By Jeff Rogers
Photography by Stephanie Steele
In a cupboard packed full of inky-black cast iron, bright enameled cast-iron pans stand out boldly, begging to be pulled out and used to prepare your favorite recipes. When choosing what pan I will cook in, there are always several pieces that will work, but often times there are ones that will work best. Choosing the right tool for the job is a crucial part of successful cooking. It’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
About 20 years ago, I was on a quest to create the ultimate chili recipe, and decided I needed to use a cast-iron Dutch oven. After hours of cooking, I took my first taste of what was supposed to be the best chili ever. The flavor was rock-solid, but something wasn’t right. After another bite, my taste buds reported back with more data—there was a subtle underlying metallic taste.
At the time I was perplexed, but I know now what I was tasting was a reaction between the acidic tomatoes and the cast iron. Who knew that you shouldn’t cook acidic foods in newly-seasoned cast iron? Not me, apparently. I had a great recipe, but with my Dutch oven being newly seasoned, I definitely had the wrong tool for the recipe at hand.
Enter enameled cast iron. More than 100 years ago, pioneering industrialists had the bright idea to remove many of the limitations of cooking in cast iron by coating it with a glassy, porcelain enameled finish. Along with being very colorful, this enameled coating makes cast iron more versatile in a few key ways, while introducing a few new limitations. Here’s a quick look at the good, the bad, and the tasty.
Why You’ll Love It
- It Will Never Rust:
Because of the enameled coating inside and out, the possibility of rust is totally removed. This is great because not only do you not have to season enameled cast iron, it opens up an avenue of cleaning not typically recommended for regular cast iron—soaking. If burnt food or stains are being stubborn, it’s perfectly fine to give your pan a nice, lengthy soak to help remove them. I’ve been asked many times if the black rim around the top of an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven is bare iron. Typically, it is black, matte-finish enamel and will not rust.
- It’s Non-Reactive:
Enameled cast iron will not react with acidic foods, such as those made with tomatoes, wine, vinegar, or citrus. I reach for enameled whenever I make things like spaghetti sauce, chili dishes, and sauces. When I was growing up, my father used to cook acidic foods all the time in his cast regular cast iron, but it was well seasoned, as in years, not weeks or months. Enameled cast iron removes this waiting period and allows you to cook just about whatever you want, right now.
- It’s Braise-Friendly:
A friend from a cast-iron group once told me that he was having a difficult time keeping his regular cast-iron Dutch ovens seasoned. He proceeded to tell me that he slow cooks a lot of soups, stews, and braises. Doing this repeatedly in regular cast iron will harm your seasoning over time. It doesn’t necessarily give foods a bad taste, but slow cooking these types of foods can be very hard on your seasoning. Enamel coating solves this problem.
What You Need To Know
- It Prefers Medium Heat:
Enameled cast iron should be used mostly over medium heat, which is not ideal for searing. When I make my Ultimate Pot Roast, I sear in my 13.25” Lodge cast-iron skillet, and then transfer the roast to my enameled Dutch oven. While you definitely can sear large cuts of meat in enameled cast iron, it will eventually lead to surface staining, which is difficult to remove.
- The Finish Can Be Fragile:
The great thing about regular cast iron is that even if you beat it up a little, it comes back for more. With enameled cast iron, not so much. Bang it on the grate of your stove, and there’s a good chance you will chip it. Slide it across your stove, and you could scratch it. My rule of thumb is this—handle them all very carefully, regardless of the brand. A chip won’t harm your cooking much, but it sure does hurt your feelings when you see a chip in your beautiful colored finish!
- It’s Not Nonstick:
While one of the advantages of enameled cast iron is that it doesn’t need to (and can’t) be seasoned, this is also somewhat of a disadvantage. With regular cast iron, the better a piece is seasoned, the better it performs. With enameled cast iron, since it can’t be seasoned, you need to be careful to avoid sticking. Do this by cooking over moderate temperatures, and using adequate amounts of oil or fats. I don’t reach for enameled cast iron for scrambled eggs or bacon. For these things I want a regular, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet.
Before You Go Shopping
There’s a great variety of options to choose from when it comes to enameled cast iron; consider these tips before you decide to buy.
- Cost & Brands:
In the past, purchasing enameled cast-iron cookware was very pricy—I could’ve made a mortgage payment with what my first three pieces cost! But with new players to the game, enameled cookware is now within reach of many more people. I have had experience with both expensive brands and inexpensive brands. While there are some slight differences, mainly with how each piece is made, experience has shown me that they cook the same.
- Size & Shape:
Always purchase a piece that is a little bigger than you think you need. If you’re looking at a 6-quart Dutch oven to cook a pot roast, on the shelf it might look big enough, but once you get the meat and a few veggies in the dish, it fills up very quickly. Although you don’t want the food to get lost in a vessel that’s too big, bigger is always better than being too small. If it is your very first piece of enameled cast iron, I recommend something no smaller than 7 quarts. Another important factor is the shape. The majority of enameled Dutch ovens are round, but I have found it incredibly advantageous to have one that has an oval shape. Things like roasts and whole chickens have wide, elongated shapes. Having a piece that will accommodate them is handy.
- Don’t be lazy—clean your cookware adequately every time. Saying that you’ll clean that stain the next time you use the piece will lead to an interior cooking surface that is dull and brown.
I use soap, water, and a green non-scratch Scotchbrite scouring pad to keep my cookware clean. These scouring pads are fantastic on enameled cast iron because they clean buildup that often gets overlooked.
If you burn something in your enameled cast iron, don’t fret; boiling water in a piece can be very effective in removing burnt food. Adding dishwashing liquid while boiling also works wonders (you should NEVER do this with a regular cast iron skillet, by the way). Boiling water and then adding baking soda is also effective. Use a Lodge polycarbonate pan scraper to help remove stubborn bits of food.
For light staining that occurs over time, I have found that soaking the cooking surface in peroxide mixed with baking soda, followed by a scrub with soap and water with a scouring pad is highly effective. If you have heavier stains, fill the pan halfway full with water, add half a cup of peroxide, one-third cup of baking soda, and gently simmer for 2 hours, being careful to maintain your water level.
Follow these rules to make the most of your cookware:
- Do not preheat an empty piece of enameled cast iron. Always preheat with oil or fat added first. High heat is not recommended; medium is best.
- Never use metal utensils; they could scratch the cooking surface. I find that this occurs more with some brands than others, but your rule-of-thumb should be to always use silicon or wooden utensils.
- Be gentle. Enameled cast iron is durable, but the surface is fragile. Lift; do not slide. Be careful not to bang it against hard surfaces— it can chip.
With so many beautiful colors available in just about every size and shape imaginable, and with it now being so affordable, it would be worth your while to give enameled cast iron a shot. I love mine just as much as my regular cast iron, and I wouldn’t be caught in my kitchen without them.