I'm a fan of cast iron cookware, along with it's hip younger brother: carbon steel. Both types of pans have similar properties in that they can be seasoned to achieve a glorious nonstick coating...but getting to this stage is not a simple task. Sure, most cast iron pans made today come with a "pre-seasoning", but this is more for rust-prevention than for a nonstick coating.
Anyone who has cooked with a brand new cast iron pan right out of the box will tell you that it is far from nonstick. After discovering this, I went down the rabbit hole of Reddit threads, YouTube videos, articles from suburban housewives, you name it--in order to find the secret to a perfect nonstick coating. Buying a cast iron or carbon steel pan is more akin to embarking on a journey than purchasing a tool ready for immediate use.
Which brings up the obvious question: why are so many people embarking on that journey in the 21st century?
As with many questions in life, I think the answer lies in a mixture between the logos and the pathos, i.e. it is part logical and part emotional. And I also have a theory that it has more to do with smartphones than it does with heat retention.
What Are Some Logical Reasons for Cast Iron?
To start things off, let's review all the reasons people say they like cast iron. I put "say" in italics because I'm a firm believer that people don't like to be honest with themselves, so they usually come up with some sort of practical justification for an otherwise emotional decision.
That being said, there are, of course, practical reasons to like cast iron. It is relatively cheap and very heavy. This heaviness, while a drawback in terms of maneuverability, gives it excellent heat retention, which can come in handy if you are searing a steak, among other things. It also makes it very durable, so your cast iron pan will probably outlive you. There is also the aforementioned ability to create a sleek nonstick coating on the pan, allowing you to cook practically anything you want. For all these reasons, if you were only able to own one pan, it would make sense to make it a cast iron pan.
But wait, there's more! Tired of expensive gym memberships? Well, slinging around a cast iron pan will give you forearms like Popeye! Tired of not having anything to defend yourself in a home invasion? A swift knock to the head with a cast iron pan will put any criminal out cold! Legend has it that a man named Clint Eastwood improvised a bulletproof vest with a cast iron plate way back in 1885, so its versatility should speak for itself.
What are Some Logical Reasons to Dislike Cast Iron?
Nothing is without its haters, and cast iron is no exception. The argument against cast iron really boils down to how it stacks up against the competition, and how changes in modern life have made many of its positives obsolete.
Cast iron peaked in popularity in America around the mid to late 19th century, when many manufacturers like Griswold and Wagner were coming into the market. It was common for every kitchen (or hearth) to have a cast iron pan or Dutch Oven. This made sense for the time because, for one, there was nothing better, and for another, the density and heat retention of cast iron worked well with the sort of heating elements that people had back then, mainly open fires and hot coals. Since one does not have very exact control of a fire, the heat retention of cast iron made it impervious to the ebb and flow of the flame. Once electric and gas stovetops became available, cast iron's heat retention became less important.
Modern cooktops, along with rise of Teflon-coated cookware, were the two factors that caused the initial demise of cast iron. I like to think my cast iron pans are pretty nonstick, but they still aren't as nonstick as a new Teflon pan. Combine that with the fact that Telfon pans are about the same price as cast iron, much lighter, and easier to clean, it's no wonder that cast iron fell out of popularity in the 1960s and 70s. In the post-WWII era, there were a number of technological advances in appliances that made life significantly easier than it used to be, and the maintenance of cast iron just didn't fit in with this easier life.
Sure, Teflon has its downsides. Most people recognize that you have to be careful when using it over high heat, as the coating can break down and become toxic (although the degree to which this happens is largely an overstated fear). You also can't use metal utensils on nonstick pans, as they can scratch the coating and compromise its utility. Even if you are careful with it, though, the coating does degrade over time with use, so after a year or two it may be no better than using a stainless steel uncoated pan.
From a practical standpoint, though, the downsides aren't that big. As long as you don't leave an empty pan on a burner over high heat for more than a few minutes, it probably won't fill your house with toxic fumes. And spending $20-$50 every year to replace your pan is a small price to pay for most people.
Cast Iron's Emotional Appeal
While many people may convince themselves that they like cast iron for all its practical purposes, I think the cast iron renaissance in the 21st century speaks to a deeper cultural yearning.
The post-WWII era saw tremendous advances in technology that made so many facets of life easier. While this is, on the whole, a very good thing, it brought with it a change in the way we consume products. Planned obsolescence has dominated the market, and has made most everything that we buy nowadays completely expendable.
Smartphones, to me, are the most obvious example of this. The first smartphones were absolutely groundbreaking, giving people virtually unlimited access to information in the palm of their hand. Of course, we adapted to this convenience fairly quickly, and every year a new phone is released, with even more features...that people have to have. For my generation, the infamous millennials, keeping up with the Joneses doesn't mean having a big house or a fancy car...it means having the newest iPhone (and using it to take and post pictures of all the cool and exotic places you visit).
Smartphone manufacturers have very little reason to make a robust, reliable phone...because it'll be obsolete within a year and people will want to replace it with a newer one. Car manufacturers are trying to do the same thing. We live in a world everything can be bought, and everything will be obsolete within a few years. If we don't keep up with the times, we get left behind rather quickly.
Which is where cast iron comes in: it is the anti-smartphone. While a smartphone is an enormously complex marvel of electrical and computer engineering, a cast iron pan is about as simple as it gets...it's a solid piece of iron shaped in a particular way. A new smartphone eventually slows down, the battery doesn't last as long, and the pictures it takes don't seem as vivid as the ones the newer version takes. Meanwhile, the cast iron pan only gets better with more use.
It's also the journey of maintaining the seasoning layer that I think people are subconsciously attracted to. Unlike most things today, a really good seasoning layer can't be bought (well...some newer manufacturers are trying to make it so that it can). Even so, it still takes some care and effort to keep a good seasoning layer intact, and it can give one a sense of pride in oneself to see the benefits of good, consistent use and care.
Also, I won't lie, there is a sort of a nostalgic "cool-factor" to using cast iron. Even though I live in a house in the suburbs, whenever I use my cast iron pan on my gas burner to cook some breakfast sausage and potatoes, the deeper recesses of my brain are filled with visions of a farmhouse on the open range, far from civilization, getting ready for a big day of exhausting but fulfilling work...a far cry from my desk job as an engineer putting numbers into spreadsheets. A Teflon pan is just a pan, but a cast iron pan...now that's a piece of history (even more so if you are able to find a vintage one that isn't made anymore).
So, Should I Use Cast Iron?
I don't know, it's your life!
Do you need a cast iron pan? No.
Are they cool to have? Yes.
Are they worth the investment in time you have to put into them? That all depends on what kind of person you are. If you like things to be easy, hands-off, consistent, then you may not like cast iron cookware. If you like a project that doesn't involve a large investment, then I think cast iron is great for that. It gives a small sense of satisfaction and accomplishment every time you use it, and the longer you own it, the more you love it. What other product does that?
So whether you have unreliable burners or want to feel like a cowboy, cast iron has a lot to offer for being such a simple technology...and one could argue that's the whole point.