A Cast Iron Primer
Cast iron cookware is revered for its excellent heat retention compared to other metals. Versatility is afforded by its ability to be used either in the oven or on the stovetop, and to be directly transferred from one to the other. Whether it be for searing, frying, sauteing, grilling, roasting, braising, stewing, or baking, cast iron is second to none.
A marginal bonus of cooking in cast iron is that trace amounts of the metal leach into the food being cooked in it, actually providing a source of dietary iron. While perhaps of benefit to those with anemia, individuals who suffer from a disorder known as hemochromatosis, in which the body stores too much iron, must therefore avoid consuming foods prepared in it.
If well-cared for, cast iron cookware can last a lifetime or longer. So highly valued in centuries past, cast iron ware was handed down from generation to generation, often being itemized in wills.
"Vintage" cast iron cookware from the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries enjoyed a higher standard of material and workmanship than nearly all such products made anywhere else in the last 50 years. Typically thinner and lighter than today's products, vintage iron ware was cast from the high grade ore once mined in areas such as Erie, Pennsylvania and Sidney, Ohio, to name two of the most prominent.
Skilled foundrymen formed the individual molds, poured the molten metal, and finished each piece by hand. The fineness of the casting was further enhanced by the use of a dressing mixture known as "blacking" applied to the molds.
With cooking surfaces machined smooth after casting, and subsequently "seasoned" by the build-up of polymerized fat from cooking, vintage cast iron is considered the original "non-stick" cookware.
Collecting old cast iron "hollow ware", as items like skillets and dutch ovens were once called, is a hobby enjoyed by many. Pieces cast by a number of foundries in the USA fifty to one hundred or more years ago are sought after for their quality, craftsmanship, durability, and the fact that they are actually usable without diminishing their value.
Not only are the various pieces of cast iron ware in and of themselves found interesting by collectors, but also their evolution over time and the history of the foundries who made them. Over half a century ago, these items were for the most part considered mere commodities, and, as such, much information on their production was either lost over the years or its recording was not deemed worthwhile to begin with. The heritage of cast iron, therefore, must often be pieced together through a combination of research, empirical evidence, and visual comparisons.
In the latter part of the 20th century, the introduction of new, more "modern" forms of cookware began to gain popularity. Coupled with an influx of cheap foreign cast iron, American foundries were forced to reduce costs in order to compete and survive. For the foundries that did endure, factory automation and the heavier castings required to withstand it became the norm, and the labor-intensive final polishing became all but non-existent. As a result, what domestic cast iron ware was produced after about the mid-1960s is often cumbersome to handle, and requires more time and effort to properly season its relatively rough cooking surfaces to achieve the desired non-stick property.
Fortunately for us, however, much of the old iron still survives, and, with a little rehabilitation and care, can be returned to usefulness.