Cast iron cookware, the Cooks Holy Grail

Back to basics, returning to the best.

I now own three complete sets of cookware. First is a conglomeration of non stick pots and pans. Second is my cherished Tramontina Stainless Steel cookware and third… is the holy grail of all cookware, my mixed set of Cast Iron.

The first two I could live without, the third I couldn’t. I called it a mixed set, here’s why. I show little allegiance to name brand. In fact, most of my cookware is so old that if it ever had a name, I’m sure by now the company is long out of business. Many of them are well over 100 years old. The reason I chose each one individually is due to the quality. Even new pots and pans have flaws in them. They may not show but if you look closely at the rim and see a slight difference in thickness, this is a flaw. It will not heat evenly. Now other metallic pans are stamped out or extruded or as in cast aluminum, made with steel dies that cannot deviate in size. They are theoretically perfect.

Cast iron pots and pans are made using a method ages old called sand casting. A box of oily black sand is used to make the pans impression in. Top and bottom.  They put the two halves together, then molten cast iron is poured into the cast box. Once the impression is filled, the box is broken in two and the sand, along with the freshly cast pan, is poured out. The sand is recovered and reused. The pot is then inspected for flaws of any sort and sent for further finishing. A reputable cast iron cookware company has much higher standards of quality than most imports. Those I stay away from, no matter the brand. Another I don’t cotton to are ones with an enamel finish. What’s the point of these? You’ll never obtain the taste of true cast iron cooking with enamel cookware.

So how do you know if a pans any good to buy? In this rare case, name brand does help. Be aware of specialty pans made for famous chefs or merchants. They are usually a cheap import or lesser quality line made by someone else. Think about this, what qualifications do Emeril, Paula Deen or any other celebrity chef have that qualifies them to have their name cast in cookware? None! So don’t get roped into buying some junk cookware because some celebrity stuck their name on it.  I have seen some horrible import cookware on the market with great looking packaging. Remember, you will not be using the beautiful looking packaging to cook with.

A few brands I actually give my two thumbs up on are these. The old, no longer made McClary’s, Older, Griswold and Wagner’s (the later two now owned and manufactured by the American Culinary Corporation. I recommend only the  pre-takeover Griswold’s and Wagoner’s since rumor has it the newer ones made by ACC are made in China and are of a lesser quality. Many of the older lids always had dimples on them for self basting. Lodge cookware (Probably the best made today and are made in America and are my #1 choice for new cast iron cookware), Then there is Browning ( very nice set, lids are excellent, made for the outdoors. Most likely an import but well made) GW Gear (these are OK but they come with a worthless wooden storage crate that many times arrive in pieces. Lids are good though and casting is acceptable, most likely an import)

Some I’d stay away from are. Bayou Classics (cheap import), Stansport ( Chinese import, casting marks and handles are questionable but the dutch oven seems good), Buffalo tools (Import, cheaply made) Most any famous chef brand and unfortunately even Cracker barrel. This is because they cast their name on the bottom causing uneven heating.

Things to know about cast iron cooking and care.

1-      Quality. Scaling is NOT normal. A properly cast and finished pan will not scale if pre seasoned correctly. Look for how well ground out the mold marks are. See if the lid fits snugly and look for thin spots on the rim. Don’t overlook the handle, it should be smooth, even in the hanger hole.

2-      Pre seasoning. Cast iron is the original non stick cookware. Once it is seasoned, nothing sticks to it. Follow the manufacturer’s directions if purchased new. Many are now being sold as “pre seasoned”, that’s all fine and good for the first time cooking, but continue to season the pan as if it were not pre seasoned. To season;  Wash pan in mild dish detergent and dry completely.

Pre heat your oven to 225 degrees. Then using lard, shortening or the least desired vegitable oil, lightly coat the entire pot, inside and out.

Place the pot in the heated oven for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, increase the oven temp to 500 degrees and bake for 45 minutes. Remove when finished and allow it to cool. When cool, the pot should not be sticky, if it is then either too much oil was used or time and temp were too low. Reheating at 500 degrees for another ½ hour should solve the problem. If the pot is an antique or rusty, clean it very well, even using steel wool and a mild detergent, then season twice in a row.

