Updated 11/12/15 to include formed-iron/steel cookware.
Iron cookware has been with us for thousands of years….since the dawn of the Iron Age. It fell out of favour in the second half of the 20th century with the successful marketing of synthetic coatings for consumer convenience. Cast iron has been making a big comeback in the USA after mounting evidence against synthetic nonstick chemicals reminded cooks about the all-natural nonstick cookware alternative. The cooking 'fast adopters' are also rediscovering formed-iron or steel cookware (wrought iron cookware is actually older than cast iron): the same pans the French chefs and all the top chefs have been using for centuries.
Now Australian cooks are increasingly aware of the superior cooking performance, sustainability and health benefits of seasoned bare iron/steel cookware.
So what has driven the big surge in popularity of seasoned iron cooking in the USA, and now Australia?
1. Simply healthy: The health benefits of seasoned iron top the list for good reason:
a. All natural, no synthetics: Everyone has heard the warnings from research scientists and authorities about the toxicity of synthetic coated nonstick pans, particularly at high temperatures. There’s still debate, and we're not biochemists, but it’s obvious that most of the worry is coming from reputable sources, and most of the “no worries” is coming from corporate marketers and lobby groups. Hmmm. (see http://www.solidteknics.com/blog/dont-believe-us-about-dangers-of-nonstick-pans-weve-got-something-to-sell-believe-the-unsponsored-scientists and more links at bottom). Growing numbers of family cooks are simply electing not to take that risk just for a little extra slickness, and turning to iron pans with their 'low-stick' all-natural seasoning. One word of caution though: be sure your cast iron pans come from reputable foundries with strict materials controls. Some low-cost imports are cast from almost anything that can be thrown in the crucible to cut costs, including harmful heavy metals that arrive with their scrap supply. Like most things, as a general rule you get what you pay for…..and health is far more precious than a few dollars saved for an iron pan that will be handed down for many generations.
b. Cook with less oil: The nonstick coating is so good on well-seasoned iron that you can cook with less oil and still avoid sticking. Meats can be seared at higher temperatures than with synthetic-coated pans, which is also far less sticky than stewing at low temperatures: using heat and natural fats for nonstick, instead of synthetics.
c. Source of iron: Another smaller factor is that some iron migrates from the pan to your food. With the protective layer of well-seasoned iron pans this effect is minimal, and it’s not the type of iron that is readily absorbed by the body, but there’s broad agreement that it’s a minor health benefit, and cast iron cookware is still recommended by many doctors to their anaemic patients.
2. Forever nonstick: The seasoning built up on iron pans is a natural synthetic-free nonstick coating that is also forever renewable. The easy maintenance of iron pan seasoning means it never wears out: cooking just makes the seasoning stronger, more corrosion resistant, and more nonstick over time, not less. Is it as slippery as synthetic coatings? No. But with good seasoning care it's very low-stick, and the key thing is that it's natural and safe.
3. Multi-century durability: Renewability and sustainability, instead of disposability. Tough one-piece cast iron and steel cookware is well known for lasting basically forever. There's practically no upper heat limit to cooking because there’s no toxic coatings and no plastic handles. This ends the wasteful and polluting cycle of disposing of synthetic nonstick pans every few years. ‘Renewability? Yes, if you have a disaster and damage the seasoning, or the pan somehow rusts, no worries: just re-season and continue on regardless….indefinitely!
4. Superior cooking, of almost anything: Seasoned iron just cooks everything so well, with famously even heating and the best browning and crusting of any pan material. The broad range of cooking methods is loved by chefs and gourmet home cooks, from low and slow braising to high temperature meat searing, stove-to-oven steaks like the pro chefs, deep-frying, stewing, roasting, baking bread, pies, cakes, damper or cornbread, frying eggs, and the list goes on….almost anything.
5. Any heat source is fine: Seasoned iron can be heated on any stove-top source, including induction (it’s solid iron!), and in any oven. It’s also one of the most-loved things on open outdoor fires and BBQs. They’re basically indestructible and nothing beats cast iron for that awesome grill taste!
These are all well-known benefits of all quality seasoned iron pans, with broad consensus among the experts. See links at the bottom to dig deeper and form your own opinions on this important topic of cookware health. But can anything more be done to improve iron cookware, or has it all been done?
Here’s the solid benefits specific to the new Australian-made AUSfonte cast iron and AUS-ION seamless one-piece steel pans:
Heirloom collectability: Not a performance benefit so much, but this is a feature everyone loves about these Australian pans: every SOLIDTEKNICS pan is cast/engraved with the exact date of manufacture. Why? For you to feel good about passing on a well-loved heirloom, and for future generations to marvel at the durability and ponder the many great meals that have been prepared and shared by their forebears. Sentimental, yes.....but very cool. And even cooler, whenever SOLIDTEKNICS launches a new pan model, they always launch on Kickstarter first to crowdfund the expensive Australian moulds. For added incentive they ship all ‘backers’ special pans cast with ‘FIRST EDITION’, and the manufacturing date. Kickstarter is the only way to get these First Edition pans (at retail they are dated, but aren't marked 'FIRST EDITION'), so these really are limited edition and the most collectible of all cookware collectibles.
The ‘dark art’ of iron/steel seasoning
There hasn’t been much press about cast iron in Australia yet, and most Aussies still cook on synthetic nonstick, so cooks are not as familiar with the seasoning and care of cast iron. It can at first seem like a ‘dark art’, but it is really easy, once you’ve seen it, and well worth the small effort to secure the health and cooking benefits for you and your family.
See this simple seasoning video to get you started: http://youtu.be/LSEKhflHDnI
And much more detailed seasoning and care tips here:
Some links to continue the iron research:
An LA Times article on the comeback of cast iron in the USA: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/nov/24/food/la-fo-cast-iron-20121124
Just some of the many credible warnings about synthetic nonstick cookware:
PFOA biggest environmental fine in US history:
Polymer fume fever:
If you have pet birds:
Aluminium is back under the spotlight as a risk
Restaurant health tip: Look at the cookware hanging in restaurant kitchens: most is aluminium and nonstick, except in the best upscale restaurants who will have mostly caron steel, iron, or stainless steel. Ask your waiter what cookware is used to cook that expensive meal. Sometimes the ingredients are wonderful: sustainable, local, seasonal, organic, ethical, etc.....then the cookware is toxic/disposable. Let them know you expect health and sustainability all the way through to the plate, including the cookware!