Lorraine, you ask my kind of questions. I thank you. There are a lot of possible answers here, the main one being that cast iron is good for lots of things. You can pan fry, pan roast, deep fry, simmer, stew, boil and bake in it. It goes from stove top to oven with no problem and can be heated WAY past the point where other pans will literally start to lose their composure. Cast iron doesn’t warp. If you drop it the only damage will be to your floor. Or possibly your foot.
So cast iron does a lot of jobs. It also has some unique properties. Cast iron pans are made of pig iron, a very cheap, crude and dense material. The pig iron is melted, poured into a sand mold, then basically just brushed off and sold. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Alessi.
As crude a metal as it is, cast iron is a terrible conductor of heat. So it does NOT heat evenly, despite what you may have heard. Cast iron pans are riddled with hot and cold spots, which is why it’s always a good idea to put a cast iron pan over your largest burner or element, because the shape of the hot area under the pan will essentially be the shape of the hot area in the pan. You overcome this limitation to a large extent when the pan is filled with oil or some other liquid, but for pan frying it’s important to be aware of it.
So if that’s the drawback, what’s the advantage? Ah, glad you asked. As with much else in life, the advantage is the flip-side of the disadvantage. Poor conductivity means that the metal holds a lot of heat. That’s a very, very good thing when you want to pan roast vegetables or sear a big thick piece of meat. Cast iron also radiates heat very well (a property known in engineering circles as emissivity) which means the high heat area isn’t limited to the pan’s surface, it extends a good half inch or more up off the surface, which again makes it great for searing a roast or a thick steak. Not so much for something more delicate like a scallop, where the goal is a thin seared crust and a tender, undercooked interior. For a job like that you want stainless steel, which has comparatively low emissivity.
So cast iron isn’t a precision instrument, as if that needed saying. But what it lacks in delicacy it more than makes up for in brute strength and versatility. Start cooking with cast iron, Lorraine, and you’re likely to become a convert. Cast iron pans are the go-to’s in our kitchen, mostly because they’re so darn easy and dependable. Like a small pack of faithful golden retrievers, they’re always nearby and ready to play, and that’s impossible not to love.