Buying a Cast-Iron Pan Is the Easiest Way to Improve Your Cooking

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iStock

You can stock your kitchen with every type of modern slicer, dicer, and immersion circulator you want, but the piece of cooking equipment that comes most highly recommended by chefs has been around for centuries: the cast-iron skillet. Like the name suggests, this essential cooking tool is molded from molten iron and coated with a protective seasoning. The result is a durable, versatile piece of cookware that’s perfect for making everything from dump cakes to sunny-side up eggs.

If you’re used to steel or aluminum frying pans, cooking with cast-iron may sound intimidating. But don’t let horror stories of skillets tarnished by dishwashers or a few hours in the sink turn you off: The metal does require some special knowledge to maintain, but what you get in return is well worth the effort. “You can cook practically anything with it,” Dominique DeVito, author of The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook, tells Mental Floss. “It’s definitely a kitchen staple.”

So what is it exactly about cast-iron that entitles it to a spot on your stovetop? Here are some points to consider.

DURABILITY

Iron is prized by engineers for its high-tensile strength, so you can bet it will hold up to whatever you throw at in the kitchen. But the metal does have one crucial weakness home cooks need to be aware of: water. Iron combines easily with oxygen, which is how you get iron oxide or rust. When iron is exposed to water, that liquid mixes with gases in the air to create a weak carbonic acid. The acid corrodes the iron, and the oxygen in the water bonds with the newly dissolved iron and forms iron oxide. While it won’t necessarily poison you, rust isn’t something you want flavoring your dinner.

Fortunately, keeping your skillet rust-free is easy to do. All cast-iron pans need to be seasoned before they’re ready to hit the stove. To season a pan, you can coat it with a thin layer of neutral fat like vegetable oil and heat in the oven. During the frontier days, DIY seasoning was the only option for cast-iron owners, but today most pans come pre-seasoned.

The difference between an unreliable skillet and one that’s built to last usually comes down to the quality of the seasoning. DeVito recommends cast-iron products from Lodge, which has been making cookware in the U.S. since 1896. “They put out a nice finished product that’s consistent and smooth,” she says. “It becomes something that you have an expectation about. I know that every time I go to my Lodge, it’s going to perform.”

But even well-seasoned cast-iron benefits from a little extra care from time to time. Before re-seasoning a skillet, DeVito suggests wiping it clean of any grease or caked-on food that’s left over from whatever you cooked last. Instead of scrubbing it with a soapy sponge, she washes her pan with hot water and a brush. Tough plastic works well for this, as well as chain-link metal that you can use like a hand towel to wipe down the pan. After she cleans it, DeVito likes to dry her cast-iron by placing it over low heat on her gas stovetop for a few minutes. Once it’s dry, she rubs it with a quarter teaspoon of vegetable oil using a paper towel, lets it sit over low heat for a few minutes more, and then wipes off the excess oil with another dry paper towel.

While it may not fit into your regular dishwashing routine, treating cast-iron cookware correctly pays off. A well-maintained pan is tough enough to withstand super high heat, meaning you can start cooking a dish on the stove and finish it in the oven in the same pan. The iron itself will endure any type of utensil you use on it, whether it’s a wooden spoon, metal tongs, or a plastic spatula. And if you ever damage the skillet’s seasoning or allow it to rust, it can be restored without too much trouble. “Ideally, you should be able to hand it down to your kids,” DeVito says.

HEALTH BENEFITS

Cast-iron offers health benefits beyond the nutritional value of the food it cooks. The first is a healthy dose of iron added to your meals. If you have an iron deficiency, like close to 10 million people in the U.S. do, your doctor may recommend incorporating more meat, beans, and leafy greens into your diet. In addition to eating iron-rich foods, you could also try preparing more meals in a cast-iron skillet. As the metal heats up, small amounts of iron leach out and enrich your food. The is especially apparent with acidic, higher-moisture ingredients like applesauce and tomato sauce. The iron you get is definitely not enough to replace dietary iron, but it’s a nice bonus if you’re looking for more ways to sneak the nutrient into your meals.

