It was probably the year 1999 that I was researching an ask Martha column* about caring for canaries that I came across an alarming fact: That canary owners should not use Teflon pans, because the fumes could kill their birds.
The point of my research was to learn about birds, but I couldn’t help but feel I had just stumbled upon something way more significant.
Only a few years later the Environmental Working Group published this bulletin explaining that a new study had shown that Teflon-coated plans were not as safe as previously thought, but by then I had already ditched my nonstick pan in favor of another favorite in the Martha culture: cast iron.
There’s a reason that cast iron pans are handed down from one generation to the next: Start using it, and it will quickly become your favorite pan. Inheriting a well-seasoned one is the holy grail, but I have several of the pre-seasoned Lodge pans, and they are phenomenal. As nonstick as Teflon, yet unparalleled in holding heat and getting a good sear on meats, I can hardly think of another kitchen tool that gets you so much bang for your buck (did I mention how cheap a cast iron pan is?). And you get a little iron added to your food, too, a boon if you have always been on the edge of anemia, like me.
The thing that stops people from going there, of course, is caring for the pans. The good news is, for lots of things, like fried eggs, all you have to do is wipe the pan out with a paper towel. But if you cook something that ends up dirtying the pan, like re-heating pasta with tomato sauce, you’ll have to give it a little more care—I scrub it under running water with a brush reserved for my cast iron, then put the pan back over the stove and heat it to make sure all the water dries off—these pans will rust if you leave them wet. (In the beginning, when you’re still working on maintaining the seasoning, you will have to add a little fresh oil to the pan once the water evaporates, then rub it all over the interior with a paper towel; but after a few years of maintaining this way you won’t have to add oil anymore.) If you’re grossed out by this, instead of loving having something you don’t have to wash, like myself, Jane Lear says you can indeed wash these pans, and if she says it, it must be true. (No wonder—I have watched my mother-in-law use soap on these pans for years and wondered how this could possibly work.)
And the only rule I have to ensure cast-iron success: Always preheat the pan well before adding oil or butter, and always heat the oil or butter well before adding the food—otherwise, the food might actually stick and leave you wondering what everyone is talking about.
*What, did you think Martha didn’t get any help?