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

iStock
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 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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

Why Does Altitude Affect Baking?

This woman is going to make a quick stop at Whole Foods' bakery section before book club.
This woman is going to make a quick stop at Whole Foods' bakery section before book club.
nicoletaionescu/iStock via Getty Images

Even if you’re highly skilled in the kitchen, you might find yourself with a deflated cake or bone-dry brownies if you happen to be baking in Aspen, Colorado, for the first time. But why exactly does an oven at high altitude so often wreak havoc on whatever baked good is in it?

According to HuffPost, it all comes down to air pressure. The higher you are above sea level, the lower the air pressure is. This is mostly because there’s less air pressing down on that air from above, and it’s also farther from the gravitational forces on Earth’s surface. With less air pressure keeping liquid molecules in their liquid form, it takes less heat in order to vaporize them—in other words, boiling points are lower at higher altitudes.

“For every 500-foot increase in altitude, the boiling point of water drops by 0.9°F,” Dr. Craig F. Morris, director of the USDA ARS Western Wheat Quality Laboratory at Washington State University, told HuffPost.

Since liquids evaporate at lower temperatures, all the moisture that makes your signature chocolate cake so dense and delicious could disappear long before you’d normally take it out of the oven. To avoid this, you should bake certain goods at lower temperatures.

With less air pressure, gases expand faster, too—so anything that’s supposed to rise in the oven might end up collapsing before the inside is finished baking. Cutting down on leavening agents like yeast, baking powder, and baking soda can help prevent this. This also applies to bread dough left to rise before baking (otherwise known as proofing); its rapid expansion could negatively affect its flavor and texture, so you might need to adjust how much yeast you’re using.

If all the ways a recipe could go wrong at high altitudes—and all the experimentation needed to make sure it goes right—seem like a lot to keep track of, Betty Crocker has a handy chart with various types of baked goods and suggested modifications for them.

[h/t HuffPost]