The use of cast iron for cooking is a nearly global standard in any culture that has mastered the casting of iron. Durable, long-lasting and easy to make, cast iron has been surpassed in recent years by other lighter materials, but remains very popular with discerning cooks and those who enjoy the simple, traditional tools of our ancestors.
Because it is so tough, a well-cared-for piece of cast iron cookware can become a functional heirloom passed down through generations. However, even without considering the huge amounts of antique and vintage cast iron available to the consumer, there is plenty of current production cast iron cookware, and much of it mimics the patterns that have been popular in America for well over a century. It is generally held that a homesteader should have at least one quality piece of cast iron cookware, but we think there are five pieces every well-equipped homesteader should have.
1. The skillet
Cast iron skillets come in a great number of shapes and sizes. The number it is marked with basically corresponds to its internal diameter (i.e., a No. 8 skillet should be about 8 inches in diameter inside). The No. 8 skillet is about the most popular size out there and should serve as the workhorse of your cast iron collection. Ideally, you should have a glass or iron lid to match it. In a pinch, you can do most of your cooking in a good skillet, making it highly versatile. Other common sizes include the diminutive No. 3, which is ideal for cooking an egg or two, and the larger No. 10, which is great for cooking up a big mess of food. You’ll probably want a couple of different skillets that suit your unique needs.
2. The chicken fryer
A variation on the skillet theme is the so-called “chicken fryer,” which is nothing more than a regular No. 8 skillet made taller to accommodate the volume of oil needed to deep fry chicken on your stovetop.
Naturally fitted with a lid, this is a must-have item of cast iron cookware if you enjoy fried chicken or other deep-fried food. As a bonus, it is deep enough to cook soups, chili and stew, making it a very useful tool in the kitchen. However, these aren’t as easy to find as they used to be, so you may be forced to turn to the secondhand market.
3. Dutch ovens
Dutch ovens are nothing more than large cast iron pots with lids, and come in two forms: indoor and outdoor. We are probably all familiar with the outdoor ones fitted with legs and a deep lid that can hold coals, and these certainly are important. Their indoor cousins are just as useful, rounding out a kitchen with a rugged pot good for everything from deep frying to making stew. Commonly a stovetop Dutch oven will have a lid that fits a No. 8 skillet, making them a natural pairing.
Cast iron griddles come in all shapes and sizes, from long rectangular shaped ones to round ones with handles. The longer ones are commonly used across two burners on a stove, allowing for a cooking area and a warming area, while the round ones with handles are about perfect for cooking pancakes, tortillas and other flatbreads, or anything else you might cook on a griddle.
I find this pattern to be the one I use most, but your mileage may vary. If you can, you might as well get both, because like guns, nobody ever complained about having too much cast iron cookware!
5. Corn muffin pans
OK, so perhaps this is less a “must -have” and more a “really nice to have.” These charming little pans put out small loaves of cornbread-shaped-like ears of corn, and properly used, have a delightfully crispy exterior. A classic pan our grandparents or great grandparents would have used to put out delicious food that was a step above the usual cornbread, it’s not hard to find these pans even today. I like them because I like cornbread, and because I remember my own grandmother cooking with one. The cornbread they put out goes great with a simple bowl of beans or chili, and even makes a great snack or lunchbox item. Either way, they echo back to a time when food preparation was both simple and infused with great personal pride, and looked quaint on top of everything else.
U.S.-based companies like Lodge and the venerable Wagner crank out literally tons of cast iron cookware of all sorts for discerning consumers, and you are likely to find any sort of cookware you need from them. If you enjoy collecting antiques, there are hundreds and thousands of vintage styles of cookware and dedicated collector organizations. Some pieces are very affordable, and even cheaper than buying brand new, while others can be very expensive. Everything described in this article can be found without great expense. While nasty Teflon-coated aluminum skillets are cheap, and there is a lot to be said for some of the better grade stainless steel and glass cookware, at the end of the day, nothing is as classic, rugged and pleasant as a good piece of cast iron.
Do you agree? What would be on your list? Share your thoughts in the section below: