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3 Reasons Why Cast Iron Pans Are The Bomb

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by Mercedes Brennan in AMENITIES, GUEST HAPPINESS, POTS AND PANS
September 28, 2015
pans cast iron

If you haven’t noticed from my Facebook posts, I’m a huge advocate of cast iron cookware in vacation rental kitchens. They’re extraordinarily practical, not expensive and are a favorite among both professional chefs and home cooks.

Unfortunately, they’re tremendously uncommon in vacation rentals.

And this needs to change.

Why is cast iron perfect for holiday homes? First of all, let me describe a frequent scenario my family is frequently confronted with upon entering a vacation rental for the first time: We unpack, settle in, go into the kitchen to start preparing our first big communal meal. Yay! I go to search for a nice, dependable skillet to sear some rib eye steaks, and looking through the kitchen cabinets, this is way, way, waaaayyyy too often what I find instead:

scratched teflon pan

A crappy, non-stick pan that looks like people took it camping and scrambled eggs with a fork in it! Yuck! Really?! And I paid how much for this rental?!

And no, this doesn’t only occur in lower priced rentals either. It happens just as often in the high-rent digs.

We find these in vacation rentals in all price ranges. Frequently. As a matter of fact, as a precaution, if we take our car, I’ve started bringing our trusty cast iron pan with us, just to be on the safe side.

Bogus, non-stick pans are a huge bummer. I mean… yuck! Who wants to cook in them? First of all, with all the research out there on the carcinogens released when these pans are (1) overheated and (2) scratched with a fork or a metal spatula, it’s a really bad deal. And we all know that guests are going to overheat and scratch the pan. Goes with the territory.

Secondly, these pans are usually light-weight. They’re meant for pancakes, egg dishes, delicate fish, and oozy, cheesy things like quesadillas. No way are they even remotely great for searing a piece of meat or a slow cook, let alone skillet potatoes (a vacation favorite).

My answer?

Get cast iron instead!

Not only is cast iron almost as stick-proof as Teflon, it’s the answer for all kinds of crazy good cooking – crispy potato hash, buttery breakfast pancakes, perfectly seared steaks, pan pizza (yes, pan pizza!), corn bread, stir-fries, the list is long. My point is, cast iron’s a versatile workhorse and no other pan even comes close to its league.

Skillet potatoes are a guest vacation breakfast favorite. Cast iron is superior to both stainless and non-stick for preparing them. Image courtesy of New South Food Co.

Skillet potatoes are a guest vacation breakfast favorite. Cast iron is superior to both stainless and non-stick for preparing these golden babies. Image courtesy of New South Food Co.

So here’s the scoop on why I recommend cast iron pans in your vacation rental kitchen.

(1) It’s Reasonably Priced.

We all know the exorbitant price of cookware. That shiny new Williams-Sonoma copper core pan you manpower is $149! On sale. How about a Le Creuset Stainless-Steel Fry Pan? $130! Such prices might make sense in your own kitchen but certainly does not pencil out in vacation rentals.

Cast iron pans, on the other hand, are generally very reasonable. Here are two high-quality, low-cost options:

1. Camp Chef

Camp Chef is primarily an outdoor camping equipment company, but they also make some really high-quality cast iron cookware. I like how the undersides are embossed with emblems of US National Monuments too.

Cast Iron from Camp Chef

The Camp Chef 12″ skillet comes highly rated from America’s Test Kitchen and has been recommended by Cook’s Magazine. It’s sturdy, sports handles on both sides for easy lifting and will last your life and then some. Price? Approximately $31 on Amazon.

2. Lodge

Lodge is the oldest family-run foundry in America and founded in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee by Joseph Lodge. They are eco-friendly too. In 1992, Lodge replaced its coal fire furnaces with an electromagnetic induction melting system, which cut hazardous waste production to a fraction.

And if having to season your own cooking pan is a bother, Lodge offers pre-seasoned cast iron cookware as well.

15" Skillet by Lodge

The Lodge Cast Iron 15.25-inch Skillet is a multi-functional pan that works wonders with slow-cooking and all your favorite foods. Fry up a mess of catfish, roast a chicken, or bake an apple crisp in this generous 15.25-inch pan that features two handles for heavy lifting. Cast iron loves a campfire, a stovetop, or an oven, and can slow-cook foods without scorching. It retains heat well so you can sear meat at higher temperatures and will keep your delicious meals warm for a long time. Whether used in a kitchen or camp, this almost indestructible cookware should last for generations. $48.47 on Amazon.

