I bought my first piece of cast-iron cookware in my early 20s, a green Le Creuset five-quart Dutch oven. I don't remember the impetus for the purchase other than it was on sale. Today, it remains an essential part of my kitchen arsenal: I use it to braise meats, caramelize onions, simmer sauces, and it moonlights as a deep fryer on weekends. And other than a few scratches, it belies two decades in heavy rotation.
Cast-iron cookware is storming back into fashion and I picked it as one of our top 10 food trends in our January 2013 issue (pick up your copy on Eastern newsstands December 10th and Western December 17th).
Restaurants are serving everything from mussels to mac and cheese in comely cast-iron vessels, and the cast-iron skillet has become so essential for the perfect sear, butcher shops are now carrying them.
What is it about cast iron that inspires such devotion?
The first reason is its peerless durability. With proper care, cast-iron cookware will last a lifetime: several, in fact. I inherited a bright red pot from my grandmother, and many people own skillets that have been passed down for generations. Even rusty old pans can be restored back to their former glory. For step-by-step instructions, check out this blog post from Black Iron Dude.
We also love cast iron for its rugged good looks. There is something more inviting about food cooked and served in cast iron. It's unpretentious, rustic and comforting. Cornbread, for example, looks way more delicious served in a cast-iron skillet than it does in a regular baking dish. (It also gets an addictively crisp crust unattainable in any other pan.)
Beyond its dependability and all-around handsomeness, cast iron is prized for its incredible heat retention. Chili served in miniature cast-iron cocottes will stay hotter longer. Meats braised in cast-iron pots can be cooked at a lower temperature. Used as a makeshift deep fryer, a cast-iron pot will maintain the oil temperature much better than stainless steel.
In general, cast-iron helps food brown better, yielding golden gratins, panades, cobblers and crisps.
If you don't own any cast-iron cookware, I recommend starting with a basic 10-inch skillet for tasks like searing scallops, pan-frying pork chops and, of course, baking cornbread. You can get a decent one for under $40 and they come pre-seasoned and ready to rock.
A five-quart enameled Dutch oven, like my Le Creuset, is also indispensible. They cost a fortune, but it's a small price to pay for a lifetime of service.
Watch Eric Vellend in action on Online TV.
1-4. Eric Vellend