Cast-Iron Cookware Is Still Working Its Magic

Times Staff Writer

Cast iron is the answer to finding a cookware that gets better with age and use. Described as "that old black magic" that made Grandma's corn bread or fried chicken better than yours, well-seasoned cast iron is black and rugged on the outside and satiny "smooth as a baby's bottom" (as one author writes) on the inside.

Cast-iron cooking is back and revitalized, although it never did leave the kitchens of Southern cooks, or advocates who swear by cast-iron-fried chicken or fish, beans, chilis and stews. The footed Dutch oven is still a constant mover at surplus and camp supplies, favored by camp cooks for its adaptability to charcoal. Coals can be placed on the flat lid so that when covered, the pot gets heat from top and bottom, perfect for baking rolls, biscuits or bread.

Cast iron is sizzling anew for those who have discovered the Tex-Mex fajitas. "The true preparation of a fajita almost demands cast iron," said Bob Kellermann, president of Lodge Manufacturing Co. in South Pittsburg, Tenn. The great-grandson of the original owner of the 91-year-old family business added, "Sure, it's delicious, but I believe the sizzle and the aroma coming from that hot cast-iron griddle are what makes the fajita so popular."

And then there's the renaissance of Cajun cuisine--blackened fish, blackened everything can be done efficiently only in a cast-iron skillet.

The Era of Stovetops

Interest in cast-iron cookware can also be attributed to induction stovetops, which require cooking vessels with magnetic qualities that cast iron has.

Many cast-iron cookware buyers are sold on durability and heat-retention features as well as benefits of the utensil in imparting dietary iron to foods. A study published in the July 1986 edition of the Journal of the American Dietetic Assn. concluded that iron utensils significantly increase the iron content of food.

It's easy to find cast-iron goods. Several generations-old cast-iron skillets can be pulled out of hiding from Grandma's treasures, or found at swap meets, garage sales and thrift shops. Manufacturers, of course, have quickly taken advantage of the reviving interest in a cookware as old as history. It is believed that cast-iron was brought to the New World in 1492 by Columbus, and, by the middle of the 18th Century, its use was highly regarded throughout Europe.

What's new in cast iron? For Lodge and Wagner Cast Iron (from General Housewares Corp.), the two leading manufacturers of quality-rated cast ironware, the direction is toward new packaging and attention to trendy uses like fajita and Cajun or Creole preparation.

General Housewares Corp. has replaced the Wagner Ware line with Wagner's 1891 Original Cast Iron. The company has redesigned the handles of the skillets for better balance, comfort and control. Seasoning instructions have also been added to the bottom of the pans.

Some of the Wagner line include, in assorted sizes, footed Dutch ovens, skillets, griddles, fat-free fryers with grids, fajita pan/skillet griddle, square skillet, large double grill, bean pot, tea kettle, corn cake pan, corn bread skillet and Danish cake pan (Aebleskiver). Teamed with cast-aluminum Magnalite covered pots in its Cajun Cuisine Cookware set is an 11 3/4-inch cast-iron skillet. Another newer set is the Louisiana Style cookware consisting of a four-quart covered casserole, a 10-inch and an 11 1/2-inch open skillet and a 1 1/2-quart covered saucepan.

A Wide Offering

The Lodge selection is overwhelming, true to its logo "you name it and Lodge makes it." The camp cookware consists of a rectangular fish pan, a camp fryer with griddle cover and assorted-size camp Dutch ovens with legs and flanged lid.

One of the newer additions in the Lodge line is the Original Cajun Cookware line in bright-red packaging. The five-piece Cajun cookware set consists of two skillets, a five-quart jambalaya pot with cover and cornstick pan. Other packages in the line include a four-piece set of Cajun one-pint gumbo bowls; a three-piece skillet set; a seven-quart Cajun jambalaya pot, and a 12-inch Cajun blackening skillet.

The Texas Fajita Sizzleware from Lodge includes a cast-iron serving griddle, a rattan underliner, a hot-handle holder and recipes for beef, chicken and pork fajitas.

The most frequent drawback to any cast-iron cookware is rusting. Both companies provide complete details on how to properly season the cookware. Another thing to remember is that the thinner the cast iron, the more easily it will rust. A good investment is the higher-quality grade.

The Lodge cast - iron products are available at Cookin' Stuff (Torrance and Whittier), All American Home Center (Downey) and Gelson's markets.

The Wagner cast - iron line from General Housewares is available at Rudan's Gourmet (Westminster), some Safeway stores and Von's Grocery.

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