Cooking on cast iron offers unique connection to the past

That heavy cast iron frying pan collecting dust in your cellar or the rusty skillet you picked up on a whim at a garage sale last spring may have a story to tell, but it may also be the perfect tool for your next meal.

Waterloo region cooks say their old skillets a reminder of their own histories

Cast iron frying pans not only have great history in Canada, but make the perfect cooking tool, according to Waterloo region chefs. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

That heavy cast iron frying pan collecting dust in your cellar or the rusted skillet you picked up on a whim at a garage sale last spring may have a story to tell, but it may also be the perfect tool for your next meal. After all, cast iron is great for cooking, in addition to having a rich culinary mythology.

Cast iron cooking equipment has grown in popularity over the last several years, with lines of products from waffle irons and muffin tins to weenie cookers and fluted cake pans.

Manufactured by historic companies such as what was once Wagner, founded in 1891 and Lodge Cast Iron, the pans possess a magic that entices both the professional and the home cook.
Cast iron cooking equipment has grown in popularity over the last several years, with lines of products from waffle irons and muffin tins to weenie cookers and fluted cake pans. (Matt Kruchak/CBC)

Pans with a past

"Whether you believe the folklore or not, there's something to be said about cooking in a pan that's been used hundreds of times and passed down through generations," said Aaron Clyne, executive chef at B Hospitality in Cambridge, Ont.

"There's a feeling you get reminiscing about an earlier meal or believing, as do other cultures, that every dish you cook
takes on the flavour and power of a previous one."

Canada was once home to a booming cast iron cookware manufacturing industry, but all that remains today are remnants of the past in the form of the pans themselves, some of them valuable antiques.   

"Canada made amazing cast iron cookware and has a rich history," according to cast-iron aficionado Terry Gronbeck-Jones.

"One of the most notable foundries in Canada, McClary, was headquartered in London."
Cast iron can be used for more than just searing meat. Go ahead and roast poultry, char root vegetables, fry an omelette or make cornbread. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

A new era of cast iron 

Today, Gronbeck-Jones cites Bristow Iron Works, near Bracebridge, as keeping the Canadian tradition of cast iron alive.

You can also find a treasure trove of information about cast iron cookware on the Facebook page Cast Iron Canada, which has more than 1,000 members, including Gronbeck-Jones. The page alone is a testament to the appeal  a battered old skillet still has.  
 
Both old and new, the pans and skillets are experiencing a Renaissance, according to Mark Kelly of Lodge. He calls it a "sea change in the marketplace."

His company sells in 52 countries around the world and in 2017 opened a new foundry.   

"In 2002, cast iron — including enameled cookware — was four per cent of the cookware marketplace in the U.S. Now it's 15 per cent," Kelly said. "In the past four years, we've increased our production capacity by 125 per cent."
Mark Kelly of Lodge Cast Iron says cast iron can be washed, you just have to make sure to dry the pan and season it well afterwards. (Julie Van Rosendaal)
  

Perfect for cooking

Properly treated and seasoned, cast iron pans, griddles and Dutch ovens are durable and versatile. They hold heat well and, treated properly, provide an excellent non-stick surface while at the same time adding flavour and texture.

At The Berlin in Kitchener, chef Ben Lillico uses cast iron for searing proteins that they can't do on their wood-fired hearth. 

"Cast iron helps maintain solid heat to get even browning on meats," Lillico said. "Seasoning the cast iron pan consistently will also help build flavor."

There really isn't anything that you can't cook in cast iron, although acidity can damage the coating you have built up.

Otherwise, go ahead and sear steaks, roast poultry, char root vegetables, fry an omelette or make corn bread.

Non-stick if seasoned 

The non-stick quality, when you introduce foods to the hot pan, comes from regular seasoning with vegetable oil. The repeated process builds a carbonized coating on the surface of the pan.

While the pans need to be well seasoned and very hot to be fully non-stick, they do not necessarily heat evenly, so make sure they are used on a burner large enough to heat the entire pan.

"It's pretty simple. When you buy the pan, wash it with warm water. Before you cook in it, rub a light amount of vegetable oil into it. Then clean it and once again rub it with oil and put it on the stove top or in the oven on low heat to allow the oil to seep in. More than anything, the key to having a great seasoned cast iron pan is to cook with it all the time," he said.  

It's non-stick and the sear is beautiful, as is the texture and the flavour from its consistent and long-lasting heat. 

They can be washed 

Kelly said the whole maintenance issue has been exaggerated.

Another misunderstanding is that you can't wash the pans with soap or use a metal utensil, lest you scrape off the coating. That's not true.

You can wash the pan in soapy warm water, just don't soak it. After you wash it, dry the pan thoroughly and re-season it right away. 

Mystical benefits

There is an allure and a magic — as Clyne noted — to cast iron cookery: a rustic, outdoors, and almost romantic quality that harkens to the frontier and connects us with the past, according to Kelly.  

"When I roast a chicken, I'm cooking with my granny," he says, referring to the skillet he inherited from his grandmother.

Those memories come back and they are culinary and family history. It's a permanence and legacy these pans
have."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story had the incorrect name for the group Cast Iron Canada.
    Feb 27, 2018 10:09 AM ET

About the Author

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.