A non-stick frying pan will last maybe three years if you look after it, but how many times can you lecture the people you live with about metal on Teflon? Sick of terrible pans, Luke Abrams decided to throw money at the problem. “Amazon had just started doing subscriptions, so for three to four years I had a Teflon pan delivered once a month,” he says. “But I thought, ‘There has to be better solutions.’ That’s when I learned about cast iron.”
Abrams, who lives in London and works in tech, took to his new cast iron pan with passion and determination. A cast iron pan gives a fantastic sear, is incredibly hard-wearing and once you’ve got a good layer of seasoning down, it cleans pretty easy too. “It's indestructible,” he says.
For many men like Abrams, the cast iron pan is more than a cooking utensil – it’s a lifestyle. Formed by pouring molten iron into a mould, cast iron was standard until the 1970s, when the advent of non-stick threatened to drive it to obscurity. But thanks to the slow food movement and the recent revival of hand-crafted tools, cast iron has made a comeback. The internet has embraced its ruggedness, as well as the opportunity cast iron cookware provides for seemingly endless discussion on correct seasoning methods. Photos of the perfect sear flood #castiron Instagram and Twitter, along with before-and-after photos of seasonings and swoony declarations of love. “There is no relationship more pure than that between a man and his cast iron skillet,” a typical comment reads.
Clearly, the cast iron internet is a stereotypically ‘masculine’ space. Hard-talking chefs like the late Anthony Bourdain, who cooed over the “hot magma” when he visited a cast iron foundry in his Raw Craft series, and bro-y Bon Appétit host Brad Leone are figureheads of the community. Leone’s video on how to clean a cast iron pan has over one million views, while his 2017 video for cast iron pizza is notorious for featuring a hot sauce so hot “it’s probably not safe to eat.”
Daniel Watkins, head chef at St. Leonard's in east London, developed his love for cast iron when he started working at the restaurant. Food here is cooked on an open hearth – you can put a cast iron skillet right onto the hot coal. “There's something primal about fire. But even using it at home, get some good veggies in there and it retains heat and gives you a nice, even cooking,” he says. “You take pride in it as it becomes part of your armoury. [Like with] kombucha and ferments, good knives and cast iron are about going back to basics. It’s robust cooking.”
All cast iron pans need to be ‘seasoned’ before use – the creation of a non-stick cooking surface through careful applications of oil and heat. Google “how to season cast iron” and your screen will fill with hundreds of similar yet crucially different methods. This is serious stuff. You will stand in your kitchen for hours or even days, rubbing in increasingly obscure fats. You will heat the pan again and again and smoke will fill your kitchen. Partners, housemates and pets will flee. Your eyes water from the smoke, or maybe it’s from the admiration of that perfect shiny black pan at the end of the greasy rainbow.
How to season a cast iron pan is a personal choice – everyone does it a little bit differently. But many roads on the internet lead back to an elaborate blog post by Sheryl Canter, a self-taught programmer who did some serious research into cast iron perfection.
“The journey for how to learn how to care for cast iron leaves a lot of room for improvement,” says Abrams. “I did the bacon grease method, the olive oil, rapeseed oil. I did the method where you heat the pan dry and put the oil in thick. I did thin coats and let it sit at room temperature. I did the deep strip down – all of it. But the Canter method is basically to use flax seed oil. It creates a surface that’s like glass instead of plastic.”
Matthew Ede, 24, a production manager in south London, is similarly obsessive about his cast iron pan. He will let others use it, but there are rules. “I know it's really picky, but nothing too acidic should go in [because it can ruin the seasoning],” he says. “Just be really gentle with it. Ideally [wash it with] just salt and hot water.” When Ede went to the Peak District with a friend recently, he decided only one tool would do, weight be damned. “I took my biggest cast iron with me in my rucksack, and a little gas stove. We cooked some bacon on the top of a hill – cast iron feels a lot more traditional.”
Ede cooks vegetarian food in his cast iron too, but “it was definitely steak that got me interested at first.” The fact that the cast iron experience often starts with a desire to perfect steak may offer a hint to the source of it being coded as 'masculine'. Ultimately, cast iron is an extension of the barbecue, which like most cooking outside of the domestic sphere, is seen as a 'male' activity (women still do more cooking at home, and most professional chefs are still men). Advertisers grabbed onto this idea in the 1950s, giving us the concept of the suburban dad manning the grill.
Even today, a version of this idea continues to be perpetuated. According to Curbed, the Lodge cast iron skillet was named a must-have on four separate occasions in five years by Men’s Health, a sentiment echoed by other men’s magazines including GQ and Esquire. The Wall Street Journal has even posited the kitchen as the new “man cave”, arguing that cooking has been “re-coded” as a masculine pastime because foodie culture increasingly makes it less of a drudgery and more a display of mastery. “It’s not like when women cook, in terms of nurturing someone. Guys like to talk about what they are doing, and nerd out and compete. It’s cooking as sport,” Bon Appétit editor Adam Rapoport told Grub Street. Back in the day, these men would have been fixing cars or doing woodwork but now, they spend hours seasoning a pan – an ideal hobby if you live in a city flat without a garden or shed to spread out.
The r/castiron subreddit is a place for these cast iron heads to really geek out. The thread is food pictures mixed with chemistry experiments, and a strong sense that somewhere out there, the right oil at the right temperature will create the ultimate layer of polymerisation for your cooking surface. Alex Vasys, a 31-year-old retail worker in Colorado, is a regular on r/castironn. Over the phone he tells me has maybe 20 pieces of cast iron. “It’s got a little crazy,” he admits.
Vasys also likes to restore old pans and gift to friends and family. “I try to give them instructions, but they're going to do what they're going to do, right,” he says, although he will sometimes take the gifted pans home to re-season them if necessary.
Vasys learned everything he knows on his first pan, a little vintage Griswold with a crack in the side. “I've tried out every single restoration technique on this pan. I have a soft spot in my heart for the cracked skillet – it’s still my favourite,” he says. Then follows a long conversation about vintage cast iron markings, and how some can go for thousands of dollars. Vasys has a “cast iron guy” who he likes to get his pieces from: “For my birthday, my sister wanted to get me some nice cast iron so we went to see him. He’s an older gentleman, he’s got two sheds full of cast iron. My sister got me a post-Civil War era pan, it’s really nice thin cast iron, very smooth. It's from before they really started mass producing them.”
Matt Thomas, 39, a teacher and writer from Iowa, calls himself a cast iron “dabbler” as he only has four pans. “But in the process of [seasoning] these things, you find yourselves in strange places online – cast iron forums and YouTube videos – where you start to realise that not only can I be maximising this Lodge skillet that I bought for $20, but actually, if I got a $50 antique skillet it could be even better,” he says. “There's this promise of the perfect pan for the perfect cook.”
Anand Madabushi’s first cast iron pan was already a heirloom: a dosa tawa that used to belong to his great-grandmother in India. “My mum gave it to me when I was about 17, but I didn’t use it successfully until many years later. At one point it was rusty and in pretty bad shape,” says Madabushi, 34, an American film producer living in Berkshire. “It took an obsessive amount of reading to learn the right way to season. There's so much conflicting information – so much bro science. Separating [the right way] from the old wives’ tales takes a long time of trying different things. I've ruined pans in the process.”
For Abrams, the cast iron pan is really about being able to rely on the things you have in your life. “I'd be happy never to season it again,” he says. “But yep, it was totally worth the effort.”