I’m a serious cook and I expect my kitchen equipment to work well and hold up. Unfortunately I’ve struggled for many years with frying pans and skillets. They either stick too much, are hard to clean and maintain, or they are coated with materials like Teflon, which quickly wear down and eventually lose their non-stick properties. Plus, these coated pans are of questionable safety because small particulates of the chemical coating inevitably get into the food.
I am grateful to my friend Monica for turning me on to an amazing pan that solves all of these problems and produces delicious, perfectly cooked food. I will now share this amazing find with you and also describe my experience with various other types and brands of pans I’ve used over the years.
Pan Performance Comparison
Here’s my side-by-side comparison matrix of various pans and their cooking qualities, specifically for sautéing, pan-frying and stir-frying.
The Perfect Pan
My perfect pan is a vintage Griswold cast iron skillet, preferably pre-1940. It’s naturally non-stick. Amazingly so, in fact. It sears and browns foods beautifully. The only drawback is that it’s fairly heavy and the short handle makes it a little hard to maneuver. The handle also gets hot quickly, so I need to use an oven mitt to hold it. I suspect that vintage pans from Wagner perform equally well, although I have no experience with them. So what makes these pans so special and different from, say, the cast iron skillets you can buy today? Apparently a lot.
One big difference is the quality and purity of the metal, which, according to this site, “affects the overall strength and ‘workability’ of the product. Cast iron’s strength is affected by the addition and removal of chemical agents which effect its purity. The more impurities removed from cast iron, the easier it is to work with and result in a stronger or more durable end product.” Cast iron collectors’ sites such as this one state that, “After 1940, much of the ‘good metal’ was gone and the production of diminished quality cast iron was underway.” CastIronCollector.com further points out that, “by the latter half of the 20th century [pans were] produced from recycled scrap iron, and were not finished to give a polished-smooth cooking surface. The quality of domestic cast iron declined as foundries were forced to cut costs in order to compete in a market already in decline due to the introduction of newer, more ‘modern’ forms of cookware.”
As alluded to above, another difference is the quality of the machine work. Newer pans, like the Lodge, have very grainy, rough surfaces compared to my Griswold.
Seasoning is also important, but to a much lesser degree than production quality. I don’t care how much you ‘season’ and use a Lodge Skillet, it will never come anywhere close to what you get from a vintage cast iron pan. I know because I’ve tried to perfectly season cast iron pans from Lodge and Bodum, but no improvement, even after many years.
But Aren’t Cast Iron Pans Hard to Maintain?
In the case of Lodge and probably most modern cast iron pans, the answer is YES, they can be very difficult to maintain. I constantly found myself trying to remove stuck-on bits of food by scraping the Lodge and Bodum pans with course salt and fat. I’ve also had to deal with little bits of rust on the Lodge in places where I might have lost the oil coating/seasoning. On the other hand, my Griswold pan is surprisingly easy to maintain. I never would have imagined that I would one day refer to a cast iron pan as “non-stick” but this one truly is. And I’ve never seen any rust on it.
The internet is full of great tips for how to clean cast iron pans, however, I almost never need to use them with my pan. Since I cook primarily with healthy animal fats, such as lard, beef tallow, duck fat and clarified butter, I can leave leftover fat in the pan for the next dish, even for several days at a time. If there are chunks of food in the pan, I scrape them off with a wooden spoon or metal spatula and then wipe up with a paper towel. Sometimes my pan looks a little unsightly on the stove, but my house is clean and tidy otherwise and frankly, I’m proud to show off my very practical and traditional method of cooking and cleanup, which saves me loads of time.
Sometimes, when I cook a dish like sautéed greens with garlic, the liquid in the dish naturally de-glazes my pan so that when I wipe it up afterward, it’s shiny and new-looking. Even foods that I accidentally burn in the pan unstick themselves very easily. The only dish that was a bit of a cleanup headache was a piece of honey & soy marinated meat. I ended up boiling hot water in the pan, scraping it up with a wooden spatula, and then re-coating it with fat right after it was rinsed and dried. There is debate about whether soap should be used with cast iron. With these old, well-seasoned ones, a tiny bit on occasion doesn’t seem to hurt it and yes, I sometimes rinse it in the sink and scrub with the rough side of a kitchen sponge. But in these cases, I immediately dry it off and wipe a layer of fat on it again.
Where To Get Your Own?
I got mine on eBay, but you can probably find a better deal and save yourself all the bidding headache by scouring local thrift shops. It helps to visit sites like Griswold Cookware so that you can learn how to select the right pan. My pan is a Griswold #11, which means it is 12.5″ in diameter. It sits flat, has a slant logo and cost me ~$200. While that may sound like a lot of money, it was well worth it and I couldn’t be happier. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t use this pan.
Here are some of the delicious foods that I love to cook in this skillet:
- A fried egg or scrambled eggs
- Turkish zucchini pancakes
- Veggie pancakes for my toddler
- Pan-fried potatoes and potato pancakes/latkes/kartoffelpuffer
- Stir-fried veggies of any kind (carrots, onions, zucchini, peppers, etc)
- Fried rice
- Homemade corn tortillas
- Potstickers (I was so afraid this would ruin my pan, but they cooked beautifully and ‘unstuck’ very easily!)
- Steaks and other seared meats
- Whole fish, such as Bronzino, which I sear in the pan and then finish in the oven in the same pan
- Blackened *anything* (I especially love fish, shrimp and chicken)
- Cornbread, which I bake in my smaller Griswold skillet
What’s your favorite food to cook in cast iron?