3-      Cleaning. Never, ever, place cast iron in the dishwasher to be cleaned. Only a mild quick cleaning followed by an immediate drying is ever needed. I know of many cooks that simply wipe out the pot with a damp towel then returned to the fire for 1 minute to dry. Re-season by simply wiping a fine layer oil on it. If heavy cleaning is needed then you should re-season it using the oven method. The secret to forming the non stick surface is to allow a build up on the interior of the pot or pan. By wiping with a damp towel and drying it afterward using heat, will begin the buildup. Some of my frying pans, to my best judgment, have never had anything done to them but a good wiping out. I said before, some of my cast iron cookware is over 100 years old! If scrubbing is needed, use a mild detergent and a nylon scrub brush, never metal chore boys or Brillo type pads. If you cook outdoors, you can simply heat the pan until the stuck residue burns into a char. Then just wipe out the char using the damp towel again. Cast iron can crack or warp so never place a hot pot or pan in cold water, let it cool first.

4-      Cooking tips. Before using, wipe a teaspoon of oil into the pan before pre heating. Then pre heat to warm it up before placing food in them. Never place frozen or very chilled food into cast iron, doing so will cause the food to stick and burn. Soups and watery foods do not require a preheated pot but still wipe a bit of oil in them first.

5-      About Dutch ovens and frying pans. When looking at frying pans, any over 12” should have an opposing handle of sorts opposite the long handle. It may be just a 1” cast nub or a formed loop handle, either works since you’ll never grab cast iron bare handed anyway. Use a lid lifter or pot holder in removing the lid. I am against using the leather gloves so many trail cooks use because leather will hold and transmit heat, causing severe burns. I opt for a heavy cotton or Kevlar cooking glove. Dutch ovens come in two styles, flat bottomed or with legs. Flat bottoms are made for stove top or oven cooking. They can be used over a campfire if they are fitted with the wire hanger handle and work well on electric stove tops.The lids fit as either a normal pot lid or come in the depressed lid style, either works well. Dutch ovens with legs are made for open fire cooking only and will not work on electric stove tops. To use, place the pot directly on top of a bed of coals, then heap coals on the lid, doing so acts to completely submerge the pot in heat. The lid has a depression made in for this purpose.

Cooking with cast iron sounds like a bit more work, but what you put into cooking is what you get back out. Some of my 100 year old pots and pans are still releasing flavor from cooks long gone up to the big Chuck wagon in the sky. Cast iron cookware rarely if ever changes and are for the most part, passed down from generation to generation.  While I do own other cookware, those will most likely never hang from my children’s pot racks, they’ll be sent off to Goodwill. My eldest son has already laid claim though to my cast iron cookware when I too start cooking at the Heavenly Chuck wagon.

44 comments on “Cast iron cookware, the Cooks Holy Grail

  1. Nice information from an expert. Great! 🙂

  2. Jennirific says:

    i love my cast iron, most of mine are lodge. This is a wealth of info that you’ve put together! thanks for the facts 🙂

  3. Jennirific says:

    Reblogged this on jennirific and commented:
    Great facts on cast iron cookware and how to choose the best product out there!

  4. bigsmileu1 says:

    I could not live without my cast iron pots and pans! I have family that snubs their noses at my choice of cookware, however, they just do not know how great it is to cook on cast iron. Thanks for the great post! 🙂

    • A pox on ’em Ma’am! Ha ha! When I was young, I purchased a brand new Teflon frying pan for my Mom as hers were all black and heavy…duh! Anyway, years later that teflon pan was uncovered after she passed. It still had the mfg sticker on the bottom. As they say, “Mothers know best.”

  5. Great tips! I need to wipe out and reseason my Lodge skillet and fry something up! 😉

  6. cowgirliz says:

    I got started with a small skillet from Ikea of all places. Not sure where it’s at now, wasn’t the best, but I learned how to really make grilled cheese sandwiches on it. I still use my stainless pots for a few things. Mainly though, cast iron is the way to go. I think they are way easier to maintain than ‘regular’ or would it be ‘modern’ cookware…
    Oh and two words. Bacon Grease. Makes everything tastier along with the cast iron.

    • I agree with the bacon grease! I actually filter it and store it in the fridge. I call it lard. It’s what I use to season my cast iron too. You just need the tiniest amount.

