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Strike while the cast iron is hot

Despite the technological advances in modern pots and pans, many restaurants are turning back to the time-tested traditional favorite, cast-iron cookware. Chefs cite some clear culinary advantages to cast iron over nonstick pans. “The best pans I have and the most-used pans I have are cast iron,” says Jason McClure, executive chef of the 185-seat Sazerac in Seattle’s Hotel Monaco. “It has great distribution of heat, which is really important. Unlike with nonstick surfaces, we sometimes want the ‘stick’ to happen. We want meats to caramelize and vegetables to create intense flavors.” Conversely, McClure says, with sufficiently high heat and just a touch of oil, cast iron can function as nonstick cookware as well.

There’s also a flavor benefit that comes from cast iron, says Michael Camerano, chef and instructor at the Dining Room at Kendall College in Chicago. “Cast-iron pans have a tremendous searing ability, especially for steak and fish. And the more you use cast iron, the more flavor it will impart to the food,” he adds.

Perhaps the most obvious advantage to cast iron is durability, which can be an important edge over aluminum in busy kitchens where pots and pans may be treated carelessly. “Due to budgetary restraints, I’ve bought my share of thinner aluminum pans,” says McClure. “The way we use them on a daily basis, [aluminum] pans can sometimes have a lifespan of only months before they just get beat up and we can’t use them any more.

The cost differential between aluminum and cast iron can be surprisingly small. A 10-inch aluminum saute pan can be found for as little as $10 to $12; a similar-size cast-iron skillet will cost anywhere from $16 to $25. Enameled cast-iron pans are pricier, running as high as $200.

McClure still is cooking with the cast-iron pans he bought when he opened Sazerac 17 years ago. The durability of cast iron also means that the pan bottoms are less prone to pitting or denting, making them good choices for use with induction burners.

Cast-iron serving pieces also are moving out of barbecue joints onto trendsetting restaurant tables. At the New Orleans-style Second Line in Memphis, the Happy Enchiladas appetizer comes in a cast-iron baker sized to fit two enchiladas, and an andouille, crawfish and pimento cheese fries appetizer arrives in a mini cast-iron double-handled pan. The Reel Club, a seafood concept by Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Oak Brook, Ill., serves the protein component of its make-your-own taco lunch offering in cast-iron mini kettles. These smaller cast-iron pieces, available in a variety of shapes, range in price from $10 to $70 each.

Handle with care

To ensure a long lifespan, manufacturers recommend hand washing cast-iron pans without soap and drying them immediately, then rubbing with a light coating of vegetable oil. Stay away from metal scouring pads and dishwashers.

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