(2) It’s Easy to Maintain

Cast iron isn’t as much of a baby as you think it is. It’s tough! After all, there are 75-year-old cast iron pans kicking around at yard sales and antique shops. There’s a lot of misinformation about cast iron pans being delicate and requiring complicated care. Hogwash! According to the Managing Culinary Director of Serious Eats, and author of the James Beard Award-nominated column, The Food Lab, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (who cooks for hours at a time in cast iron), you can do all of the following with a cast iron skillet:

  • Wash it with soap and water – Soap is fine on cast iron. It’s not going to strip off the seasoning; seasoning is actually not a thin layer of oil that comes off with soap, it’s a thin layer of polymerized oil, a key distinction. In a properly seasoned cast iron pan, one that has been rubbed with oil and heated repeatedly, the oil has already broken down into a plastic-like substance that has bonded to the surface of the metal. This is what gives well-seasoned cast iron its non-stick properties, and as the material is no longer actually an oil, the surfactants in dish soap should not affect it. Go ahead and soap it up and scrub it out.
  • Use metal utensils on it – There’s a theory out there that the seasoning in cast iron pans is delicate and can easily flake out or chip if you use metal utensils. Not true! The reality is the seasoning in cast iron is actually remarkably resilient. It’s not just stuck to the surface, like tape, it’s actually chemically bonded to the metal. Scrape away with a metal spatula and unless you’re actually gouging out the surface of the metal, you should be able to continue cooking in it with no issue.
  • Stack your cast iron on top of each other – Cast iron is just as tough as stainless and copper, so you can stack pans one on top of the other without worrying about the seasoning coming off. Stack away. Stack high, stack big!

So here’s the skinny on taking care of cast iron:

  1. Wash it with a bit of soap and water, scrub it down and let it air dry or towel it dry.
  2. Once a month (or less in low season), season your pan by doing the following: Spread a thin layer of melted shortening or vegetable oil over the skillet. Place it upside down on a middle oven rack at 375°. (Place foil on a lower rack to catch drips.) Bake for one hour and let cool. 
  3. If guests have put cast iron in the dishwasher, don’t worry! It’s not a big deal, just swish a little oil on the inside of the pan, then place the skillet over a burner set to high heat. When most of the water inside the skillet has dried out, add a half teaspoon of a neutral oil like vegetable, canola, flaxseed, or shortening. Rub it around with a paper towel. Continue heating the pan until it just starts to smoke then give it one more good rub. Let it cool and you’re done.
washing cast iron

Washing cast iron is easy – just scrub it out with a little soap and water, dry it and put it away. Photo courtesy of Serious Eats.

(3) It looks chic as it matures (which matters in vacation rentals).

The wonderful thing about cast iron is that unlike other types of materials, like stainless steel and aluminum, it doesn’t show all the burnt marks that guests leave on the inside and outside of pans. Removing those stubborn stains takes manpower and there isn’t always time to eliminate them before the next guests check in. And you know how important the appearance of cleanliness is in getting those 5-star reviews, right? Burnt marks aren’t acceptable.

Burned stains on a pan

Stainless pans show every burn mark there is and although you can be chill about that in your own home, it’s unacceptable in vacation rentals.

Cast iron, on the other hand, is actually enhanced with stubborn “stains.” The more, the merrier! In fact, those dark spots play an important role in seasoning the pan, which is why food tastes so rich. Furthermore, the seasoning is what makes cast iron stick-proof (or at least relatively so).

Satin smooth, deep black, cast iron is beautiful. In fact, on a trip out to Atlanta earlier this year, I came across a stunning wall display of vintage cast iron in the trendy Miller Union restaurant. Quite a show stopper (don’t you love those guitar pans?)!

pans cast iron

A vintage cast-iron wall display I saw this year in Atlanta’s uber trendy restaurant, Miller Union.

Convinced cast iron is the bomb? Here are some beginner pieces….

Here’s my rule of thumb:

  • For a 2 to 4 person rental, one 12″ skillet is perfect. You can comfortably fit 4 burger patties, eggs, or french toast in the bottom and still have room to maneuver.
  • For a 6 to 8 person rental, I’d get both a 10″ and a 12″ skillet.
  • For more than 8 people, get one 15″, one 12″ and one 10″ skillet and the mob will all be fed. Well.

