New York City restaurateur and Instagram ideologue Frank Prisinzano is tired of repeating himself. The chef, whose social media rants are the stuff of Instagram legend, has no love for the fabled cast-iron skillet. When asked if there would ever be an instance when he would use one, Prisinzano's resolve was absolute: “They are ancient cookware. No.”
Before World War II, cast iron was the king of the American kitchen, its popularity driven by the discovery of raw iron along the Great Lakes in the Upper Midwest, which made it affordable and ubiquitous. Today, though, the highlights of cast iron — the heat capacity, the searing power, the quasi-nonstick finish — are readily available in cookware that's more durable and less fussy. Yet, thanks to a bevy of well-branded companies and monied investors, cast-iron cookware is more popular today than it has been since the 1940s.
Cooks praise cast iron's potential to reach blisteringly high temperatures, a trait Boston University professor Rama Bansil assigns to low thermal conductivity, which means the material heats up slowly but retains that heat for longer. This heat retention, in conjunction with a huge weight advantage over other types of pans, makes it a good fit for baking or especially hard sears. But the marginal advantage in searing capacity is nullified by its shortcomings. Stainless steel, by contrast, heats up more quickly and evenly (particularly cladded steel with an aluminum core, an All-Clad invention that's become close to standard over time.)
Ayesha Nurdjaja, executive chef at Shuka in New York City, likes cast iron, but doesn't use it at her restaurant, which is kitted out with all stainless steel. “With the hustle and bustle of a busy restaurant, [stainless steel] is durable and can withstand a ding or two and doesn't need as much care as cast iron,” she said. “Cast iron is heavy, which becomes tiresome when working on the line.”
Cooks praise cast iron's longevity, too. Yes, cast-iron skillets can live for decades — vintage skillets can be worth hundreds of dollars — but most don't. While their gargantuan weight implies some level of burliness, cast iron is the most brittle of all cookware materials. One drop at the wrong angle and a handle could snap.
There's no denying cast iron's frugality, a huge selling point for many a thrifty cook. But $10 options from the likes of Lodge or Victoria arrive with a rough surface that makes food stick — assuming you can even get past the unshakeable feeling you've purchased an unfinished product. (Of course, you could just spend upward of 20-times more on a boutique cast-iron skillet that offers a perfectly smooth cooking surface as a solve.)
And then there's the maintenance, a topic rife with contradictions — soap vs. no soap, flaxseed oil vs. canola oil, water vs. no water, and whether or not you can cook tomatoes in one. Bottom line: the trouble associated with cast iron — keeping it seasoned, clean and rust-free — is so far beyond its competition that the difference in searing capacity is a consolation prize, and one that is replicated by the lighter, more durable carbon-steel cookware.
A longtime New Yorker who doesn't mince words, Prisinzano wishes this weren't a debate. For him, you buy a decent stainless steel skillet and be done with it. When it comes to cast iron, however, he's done talking about it. "It is a thing of the past," he said.