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In Search of the Perfect Cast Iron Pan

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Food52's Editorial Assistant (and college student) Brette Warshaw is curating her very own first kitchen -- and she needs your help.

Today: Finding the right cast iron pan

Stacked Cast Iron

Buying a cast iron pan is like buying a first cell phone, or appointment book, or pair of glittery high heels: it makes you a little bit more adult.

I’ve got the cell phone, the appointment book, the glittery heels. That cast iron pan? Not there yet.

During my first three years of college -- while not a real adult, per se -- I avoided thinking about cast iron pans, about knives, about Dutch ovens: those culinary badges of honor, those hallmarks of seasoned cooks. I instead relied upon the cheap tools and kitchenware my roommates once bought for our “kitchen” (read: wall of kitchen appliances in the living room) and saved my major culinary projects for the kitchens of my parents, whose cookware collections were plentiful and familiar. Buying sturdy, expensive kitchenware for myself felt frivolous, unnecessary. I was too inexperienced. I was too young.

Until now.

Baby cast iron

Now, I’ve got cast iron pans on the mind, cutting boards and baking sheets, food processors, immersion blenders. (Is that weird? Probably.) I’m ready to cut my bread with a sharp, serrated knife; I’m ready to present dinner on a big, wide serving platter. It’s the summer before my final year of college, and I’m thinking about adulthood. I’m thinking about the real world. 

I’m thinking about my real world kitchen.

In curating this real world kitchen, I’ve made a vow to myself: I will choose all of my cookware intelligently. I will research every major purchase. I will ask for advice. I will make all of my kitchen investments worthwhile, so that in ten years I can look down at my cast iron pan -- or my knife, or my sauté pan, or my Dutch oven -- and remember the time I first used it.

And I will remember how you, dear FOOD52-ers, helped me.

Seasoning cast iron

I therefore bring you the series First Kitchen, where I will guide you through the curation of my first kitchen -- and ask for your help along the way. These posts aren't aimed just at college students. They’re for everyone who wants to make smart choices about their kitchenware -- for experienced cooks looking for a new tool, for novice cooks looking for their first, for a mother or father or friend looking for a thoughtful, useful gift.

My mother and father, though, won’t part with their cast iron pans -- kitchen tools that better with age, that can be passed down through generations. I’ve got to do the adult thing. I’m on my own.

So, naturally, I ask the most adult question one can ask: What’s the best pan to cook pancakes in?

Pancakes, along with more-wholesome eggs, greens, fish, and chicken, are the things I cook the most. A cast iron pan can be used for all of these, plus searing steak and other meats, shallow frying, baking bread, even baking cakes. It passes my first test: it’s worth buying. 

But I’m greedy; I want more. I don’t just want a pan that can cook them all. I want a pan that can cook them all...efficiently. Kindly. Perfectly. This is a long-term commitment. I have high standards.

le creuset cast iron

Bare, Pre-Seasoned or Enameled?

My major decision is what type of material to choose for my cast iron pan. If I base my selection on looks alone, it’s easy; I’d go for the Le Creuset Round Skillet. It’s got elegant, sloping sides and a surface so smooth I stroke it when nobody’s looking. The fact that it’s enameled makes it virtually maintenance-free; no seasoning, no difficult cleaning, little-to-no sticking. It’s also $154.95 – $99.95 for the 10 ¼-inch.

Bare cast iron

Bare cast iron, on the other hand -- the kind that most often gets handed down through generations -- is much less expensive: $16.99 for the classic unseasoned Lodge Logic 10” Chef Skillet. What bare cast iron lacks in looks -- though I still think it’s ruggedly handsome -- it makes up for in economy. The more you use a cast iron pan, the less maintenance it needs; since I’ll be using it often, it won’t take us long to settle in together. A good bare cast iron skillet can cook the same things as the enameled cast iron, though you shouldn't cook anything acidic -- anything with tomatoes, wine, or citrus, for instance -- in a pan that is not properly seasoned

Buying pre-seasoned cast iron is the other option -- $20.97 for the Lodge Logic Pre-Seasoned 12-inch Skillet. Though there’s something romantic about seasoning my own. It’s the adult thing to do, right?

What kind of cast iron pan would you recommend? Check out my First Kitchen Pinterest board to follow along.

Next time, I’ll be covering knives -- and I could use your suggestions!

Email me at [email protected] with your First Kitchen recommendations -- your favorite tools, your favorite cookware, your favorite cookbooks. All wisdom is appreciated.

Salting cast iron

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Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Entertaining, Cast Iron, First Kitchen