buy a stainless steel pan, serious and heavy, from some famous company whose name you’d know, but I can’t remember. It would be the kind of pan you keep forever, we told ourselves, to make ourselves feel better about the cost. We researched the options and ended up spending close to 150 dollars that Christmas on The Pan. We bought special pads (that wouldn’t scratch it … yes that is a problem with stainless steel: if you scratch it too much the rougher surface is harder to clean) and learned how to clean it with special powdery chemical stuff so that it would be pristine (again, so nothing would stick to it). It had carefully chosen layers of different materials in the thick base to transfer heat evenly. Sadly, Within a few months this impressive base had warped and the pan rocked on the stove-top. Since the handle was a long heavy piece of stainless steel itself, the pan always rocked in the direction of the handle. This made it really hard to cook sauces or fry things, as liquids pooled in the downhill third of the pan. We thought that maybe because it was designed as a “stove top” appliance, that it would be able to withstand stove-top heat. Our mistake.


The last two pots I’ve bought for our kitchen have been made of cast iron. The fry pan (above) that replaced the stainless Pan was 20 dollars at a camping store, and it will never warp. It’s about 10 years old now, and it will look the same in 40 (I know this because we recently inherited a 60 year old pan that looks even better than this one). How does it cook? So nice. I seasoned it by cooking oil onto the surface with lots of heat, and never looked back. If you could feel the surface of the pan, it feels almost exactly like a non-stick: not really greasy … dry … but slippery. And it really truly doesn’t stick: I can cook eggs on it, no problem.

I don’t really need water for cleaning and rarely use soap, although it can handle it. Normally, I put in a couple tablespoons of cheap salt, a dab of cooking oil, and use a paper towel to work it around. The salt acts as a nifty abrasive. Water comes in handy if we’ve cooked something with sugar in the sauce: it helps get the sticky out. And if something has stuck to it, I just hit it with the metal spatula to scrape it clean.

As you can see, our pan is not afraid of metal utensils. The only thing I worry about with our cast iron ware is breaking our cheap stove under the weight of it. This will be one more of those things that our kids fight over when we’re gone. The $150 pan will probably be given away.

This cast iron pan is the epitome of low tech perfection. One single piece of cast iron. Unbreakable, unbeatable, beautiful.