  7. rumpydog says:

    There’s nothing better than a big bowl of beans served with cornbread cooked in cast-iron. Mmmmmm……

  8. I dedicate my ramp post to you and your friends in WV 🙂

  9. tbnranch says:

    I use cast iron! My grandma taught me how to care for them, after reading this I’m happy to learn she was right! Great post!!!!

  10. Mr. V. says:

    Great informative post. Now I’m going to have to get a cast-iron skillet and put it to use.

    • I’ve been using cast iron for over 40 years and have never found a better cooking implement. My very very expensive Stainless steel set from Brazil is not as versatile. Just start with a 9″ skillet. It’ll grow on you. Nice thing is, if you read my cornbread recipe, you use the cast iron skillet in the oven.

      • Mr. V. says:

        I’ve never tried making cornbread in the past, but I’ve wanted to learn to make it on my own. Ha, maybe buying a cast iron skillet will give me the impetus to give it a shot. Love homemade cornbread!

        Speaking of cornbread, have you ever eaten cracklin’ bread?

      • I have made it but I found if it’s not under refrigeration it becomes rancid. Even my cornbread recipe has a shorter shelf life in it because of the kennel corn. Cracklin’ bread is an old southern favorite of mine. It’s a tasty treat if friends are over as it even goes well with chilli. I once brought a huge tray to a church social when I lkived in a tiny country town. The tray was empty in minutes!

  11. coastalcrone says:

    Interesting blog! I’ll be back to explore more. Love my cast iron!

  12. nails says:

    McClary drip top dutch oven – very rusted – should I use a wire wheel and brush to clean it – or spend hours with the steel wool?

    • I try not to use wire brushes but I said ‘try not to, not never’. It depends on how rusted. If its just bad surface rust, a steel wool kitchen scrubber like a chore-boy works well but if its really bad then you might be looking at starting from scratch. For those, I use Zud cleaner with a bit of water and steel wool (it has oxalic acid in it) and sometimes an electric palm sander or round wire wheel brush in my rechargeable drill. Normally harsh soaps should never be used and I still hesitate using them now but Zud scouring cleaner works on oxidized iron so I use it. A really deeply pitted pan will never season well so if its real real bad then it may never cook well again. Do what you have to do to get it pretty well back to normal, after all, at this point the pan is useless anyway. At this point the iron may be repaired but it will have a splotchy look to it, don’t fret, that’s normal. Over time the pan will re color itself again back to normal. Once you get it de-rusted and no scale is evident re-season it 3 times! The 3rd time the next day. Then, fry an egg in it. The egg should slide about freely. Good luck with your project, JW

  13. Deanna says:

    Hi there thanks for the great post. I work for a magazine publisher and we are devoting an upcoming issue to cast iron. I’m quite interested in the vintage photo that you have posted at the beginning of this post. Could you tell me where it originates from? Many thanks!

    • Dear Deanna, I’m sorry but I really have no idea of the origin of the photo you asked about. It was sent to me a long time ago by a fellow trail cook who thought I might like the set up in it. At that time I had a blog on Blogspot and he thought I could use it in one of my trail cooking post. It’s been in my saved photo album and I pulled it out to use it in this post. Unfortunately, my friend was in ill health even then and had to be admitted into a nursing home a while back. We stayed in touch now and then but I haven’t heard from him since last November now and my 2 emails to him have gone unanswered. I don’t know who to credit for the original, it may have been one he took himself . He was an avid trail cook and in his younger years was a cook on a cattle ranch in Wyoming. The photo may even be from the ranch he worked at or maybe it was just in his personal photo collection, he never said much about it other than he thought I might be interested in using it in my blog back then.

  14. Micha says:

    Grats to this great Blog.

    I´m totally fascinated lookin around here!!!

    • Sorry it took so long to reply and thank you for checking out my blog. Been kinda’ busy with movin’ and all. In a few weeks I’ll be all set up again and posting some nice old recipes I ran across. Till then, JW

      • Lorna says:

        Hi, really enjoy reading what you have to say (made pancake syrup this morning inspired by you, even the kids liked it). I use cast iron in the house and I’m now looking for a big camping pot. I fancy the lodge one but over here in the uk its extortionate. I’ve spotted a German one by petromax, have you come across them? Reviews seem few but good. I will end up buying a camp dutch oven but I was hoping to get one cheaper than £120 or so. Therefore I was looking to Europe for a pot. Any thoughts would be appreciated. Ps I’ll be looking out your corn bread recipe, I have one I like already but I’ll be trying yours too.

