THE WASHINGTON POST – This article starts with a reader question: What is the difference between traditional and enamelled cast iron cookware?
The good news for those short on money or kitchen space is that most things that can be done in an enameled pot or pan can be done in traditional, well-seasoned cast iron, with a few adjustments. Many of the big differences lie in the care of the pieces, although there are a few things to keep in mind when cooking too. Here is an overview.
If you’re thinking of spicing up your cookware collection and money is worth considering, traditional cast iron is almost invariably cheaper than enameled pieces, and sometimes many times cheaper, depending on the size and brand. With proper treatment, both types of cast iron can last a lifetime, and more. Whether you’re spending a little or a lot, consider it a long-term investment.
Hobby cooks fear and love seasoning on traditional cast iron. Seasoning is what happens when fats are heated to a certain point, causing them to polymerize or reorganize into something that resembles a plastic coating and bonds with the metal. While many pans are pre-seasoned, a little regular maintenance (oiling after cooking) and frequent cooking will help build the patina. If the wort is damaged, more intensive care – a few rounds of oil in the oven or on the stove – may be necessary. Ultimately, you get a naturally non-stick surface that can compete with manufactured non-stick coatings. While enamel is useful in removing the pitted surface of cast iron to which food can be more easily trapped and stuck, it is not inherently non-stick and does not build up flavor. So you need a sufficient amount of fat every time you cook to avoid buildup.
Enamel is less conductive than cast iron. That will change the rate at which the outside of the pan – where the cast iron is sandwiched between two layers of enamel – heats up, according to David Green, associate professor of materials science, chemistry, and mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Sciences. An enameled pan heats up a little slower than traditional cast iron, he said.
Aside from that, enamel can help distribute heat more evenly, said Liheng Cai, Green’s cooking class assistant and assistant professor of materials science, chemistry, and biomedicine. But this redistribution of heat actually corrects for the uneven nature of the burner, rather than the hotspots created by the cast iron itself.
Being aware of the different heating properties is only half the battle. This “material mismatch”, as Green calls it, can destroy the pan itself if not handled properly. When exposed to direct heat from a burner, the metal heats up (and expands) faster than the enamel, Cai said, potentially causing stress on the enamel and cracking.
This is more likely in the event of a temperature shock or a rapid change in temperature in the pan – one reason why an enamelled pan should not be heated empty on a burner. The same argument applies as to why you shouldn’t hit a hot enameled pan with cold water when the metal can contract faster than the enamel.
While regular cast iron won’t crack easily, it is generally good practice not to immerse this type of hot pan in cold water, either. Rarely does a temperature shock cause a cast iron preheat pan to break. So unless you know you are dealing with a very unreliable burner, you can and should preheat it empty on the stove. This prevents the fat from disintegrating or burning and ensures that the food turns crispy and brown when hit
USE WITH CERTAIN INGREDIENTS
Ordinary cast iron is reactive, meaning acidic ingredients (vinegar, tomatoes, etc.) can interact with the metal and add flavor or color to the food. Reactions are less likely to occur with well seasoned pans, especially dishes with short cooking times, but there is one thing to be aware of. Enamel is minimally reactive and acceptable for acidic foods.
No, I’m not just talking about the exterior paint colors that make a lot of people swoon. Many enamelled pieces have a light, cream-colored interior, which makes it particularly easy to check the color of the spicy stock (boiled juices) on the bottom of the pan or just to check for burning. While this isn’t impossible in a traditional cast iron pan – or a black enameled pan – you just need to be more careful to make sure you don’t let things go too far. Something like caramel in a dark pan can be harder to judge by sight, too, but in this case an instant thermometer can be your friend.
WHAT TO CHOOSE WHEN
You may already have pans of both types in your kitchen. So which one you choose depends on what you are preparing. No-knead bread works well in Dutch ovens, which may or may not be enameled. Sear a steak? Cai said that you might be better off with regular cast iron, as it can be heated to a higher temperature, giving you a crispy exterior and a less well-made interior. Also, think about whether you’re cooking in a dry or wet environment, Green said. For something like a stew or pot roast, the more even heat of an enameled pan can be especially beneficial to cook the entire dish evenly.
If you don’t have the pan on a recipe, hope is not lost. Just note the points from above and adjust accordingly. Maybe add a little more fat by going from a traditionally seasoned to enameled cast iron. Perhaps you will cut the cooking time from enamelled to traditional cast iron. Pay attention to the food and tweak as needed.
For both types of pans, only soap and water are often sufficient. And no, they don’t remove the seasoning on your regular cast iron. Beware of more aggressive alternatives, however. A nylon scrubber or non-scratch sponge is a fine chainmail tool designed for the job, but scouring pads and cleaners like Bar Keepers Friend can actually damage the seasoning. Kosher salt is coarse enough to scrub stuck food without damaging the spices.
Bartenders Friend and Bon Ami, on the other hand, are ideal for enamelled cookware. Scouring pads or other rough tools can scratch the enamel. Both types are best dried by hand after washing – to avoid rust with normal cast iron and to prevent an enamelled pan from chipping, scratching or knocking over when air-drying while sitting.