Durable Goods: Cast Iron

Cooking is one of those life skills that can very easily save you hundreds of thousands of dollars over your lifetime, for a relatively minimal initial investment of time and money.

Let's look at the numbers:

Say you're saving and investing 40% of your income and planning to retire in approximately 20 years.  If the market average return is in the vicinity of 7% (and this is very reasonable), that puts your Future Value Factors (FVFs) at approximately 4x, 40x, 500x, and 15500x for one-time, annual, monthly, and daily purchases, respectively.  Let's say that you're considering changing your lifestyle so that four days a week, you cook dinner instead of eating out ($10 saved) and you have leftovers that you can bring into work the next day ($5 saved).  At $60/week, this is equivalent to saving $8.50 a day.  At the daily-purchase FVF of 15500x, this simple act will put an extra $130,000 in your bank account at your 20-year retirement goal.

Saving less than 40% and retiring in more than 20 years?  Due to the power of compound interest, your savings will be even greater.  Look up your Future Value Factors here.

Have a significant other?  If you can double the total saved on food per week, that's now $260,000 extra saved at retirement time.  If you have friends living nearby and you can coordinate regular potlucks and foodshares, the savings can be even greater for less work on your part.

Maybe it's time to learn how to cook.

Tools For The Job

You probably already have access to the two most crucial ingredients for successful cooking: food and a heat source.  Yes yes, there are lots of fancy tools and techniques that you can make use of to accomplish all manner of tasty things, but cooking is fundamentally the application of heat to food.  And while there are some incredibly delicious things you can make with the direct application of heat (see: campfire corn-on-the-cob), in most cases you're going to want to place something between the heat source and the food itself.

Cast iron is the most inexpensive, most durable, most environmentally-friendly, and most versatile of the food-heat intermediators.  Taken together with the incredible cost savings of cooking as described above, I would venture to say that cast iron cookware is some of the most Mustachian hardware that one could obtain.  It's right up there with the bicycle.

My cast iron cookware collection consists of the following:

Lodge Logic Cast Iron Skillet, 12" (the best place to start; 10.5" or 12")
Lodge Logic Cast Iron Pizza Pan, 14" (doubles as a griddle!)
Lodge Logic Cast Iron Wok, 14"

I don't own these, but they appear to have their uses:
Lodge Logic Cast Iron Grill Griddle (20"x10.5") (turns two oven burners into a grill)
Lodge Logic Cast Iron Skillet, 17" (approaching paella pan dimensions...)
Lodge Logic Cast Iron Square Grill Pan (if you like lines on your food)
Lodge Logic Cast Iron Grill Press (press that burger, bacon, or tofu into submission)
Lodge Logic Cast Iron Loaf Pan (hello, cornbread)

Lodge's cookware is pre-seasoned and ready to go out of the box.

Drunk off the new-found economic power of my $30k/year graduate student stipend, I committed the crassly commercial and co-opted my cast iron cookware collection on Amazon.  If you have more time and less money (and you almost certainly do), buy used instead!  Cast iron is absolutely indestructible, so it's not surprising that Craigslist actively trades in the stuff: http://sfbay.craigslist.org/search/sss?query=cast+iron+skillet.  Find a local seller and save a few bucks.  Lodge is the primary manufacturer of newer cast iron cookware, but if you look on Craigslist or Ebay you can also find cookware made by Griswold, Wagner, Victor, Erie, and Iron Mountain; Griswold pans especially are now collector's items.

Interestingly enough, I am related to the Griswold family who ran their cast iron manufacturing plant in Erie, PA from 1865 to 1957.  Perhaps I have a little cast iron in the blood.

Cast Iron is Awesome

At $15-20 new, anyone can afford a good cast iron skillet.  Cast iron is a one-time investment, a serious heirloom purchase: it's a solid slab of metal with no welds or rivets, and you don't have to worry about it warping, cracking, or delaminating.  Drop it and you may damage your stove, countertop, floor, and foot bones, but the skillet itself will be fine.  A 12" cast iron skillet is excellent for self-defense.

While a nonstick pan is ruined when the finish begins to flake off, cast iron's finish can easily be repaired at home by a process called 'seasoning' (see 'Care and Feeding of Cast Iron' below).  The nonstick properties of the pan actually improve with the finish's age.

You can cook on the highest of high heat without fear of damaging the finish or the pan itself.  It's perfectly fine to place the cast iron directly in a campfire, on the grill, or over a high-output gas burner.  Metal utensils, which irreparably scratch nonstick, aluminium, or stainless steel, are fine too.  The metal is thick and holds a huge amount of heat, so the hot pan doesn't cool down as much when you throw cold food into it.  This is extremely important when you're trying to get a good crust of tasty browning on food, which requires that the pan's surface stay as hot as possible.  All of that retained heat also keeps the food warm when you move it to the dinner table.  If you've ever been to a restaurant that serves fajitas with a sizzling skillet of peppers and onions, you get the idea.

