There’s very little need to cook when you live in Manhattan. Nearly every restaurant delivers and there are so many delicious options no matter where you live that it hardly seems to make sense to cook for one or two people, financially or time-wise. Two years ago we moved to Los Angeles and everything changed. We bought a house on the longest (paved) dead-end road in L.A. County. No restaurant in town will even consider delivering to us. So let the cooking begin. Things started out easy on the grill. My wife gave me a Big Green Egg for my birthday – what a good present. The BGE was something I lusted after for 10 years in New York, but was likely never going to make happen in the city. Cooking on an open flame laid the foundation to build my confidence in the kitchen. As I started to prepare meals and experiment I re-discovered an old #9 Griswold Cast Iron skillet that I bought nearly a decade ago at Brimfield. I started using it for everything– always choosing it over its more expensive All Clad cousins. After a bit of this preferential treatment I realized that cast iron cookware is basically the greatest thing ever invented.
My Griswold dates back to the late 1930s or early 1940s. It’s a small cross logo pan that’s not really that collectable. The fact that collectors pass it up is a good thing, it means that it can be purchased for relatively little. Even if you had to pay $150 per pan it would be worth it to me considering the versatility and longevity if properly cared for. I started researching the era of my skillet and it led me to eBay where I found people were trading some cast iron for hundreds, and in some cases thousands of dollars. The high-dollar stuff is really just for collectors, but almost all of that stuff would still work as well now as the day it came out of the foundry a century ago, which is crazy town.
One of the things that makes this old cast iron great is the fact that the cooking surface is machined to a smooth finish. If you buy inexpensive modern cast iron (like the stuff Lodge sells) the face of the pan is rough and is a bit more sticky than a milled cast iron pan. I don’t want to say they are cheap, but you are getting what you pay for with pans that don’t have a machined cooking surface. They can still do a lot and are very affordable, which for some budgets is important. If that’s all you can swing, it’s a great buy.
If you want to go for an upgrade (and don’t want to hunt for old iron on eBay) then Field Company makes –in my opinion– the best new cast iron. It’s all milled like the old Griswold cast iron, so the cooking surface is clean and smooth, which is spectacular. Field Co. skillets have some weight to them, but aren’t as heavy as some other new cast iron pans I have come across. Having a good weight is important –not too heavy, but also not too light– but so is finding a balance point with a pan that makes it easy to hold and maneuver. Field Company gets this right and are a great buy in my opinion. Even if they were $200 you’re going to own it forever and like your favorite pair of jeans, you’ll be using it everyday. Ask old Kent Collins, he knows what’s up.
When properly seasoned, both old and new are a non-stick dream, but the vintage stuff ends up feeling better. These days I mostly use my Lodge out on the grill to roast veggies and to give me a good sear on a steak. My family of Griswolds (at this point my collection has expanded to a #4, #6 and #9) and my #10 Field Co. stay in the kitchen and work the lion’s share of my cooking. There’s a lot of info out there on how to season your pan. I use a combination of the steam method and these Japanese brushes (without soap). I also use this oil to season my pans: Cast Iron Oil. Field Company has a good guide here. I think the most important thing with maintaining the seasoning is to avoid soap, always dry the pan on the burner and season with oil at the end. Trial and error will get you where you need to go. If you mess up and remove the seasoning, you can always oil it up and put it in the oven at 500 for an hour and it will start back on the road to being non-stick.
There’s so much information out there on cast iron that it almost becomes more confusing than it needs to be. There’s really not much to figure out if you want to get one. Figure out what size you want, what your budget can afford and then how to clean and season it. If you know that, then you will easily figure the rest out. Here’s a guide to buying old cast iron on eBay. This company sources rare and good Griswolds if you want a non-eBay source. These cast iron skillets are just so versatile you can pretty much do whatever you want with them. The utility and resilience of a good cast iron pan is almost impossible to believe. It’s one of the few things you would buy that can get used almost daily and will last forever. You can count on one hand the things you can put in that category.