How Did the Cast Iron Skillet Take Over the World?

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Erika Tracy)

If you search for “cast iron” on eBay, you will see about 15,000 cookware items for sale. There are also about 20 cast iron cookbooks presently on the market, not to mention numerous blogs dedicated to cast iron collecting and cooking. And there is, of course, a Facebook group, of which I am now a member, dedicated to celebrating all things cast iron.

The 11,000-plus Cast Iron Enthusiasts share their hot cast iron finds, restoration and seasoning tips, and ubiquitous photos of the food cooked in cast iron pans. Some of it is the usual stuff — stews, cornbread, steaks — and some of it is not so usual. (Fried squirrel, anyone? Ah … no, thanks.)

The point is: Cast iron pans are having a moment — a really big moment.

The Cast Iron Boom: New and Old

Sales of new cast iron cookware have been heating up — Lodge, the largest manufacturer of cast iron cookware in the U.S., has seen its sales double since 2008 — but that’s only part of the story. After decades of abandonment and indifference, vintage cast iron pans are being unearthed from the junk pile, dusty attics, flea markets, and the like.

Mary Theisen of The Pan Handler passionately and painstakingly restores and refurbishes vintage and antique Griswold cast iron cookware and sells it on her website. Her business has tripled in the past five years. Old cast iron cookware from manufacturers such as Griswold, Wagner, and Lodge are not just being sought after by collectors — people are buying antique pans for upwards of $1,500 and cooking with them! “My customers love the idea of cooking with a piece of history,” says Theisen.

(Image credit: Erika Tracy)

So, Why Is Cast Iron Hot Again?

Perhaps it’s part of a greater trend to return to traditional foods and cooking techniques our grandmothers practiced, like canning and fermentation (which are also having a big revival).

Cast iron is also sustainable, eco-friendly, and healthy. These are words that drive our everyday choices and how we want to live in and out of the kitchen. Cast iron pans fit into the narrative perfectly. Many folks (myself included) get tired of cooking with pans coated with possible toxins or using pans with such a short life span. I have personally thrown out so many nonstick pans, I’m afraid there may be a land fill out there with my name on it. Cast iron pans are the original green pan.

And let’s not forget the obvious: Old or new, cast iron’s ability to maintain high heat is unsurpassed. I have been cooking with a newer Lodge cast iron skillet for a long time and nothing does a better job of getting a hard sear on steaks, uber-crispy chicken skin, crusty cornbread, or a killer Sunday morning hash.

That said, the talk about how a cast iron pan can rival a nonstick Teflon-coated pan has eluded me. Scrambling eggs or omelets without a stick of butter (a bit of exaggeration, I know) never worked out very well for me in my well-seasoned cast iron pan. Mary told me that her seasoned vintage pans can do the job. It was time for me to try my hand with some older cast iron pans.

When It Comes to Cast Iron, Old Is Better than New

Lucky for me, a friend was willing to let me test drive two of her grandmother’s pans. These pans have been lovingly maintained and have a beautiful, shiny black patina and were a little thinner and lighter than mine. The biggest difference, however, was the super-smooth surface of the vintage pans compared to the course, rough surface of my more modern versions.

I was smitten with the smoothness of the vintage cast iron, but it wasn’t just about the look and feel. A batch of scrambled eggs, with nothing more than a light film of cooking oil, slipped out of the pans like a dream. Omelets and frittatas? Both perfect. There is something special about cooking with these pans. It’s like I went from driving a truck to an easy-to-handle sports car.

Turns out it comes down to the manufacturing process. Up until the 1950s, cast iron pans were produced by casting in sand-based molds, and the pebbly surfaces were polished until smooth. For newer pans the production was streamlined, eliminating the final polishing step from the process.

From the late 19th century through early 20th century, cast iron cookware was as commonplace as a cutting board or knife. There were many manufacturers of high-quality cast iron cookware. It was inexpensive, durable, and would last forever when treated with care. Cast iron lost its luster when lighter materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, and Teflon-coated nonstick cookware took over the market.

But it makes sense that this versatile kitchen workhorse would find its way back into the kitchen. Perhaps the real question is, why didn’t it have its moment sooner?

Thinking about going vintage? Don’t despair — you don’t need to spend a lot to experience the joy of cooking in a vintage cast iron pan. Find out more in our buying guide.

Do you have a cast iron skillet? Is it old or new? What’s your favorite thing to cook in it?