Lodge also makes its cast iron cookware in the US, which is pretty awesome for the economy.

Cast Iron vs Nonstick Cookware

That said, cast iron is not perfect for everything.  It's quite heavy, so you should make sure you'll be able to handle that much metal safely before you buy one.

Lodge states that you should initially avoid highly-acidic foods containing tomatoes and citrus juices until the seasoning has had some time to develop.  Cast iron is not your best choice for boiling water, because you must also heat up the pan's considerable metal mass and it will take more time and energy than it would in a stainless steel or aluminum pot.

Some extremely delicate foods may be more difficult to cook, though this is less of an issue as the pan's non-stick properties improve with use.  Cast iron also has more stringent maintenance requirements than other pans, and should be wiped out and reheated with a bit of oil to drive off water a short time after use.

Your great great grandparents may very well have cooked ALL of their food in cast iron.  That being said, there may be times when you might personally prefer the fast heating times, reduced maintenance requirements, and unnaturally-nonstick properties of a pan coated with a halopolymer such as Teflon.  Cook's Illustrated recently evaluated these pans and found the T-fal Professional Total Nonstick Fry & Saute Pan to be among the best, at a not-terrible price of $30-40.  The problem?

“If you get a year to a year and a half of life out of [a new nonstick pan], we think you got a pretty good deal," says Hugh Rushing, president of the Cookware Manufacturers Association.  The Environment called, and it wanted to say it hates you.

Future Value Factor of an annual purchase at 7% annualized return with a 20-year retirement horizon: 40x.  Total cost of this disposable pan to you at retirement: $1600.  Your wallet is on the other line.

Is your diet entirely composed of paper-thin crepes and boiled water?  No?  Then what better way to extend your nonstick pan's usable life than to use it only when it's actually necessary, leaving the heavy duty cooking jobs to an indestructible $15-20 chunk of hot metal.

Care and Feeding of Cast Iron

Unlike preposterously expensive enameled cookware or short-lived ceramic of Teflon nonstick pans, cast iron cookware isn't ruined if the finish is chipped; on the contrary, you can reseason the pan yourself in a few easy steps.

You can reduce the required maintenance by doing the following immediately after each use:
  1. Wipe out the pan; for stirfry or meat cooking, this may be all that's required
  2. If required, scrape out the pan; a plastic spatula or stiff brush works well for this
  3. If there's some stuck-on stuff, add a tiny bit of water, place it on the burner, and finish the scraping
  4. Once rinsed and/or wiped out, set it on the burner for a minute until the water completely evaporates
  5. Add a drizzle of oil or a small glob of shortening or fat and coat the pan with a paper towel
  6. Once the hot oil has soaked in to your liking, wipe out any excess and store your pan
It's fine to use some water if you need to, but never use soap.  Never ever ever put it through the dishwasher, even if you're planning on reseasoning it - harsh dishwashing detergents can cause pitting.

Worst-case scenario with cast iron?  Your roommate doesn't read this blog and doesn't know anything about cast iron, so he runs your skillet through the dishwasher (bad!).  When it comes out, much of the finish is gone and big, nasty rust spots mark the regions where bare metal was exposed to the harsh detergents.

Don't panic - it's just a flesh wound.
  1. If you want to strip the finish and start over, scrub your pan with a stiff brush or steel wool
  2. Dry the pan on the stovetop or in the oven - make sure the water has completely evaporated
  3. Coat thinly with vegetable oil, shortening, or animal grease/fat
  4. Place in the oven at 450F for at least one hour
  5. Remove, recoat, repeat until the finish looks good
Don't want to waste all of that electricity or gas on your oven?  Do it directly over a gas-burning camp stove, grill, or a campfire.

More advanced methods for stripping cast iron to bare metal and removing rust include electrolysis and treatment with ammonia or lye (sodium hydroxide).  Read more about these methods at the Griswold & Cast Iron Cookware Association and the Wagner and Griswold Society.

Further Reading

Want to become a Cast Iron Master?  Read on:
Several cast iron-specific cookbooks are also available:


By making well-reasoned lifestyle decisions and choosing to spend your time and money strategically, you stand to save hundreds of thousands of dollars over your lifetime.  This easily translates into tens to hundreds of thousands of extra hours that you will not be obligated to work.

Food is an area where most people could stand to reduce their expenses significantly.  Durable, low-cost tools like cast iron cookware can facilitate lifestyle choices that reduce financial and environmental waste.

Do you use cast iron?  What are your favorite things to cook in it?  Looking to get started and have questions or concerns?