Once you get the hang of seasoning your cast iron, add more cast iron pieces if needed.

Now get cooking!

Pssttt… and please throw out the iffy non-stick!

  • I joke that I actually married my husband for his full set of cast iron. Yet I confess, I haven’t put it in our vacation rental (www.searanchabalonebay.com). My greatest concern was having guests use the pan, then wash and put away damp-without oiling. How many today know that last step? I have a PM service with housekeeping – I worry the neatly stored pan would be missed by him and sadly found by the next guest horrified that my pans are rusty – and there go 5 stars flying away.

    I suppose I could insist that pan be added to my cleaner’s time $heet or post the how to care instructions in the cabinet …but that may be annoyingly tacky too.

    • Hi Donna, it generally takes quite a while before actual rust shows. As long as you have it in your cleaning protocol to oil the pans between bookings, you’re good to go. Oiling a pan does not take much time. While it’s heating on the stovetop (until it smokes), your cleaning crew could be cleaning the rest of the kitchen. It’s certainly much easier than scrubbing out those horrible burnt stains that guests leave on our pans. Even non-stick’s bottoms need to be scrubbed so they continue to look nice. Cast iron, on the other hand, looks great with those stains. Thanks for commenting, Donna and good luck!

  • Maesywerngoch

    Absolutely fabulous post! We just took an RV trip out west and bought a round cast iron flat pan for our trip. It was the best thing we have bought in years! we even brought it back to the UK and you know how heavy they are, just had to toss out our clothes! We had a big discussion on whether to leave it ‘out’ for the guests or keep it for ourselves. We decided to put it away for our use but after reading your post we will definitely put some of these up at the house. My husband thinks they are precious so thanks for the help on that front. I grew up with these pans, they need to come back into view. And yes, we do have some of those non stick pans with fork/knife marks from guests. I had no idea that they were unhealthy so thanks for clearing that up. ps Can we have the recipe for the potatoes!

  • Mercedes,
    We’ve gone with high end non-stick cookware and replace as needed. We never let it get to the point that a guest would see any significant wear. I’d love to go with something sturdier like cast iron. However, our vacation rental is in an area where only electric service is available – no gas like at our primary home. This means a glass cooktop (typical of all modern electric ranges) which I’ve already had to replace after only a year due to excessive wear and tear from pots and pans. We’ve made sure our only available cookware has very smooth bottoms now. Most of the hanging cast iron pans in the photo you used look like a nightmare on a glass cooktop surface.

    Questions: Do you know of a line of cast iron that has completely smooth bottoms, and have you had any experience using cast iron on a glass surface? For now, I’d rather replace the pots and pans than the glass cooktop surface at $700 a pop (just for replacement glass).

    Thanks,
    Mark

    • Mark, you make a very good point and something that frankly, I had not thought of. I agree that cast iron would not really work on a glass cooking top, primarily because cast iron is slow to heat up (which is why it’s so fantastic for slow cooking). A good alternative pan, much lighter, with almost all the same characteristics of cast iron (naturally non-stick with seasoning, looks better with burnt marks, etc) is carbon steel cookware, which is all the rage in the top chef world. I can’t vouch for smooth bottoms though. You’d have to see.
      Here’s a link to a good one: http://www.amazon.com/Lodge-CRS12-Skillet-Seasoned-12-inch/dp/B005U93RYW/ref=pd_bxgy_79_img_3?ie=UTF8&refRID=11MNM2SRHSCER2PE78BJ

  • Laura Lewis

    I love cast iron pans too but what if you have a glass cooktop? They can’t be used on glass cooktops!

  • runninggal

    Great post Mercedes! I love reading your blogs!

    We currently have an electric coil cooktop at our vacation rental that’s in need of replacement. If we get casting iron pans, we probably will need to stick with the coil type cooktop. But we are consider getting the induction cooktops as we heard it’s easier to clean. Don’t think the casting iron pans will do well with the glass top. Not sure what to do…

  • Darik Eaton

    Mercedes,

    I enjoy many of your posts but you missed the mark on this one as the economics of maintence just doesn’t make sense. Your once a month seasoning in total would take 2 hours to do (allowing for cooling time and cleaning up afterwords too). Lets say concervatively you are paying $15 an hour for cleaning (and most cleaning companies pay more than that) which would mean once a month it would be $30 in maintenance to for what could be a $18 pan if they chose your first one from amazon. It would be more economical to buy a new pan every month! Yes the cleaners could be doing something else during the bake time, but it still is just too time intensive. If its a vacation home that the owner stays in once a month, and wants to spend the time doing these types of things versus using it as a vacation home instead of a work trip, great. But those are few and far between.

