Enameled Cast Iron

As versatile as cast iron cookware can be, there are some areas where it comes up a little short.

Unless a cast iron pot or pan is extremely well-seasoned, there exists a possibility for the metal to be reactive to the foods cooked in it. It has long been understood that eating foods cooked in cast iron may contribute to one's dietary iron intake. Acidic ingredients, like tomatoes, vinegar, and wine, however, can have the effect of leaching excessive amounts of iron into the food. For many this is unacceptable; for those afflicted with hemochromatosis, potentially health-threatening.

Another shortcoming of cast iron, if one can call it that, is its appearance. American foundries, as early as the 1890s, realized there was a particular consumer who desired the attributes cast iron cookware is famous for, but didn't care for its rustic look. To address that issue, pieces were also offered in nickel or chrome-plated versions. Plating gave a more upscale appearance to cast iron. According to an old 1918 Griswold catalog, nickel plating doubled the price charged per skillet.

Ironically, plated pieces typically hold lower value as collectibles than bare iron, as they are often worn and not cost-effective to refurbish.

In the 1920s, vitreous enamel coating came into vogue, adding the variety of color to the mix. If pieces were porcelainized both inside and out, there was no need for seasoning, and acid reactivity was eliminated. Along with designs devised to allow pots to perform double duty as serving pieces, enameled cast iron would become a utensil of choice for those who could afford it. As with plating, the costly enameling process also elevated the lowly cast iron pot to luxury status.

The downside of enameled cast iron is its propensity to stain and chip. Burnt-on foods are often difficult to deal with. The enamel is not inherently non-stick. The finish may also craze, fracture, and flake off of pieces that are improperly overheated or subjected to thermal shock. On the upside, ECI is acceptable for refrigerated food storage, a function not feasible with bare iron.

Enameled finishes are seen on cast iron made by the major American manufacturers included Griswold, Wagner, Favorite, Lodge, Birmingham Stove & Range Co, Vollrath, and others. Quality appeared to vary from as little as a single, colored coat of paint to a heavy, two-tone vitreous enameled finish. In some cases, the enameling was done by a third party, who either acted as agent for the manufacturer or who simply obtained pieces and enameled them to be marketed under their own brand.

None of the American-made enameled iron, including that of Griswold, which spanned the better part of the mid-20th century, appeared to survive much past the 1960s, likely victims of the upswing in popularity around that time of newer, more modern forms of cookware other than cast iron. And, although the last remaining major U.S. cast iron manufacturer, Lodge, currently offers an ECI line, it is made in China. In today's market, the lion's share of quality enameled cast iron, both vintage and modern, comes from European sources.

You may have noticed that the top rims, the edges of lids, and sometimes the bottoms of enameled cast iron pots and pans appear to be bare iron. This is primarily because those areas are the most damage-prone were they to be enamel coated. You may also have noticed those areas, despite appearing to be bare iron, don't seem to rust. That is because they are coated with a clear glaze, and, while that coating might become damaged by impact, it will not be cosmetically unattractive as it would be had it been enameled.

As with bare cast iron, the same is true of collectible enameled ware: condition is everything.

Notable enameled cast iron brands include:

Le Creuset (France) CI Close Up

Founded in 1925 in Northern France, with the signature flame colored enamel introduced in 1934. Although other types of cookware it sells are produced elsewhere, the enameled cast iron continues to be made in Fresnoy-le-Grand, France. Notable among its vintage pieces are original designs by Raymond Loewy from the 1950s, and Enzo Mari in the 1970s.

Here's a video of the manufacturing process at Le Creuset:

Descoware (Belgium)

Originally produced as "Bruxelles Ware", "Descoware" took its name from D.E. Sanford Co, the U.S. importer, and gained a following after its endorsement by famed TV chef Julia Child. Revered for its lighter weight, relative to other ECI brands. Manufacturing ceased after being purchased by Le Creuset in the mid-1970s.

Staub (France)

Founded in the Alsace region of France in 1974 by a family with cookware merchant roots dating back to 1892. Unique black matte-finished enamel interiors said to reduce sticking. Part of Zwilling J.A. Henckels group since 2008.

Copco (Denmark)

Founded in 1960. Notable for pieces designed by Michael Lax. Although no longer marketed directly under the Copco name, pieces "designed and inspired by Copco" are available in the Mario Batali by Copco brand, made in China.

DRU Holland (Netherlands)

Made 1930s to 1960s. DRU stands for Diepenbrock & Reigers of Ulft, a town in the Netherlands. Pieces distributed as premiums in grocery stores in the 1950s. Most often enameled in pastel colors with contrasting trim, and adorned with depictions of tulips or other flowers or graphics.

Les Hauts Fourneaux de Cousances aka Cousances (France)

Named for the town in which it was produced, Ville Sur-Cousances. Purchased by Le Creuset, who continued to produce some of its signature pieces, in 1957.

Le Chasseur aka Chasseur (France)

Produced in the French town of Donchery for over 70 years.

Waterford (Ireland)

Club Colorcast line of ECI produced in Waterford, Ireland beginning in the 1960s. Cookware line relaunched in 1979 with the help of US President Jimmy Carter's mother, Lillian Carter. No longer made.

Husqvarna (Sweden)

Produced in Sweden, 1960s-1980s. Often seen with painted contrasting highlights and decorative "bluebird" graphics.

Prizer-Painter, Inc. (Reading, PA)

Prizer-Painter evolved from Orr, Painter, & Co, and produced the Prizer-Ware line of ECI in the 1950s.

Griswold Manufacturing Co. (Erie, PA)

Griswold began enameling cast iron in the 1920s, coating pieces in a variety of pastel colors. The bulk of their pieces seen in the collectibles marketplace, however, appear to be from after 1940, and are primarily either a bold Flamingo orange red with a cream color interior or a soft Buttercup yellow with a dove gray interior.

In the 1950s, before the Wagner buy-out, a partially-enameled line known as Quaker Ware was briefly produced, the pans having white enamel interiors, with bare iron bottoms and handles.