      • I’m not real familiar with modern European cast iron ware but can say that long before America had foundries, Europe was turning out some mighty fine and heavy cast ware. Maybe it would do to check out second hand stores for these older ones. I find that many newer ones are thinner, (less expensive to make) and don’t cook as well… that’s why I would never by one made in China.

        Check out

        It seems well made for 53pounds.
        Let mew know how your corn bread turns out 🙂 JW

  15. Paula says:

    Looking for some help and I think you might be just the guy. I have an old McClary Dutch Oven (someone found it and gave it to me) which is in need of a thorough cleaning…and I do mean thorough! Please, kind sir, can you help me with this? I want to be able to use it. Thanks!

  16. Bruce says:

    I like your blog and was curious if you knew the answer to these questions?
    I am looking at a No. 9 McClary Dutch oven but have noticed that the bottom is slightly warped. (I think) it rocks and spins sitting on a flat surface. I don t think this is supposed to do this so I was curious if I am correct about the warpage. Will this have any effect on the pot if it is being used mostly in an oven.

    • No the oven is warped. A McClary would have been destroyed and re-melted at the factory if it were not perfect. I assume it has no legs and is a flat surface model. I have found that ones without the peg legs do warp more often. Warping is caused by uneven heating. Whether it was placed directly (and empty) over a very hot fire or placed within the eye of a wood cook stove I can’t tell you. The bottoms warp outward when the bottom is quickly over heated, causing the cast iron to expand. Since the bottom circumference is held in place due to its circular shape the expansion has no where to go except outward, away from the circumference edge. In steel pans we call this effect, ‘oil canning’ but in cast iron its just plain old warping. It will not effect its use and is safe to use in an oven. Ovens normally don’t exceed 500 degrees whereas a campfire can reach 800 – 1000 degrees. big difference. The sizes of many cast iron pots and pans were designed to fit down inside of an ‘eye’ (the circular holes with removable lids on the heating surface of a wood cook stove). Many cast iron kettles actually have a lip just for this purpose. Remember, never quick cool a cast iron cook pot. It can crack or shatter. Good luck my friend and good cooking to you. JW

  17. Debra Smith says:

    I have a number 8 mcclary Dutch oven with lid . Where to advertise for a buyer.

    • Hello Debra! Probably the best place to sell your dutch oven is on ebay or craigs list. ebay would draw more folks but there is shipping and the cost to consider. craigs list on the other hand is pretty local so most folks would drive to pick it up. You didn’t mention whether or not you live in a rural area or city. City would make it easier to pick up. How much are you selling it for? Is there any other numbers or cast markings on the oven or lid to help determine its age? Does it have a flat bottom or feet? Is there dimples on the inside of the lid? Let me know, I may even buy it myself if its one I could use. Thank you for reading my blog 🙂 JW

  18. Hi,
    Thanks for the wealth of wisdom.
    I have just pre-seasoned my new Cast Iron cookpot (from Ray Mears here in the UK) the way you suggested.
    It came out of the oven non-stick(y), so thanks again.
    I will use it mostly hung from my home-made tripod when adventuring in my 1968 Land Rover Carawagon. And for making bread / cakes and burying in the fire embers when living in the woods.
    Yours in the pot,
    Stephen, from Lincolnshire UK.

    • Great to hear from you and your success with seasoning your new pot! I cook every breakfast using a very old Griswald frying pan. It is so seasoned that it shines like a mirror. I have not heavily scrubbed it for at least 20 years now. I only use a washcloth with light soap if needed but for the most part I just wipe it out with a paper towel. Have fun in your adventures my friend!

      • Thanks for the further advice, kind sir. All is quietly locked away until required, if memory allows at my age. I ask each piece of kit to do as many jobs as possible when outdoors, so I hope that my pot will eventually shine like yours and double up as a mirror – for combing my beard 😉

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