    We recommend our owners to buy the kirkland non-stick set from Costco for about $149. Its made by caphalon, so is good quality, and yes completely agree that replacing from time to time is a must as pans don’t look nice.

    With our small management company with 38 properties, that would be 76 hours of labor a month, and once you figure taxes and everything into the equation would be $1900 in labor a month to maintain a cast iron pan in each property. It would be more ecomomical to by 11 new sets from Costco a month, allowing less than every four months every owner getting a completely new set of pots and pans.

    Let alone the point of most people aren’t blessed to have natural gas to cook with, or have glass top stoves. Which do tend to look nicer longer as spills don’t fall in the coils, drip pans don’t need replacing etc.

    It can be a challenge for some guests to even do us the favor of starting their dishes in the dishwasher before they leave, let a lone making sure that a cast iron pan is dried completely to prevent rust. Chances are they would put it in the dishwasher and we wouldn’t necessarily know it unless it was at the end of their stay vs in the middle of the stay.

    I love using cast iron at home. However if we could have guests only like you that would treat our cast iron with respect and care so they didn’t rust, would be great. Or even do as I do at home and season briefly after each use, especially at first. That doesn’t happen. I’d stick (ha ha) to your idea of BYOCIS (Bring Your Own Cast Iron Skillet) especially when it comes to your skillet potatoes on vacation. They sound great!

    Darik Eaton

    Seattle Oasis Vacation Rentals

    • Hi Darik,

      Thanks for commenting, and I understand that for a manager, it must seem daunting to introduce cast iron into all of your rentals. However, try to see it this way: your argument makes sense if the cleaning crew truly spends 2 hours attending to a pan, but the seasoning takes an actual time of only a few minutes; you wouldn’t count the time while it’s in the oven/or stovetop because the crew can be cleaning other parts of the kitchen or house meanwhile. Also, take into account that the crew is not spending any time getting out stubborn black stains that the bottom of non-stick pans accumulate in as little as a weekend.

      While I always appreciate a good non-stick pan for eggs or crepes/pancakes, non-stick is terrible for actual cooking. So having only non-stick in your vacation rental is definitely going to frustrate a lot of guests. When we rent vacation houses (and we rent at least 6 to 7 a year), we always rent with friends and virtually all of us complain when we just find non-stick cookware because the food doesn’t turn out as well.

      Also, I’ll bet most cleaning crews are not carefully looking at the bottom of these non-stick pans to see if there are scratches, and consequently, they are not being replaced as often as you think. It’s almost indisputable at this point that the chemicals released when these pans are scratched with a metal fork or other utensil release carcinogenic compounds. And even if the chemicals released are not as bad as once believed, the public perception of them not being healthy is ubiquitous.

      There is also the very flimsy and “cheap” nature of these pans which add to negative guest perception. If a guest is paying $200 plus a night, they are going to expect quality pans. While I can see that having a few non-stick (and I recommend the eco-friendly ones that are not made with carcinogenic chemicals), at least have a few cast iron pans for those guests (and there are a lot of them) that truly appreciate chef quality cookware.

      For those owners who have glass-topped cooktops, I recommend that instead of cast iron that they stock carbon steel pans, which are not as heavy as cast iron but have the same chef-quality characteristics.

      Thanks for commenting, Darik!

      • Darik Eaton

        Mercedes,

        What you haven’t addressed is that most people (guests) don’t know how to care for cast iron. You and your friends may, which is great, but most travelers do not! So when they see a pan with some patina in it, they will think something is wrong. Or possibly see the sheen from the years of oil, and love, and think they are dirty.

        Or even worse they will stay a week and wash it daily with soap and water, and in the dishwasher ruining it during the stay before a cleaning staff could even get in to add nuetral oil and try and save them.

