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When they debuted in the 1960s, non-stick Teflon pans turned the cookware industry upside down faster than you can flip a hotcake. Their popularity has waned only slightly over the years, but recent health concerns and popular TV cooking shows are steering many people back to the basics – cast iron.

Since the early 1700s, cast iron pots and pans have been used for cooking; first in the hearth, then in wood-fueled ovens, and finally on modern gas or electric stoves. Many of us are naïve to the benefits of cast iron cooking, or maybe we’ve heard negative myths about their care. Let’s talk it over and see how it all pans out.

The first thing most people associate with cast iron is its weight. It is heavy, and that’s ok because it’s nice to feel the strength of this utensil. There are several convenience and health benefits to using cast iron. It distributes its heat evenly once it’s warmed and holds it for some time. This allows foods to be seared properly and to continue cooking gently once the heat source is turned off. It can even be transferred directly from stovetop to oven, but please wear your oven mitt! Some dishes will absorb a healthy, trace-amount of iron; but acidic foods like tomato sauces, if cooked for a long time, may draw a metallic taste into the food.

It’s really very simple to season a cast iron skillet. In fact, it seasons itself through the cooking process. After each use, clean and dry the pan and apply a thin coating of oil before putting it away. Occasionally, bake the oiled pan for an hour in the oven.

Cleaning techniques are often disputed. Many people claim you should never use soap on cast iron because it will remove the seasoning. That just isn’t so. A mild dishwashing soap can be applied to a well-seasoned pan. The seasoning is not susceptible to soap because it’s already been transformed from an oil coating to a polymerized oil – a tough, plastic-like substance that has bonded to the metal surface. Very harsh scrubbing with steel wool can damage it, but regular metal utensils can be used freely. And keep in mind that iron will rust, so please avoid soaking in water. You don’t want to find yourself giving the pan a thorough scouring and restarting the seasoning process from scratch.