The basics of cast iron buying.

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People often ask me about cast iron. What they should buy? what do they need? how should they pick the pieces that they are going to get?

I usually start by asking a few questions.

1) Are you going to be using the pieces or collecting, or a combination of the two?

That’s because quality usable iron and quality collectible iron are different – not just in quality, but significantly in price.  You can find great quality users relatively inexpensively, or you can pay a sometimes significant premium for usable collector quality iron that is just as functional, but may accrue significant value as you use it. We will expand on types of cast iron you can expect to find, and what we have found to be useful in our kitchens.

2) Are you looking for modern or vintage iron?

Modern iron, while readily available, is of significant different quality than vintage iron – that’s because the processes used to make it, the finishes and even the casting sand is different. Modern manufacturers have, as a cost saving measure, for the most part stopped milling and polishing their iron after casting, beyond the first cleaning. This is because the time taken in the multi-step process to polish each piece can literally double the cost of manufacture. Even the best modern iron usually pales in comparison of smoothness and non-stick ability compared to quality vintage iron for this reason.

The historical quality and location of manufacturer may matter too.  While vintage iron found in the United States is usually a slice of Americana, the majority of cast iron being made today comes from Asia (the only major exceptions being pieces made by Lodge and a couple of artisan manufacturers who make their iron in the USA ).  That does not preclude foreign made iron from being of high quality – some vintage iron from other countries is of high quality – including older pieces from Korea, Taiwan, Canada, and Mexico and you have to judge those on a case by case basis.

3) What are the most important things to you?  Bang for your buck?  Best cookers?  Investment?  Prestige of the brand among the cast iron community?  History? Cost? Look?

Those are factors which really should help you find your direction.  Those looking for collector value or prestige probably should be looking at collector type pieces – as probably should good chefs who want the very best that money can buy*, while the others probably can safely veer away from pieces which demand a premium beyond their use price.

4) How involved do you want to get right away?

That’s important to know right off the bat.  Do you want to get a single piece and try it out before you commit to a whole set? or jump in whole hog and get a bunch?  The answer to that depends a lot on you.  If you have no thoughts of collecting but want great users, then getting several pieces at a time make sense (so long as you are getting them from a trustworthy source), but if you are thinking about collecting but aren’t yet settled on just what you want to collect, it might be smarter to start with either one or two pieces, so you can determine what you like, or don’t like about certain brands.  That way you can compare pieces and find your own personal niche in collecting.

5) What are you buying them for?  Use, display, or collecting?

Pretty straight forward there – it could be one, two, or all three of the reasons.  Figuring out which of these apply to you can help you find the right piece for you (or help us find he right piece for you!).