With cast-iron, you know the only thing being added to your food is an essential mineral. Nonstick Teflon pans, on the other hand, are made from substances that aren’t safe to be eaten. (Though you don’t really need to worry about these chemicals contaminating your food unless you’re really abusing the pan.) If your cast-iron is seasoned well enough, it will produce the same nonstick effects as Teflon without the unwanted chemicals.

And that brings us to the final health benefit: Cooking with cast-iron requires less oil than conventional pans. Because oil is already baked into the cast-iron’s exterior, you don’t have to worry about meat and vegetables getting stuck to the surface. You can either add a small amount of oil or no oil at all so you don’t end up adding more fat to your dinner than necessary.

COOKING QUALITY

Even without the industrial strength and bonus minerals, the cast-iron skillet would still be prized by cooks for the incredible effects it has on food. This is because of the way it reacts to heat. Iron is much thicker and denser than materials like copper and aluminum, so it takes longer to heat up. But once the metal has been heated through, it packs a lot more thermal energy than most metals heated to the same temperature. All that harnessed energy is the key to achieving crisp, golden-brown sears on foods like steak, hamburger patties, eggplant, and scallops.

And just as cast-iron takes a while to get hot, it’s also slow cooling down. That means that once you’ve left your pan to sit over a raging burner or in a screaming-hot oven for long enough, you can trust it to maintain that heat, even after filling it with cold or room-temperature ingredients. The cooling effects food has on other metals is one of the most common culprits that leaves foods pale and flabby rather than brown and crunchy.

Even when a hard sear isn’t your end goal, a cast-iron skillet is often still the best tool for the job. The versatile design makes it a great option for baking, shallow-frying, and sautéeing. A few of the items DeVito likes to cook in her cast-iron include cakes, pies, cornbread, eggs, hash browns, bacon, and vegetables. “I use it for a lot of things, like reheating leftovers and improvising with whatever I have in the fridge,” she says. “You could put a lid on it and cook rice or pasta in there—you really could put almost anything in there.”

COST

With so many desirable qualities, you may expect a cast-iron pan to rank up there with other rite-of-passage kitchen items in terms of price. But it's actually easy to find a cast-iron pan for less than other pans that don’t perform as well or last as long. Lodge, the brand DeVito recommends, has 10-inch skillets available for around $25 on Amazon. You can find fancier cast-iron pans from brands like Le Creuset selling for over $150, but when it comes to this kitchen essential, simplicity is hard to beat.

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10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Warby Parker Created a Spray to Prevent Your Glasses From Fogging Up When You Wear a Face Mask

They're smiling under the masks (because their glasses aren't foggy).
They're smiling under the masks (because their glasses aren't foggy).
Julian Wan, Unsplash

A face mask won’t keep you from getting enough oxygen, but it might keep you from seeing clearly through your glasses. When you exhale, your warm breath usually dissipates into the air in front of you. When you’re wearing a face mask, on the other hand, it gets funneled through the gaps around your nose and turns into tiny water droplets after colliding with your much colder lenses. In other words, it fogs up your glasses.

To prevent this from happening, Warby Parker has created an anti-fog spray that absorbs those droplets as soon as they form on your lenses, before they can cloud your view. It’s not the only product like it on the market—Amazon alone has dozens—but Warby Parker’s version has the added benefit of cleaning your lenses, too.

The perfect solution.Warby Parker

As Prevention.com reports, the spray is part of the company’s “Clean My Lenses Kit,” which comes with a bottle of anti-fog spray, a microfiber cloth, and a pouch for your glasses (or for storing the other two products in the kit). All you do is spritz both sides of your lenses, wipe them down with the cloth, and venture out for your fog-free day.

The spray works with any type of lens, which makes it a useful innovation even for people who just wear regular sunglasses. It can also come in handy during plenty of other fog-inducing situations, like sipping a hot beverage or cooking over a hot stove.

You can order a kit online for $15, or look for one in your local Warby Parker store. In the meantime, here are a few DIY ways to keep your glasses from getting foggy.

[h/t Prevention.com]

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