        Also I would say it depends on your rental. If you have a home that sleeps 6-14, are in the mountains or in a seculded area and has a full sized kitchen that is ideal for groups and lots of cooking, having different types of cookware would be great. We specialize in urban condos surrounded litterally by 100s of restaurants within a matter of blocks. So not only are the guests mainly looking to cook mainly breakfasts, the occationally lunch with us, we also don’t have a lot of room in a 100sqft kitchen to fit more than highly selective items. With that our guests overwhelmingly rave about how well stocked our kitchens are!

        The point is, know your audience, and be aware of how small decisions like this add up in maintenance costs. Finding a cleaning staff even willing to take on a task like this is difficult, let alone for them to do it right if you aren’t there to check on them and train them. Managing and maintianing a vacation rental is hard enough. Little decisions like this that even add 30 minutes once a quarter (conservatively) add up and make a vacation rental unprofitable.

        Darik Eaton
        Seattle Oasis Vacation renals

        • I agree that if your guests aren’t really cooking in your vacation rental, then the pans aren’t as important, Darik. If what you’re doing is working for you, then continue doing it by all means. Just make sure you check on those pans to ensure the surface layer isn’t peeling off. Good luck!

  • Love this post Mercedes! We use cast iron all the time at home and have a couple of pans in only one of our rentals. It is heavy and can damage porcelain sinks and glass cooktops. Also, if it gets taken out to cook something on the BBQ, it comes back covered in soot and difficult to clean. I think I’ll add a few of the smaller sized skillets in our other rentals to give them a try. People who use cast iron will gravitate towards them, and they already know how to use and care for them.

    • For glass cooktops, I recommend carbon steel pans, which have almost all of the same properties as cast iron but are not as heavy and therefore don’t damage glass (or porcelain sinks for that matter). I think having a few cast iron or carbon steel pans for those guests who appreciate them is important. Even if you have primarily other types of cookware, a few pieces will definitely be used by many. Good luck!

  • Jessica

    I had not thought about using cast iron in our vacation rental but I will defiantly have to place some in the kitchen now! Another helpful hint, search estate sales and thrift stores for cast iron. The older the better; specifically Birmingham and Griswold. This is a GREAT article on how to recondition old discarded cast iron pots like those. http://www.ibelieveicanfry.com/2010/12/reconditioning-re-seasoning-cast-iron.html

    The one thing I must ask about that you don’t mention is what about tomato based sauces and soups? Those are not to be cooked in cast iron and most people don’t know this since they don’t use cast iron on a regular bases. I figure it would be easy enough to place a sign in the kitchen about the cookware and not to use the cast iron for tomato based cooking but how many signs are too many before the renter starts to feel like they need to read through the house before using anything?

    • Hi Jessica, cooking tomato based sauces is fine in a seasoned cast iron because the seasoning has basically formed a film that protects the iron from leaching out into the food. A brand new, unseasoned cast iron pan is not great for tomatos and other citrus based food, but you wouldn’t have one of those anyway. And thanks for the link on restoring a vintage pan!

  • Alanna: TheDistinguishedGuest

    We have a cast iron pan and cauldron at our vacation rental in Lake Tahoe and have found that we have no issues with them at all. My husband loves to cook and it is one of the items he could not live without. Our cauldron is made by Lodge. I think we picked up at the flea market (well seasoned, great price and ready to go)

    • That’s a great endorsement, Alanna, as I know your place is booked up all the time. Cast iron is awesome and I’m sure your guests appreciate it! Thanks for sharing your experience!

  • Steve

    We have the option of cast iron at our VR, renting at 600.00 per night. BUt the primary set that is most used is the non stick , higher end set. Caphalon contemporary, for skillets, and stainless for pots. Gas stove BTW. Guests , and cleaning crew always use dishwasher for cleaning, thus the cast iron is impractical for many reasons.
    If a skillet is dropped in the sink or on the large tile counter , it’s a damaging disaster. If it’s put in the dishwasher it’s a mess to clean and season. We replace our cookware regularly as or before it’s needed.
    I’m not sure if you’re getting ad money for posting about cast iron, but it is a problem in many ways for vacation rentals.

    • Hi Steve, no I’m not being paid for promoting cast iron. I truly believe it’s a nice option. I also think the higher end non-stick is great and as long as it’s scratch free, it’s safe to use. May I ask the brand you are using and how long it lasts? I hate the idea of filling up our landfills with scratched non-stick every few months and thus would love to know a truly long-lasting brand.

 

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