I enjoy cooking. It’s one of the many things I look forward to spending more time doing when I am not working so much. Cooking is also one of those activities where the equipment you use can make the experience better. Working with a really good sharp chef knife compared to a cheap, poorly balanced, and dull knife is a good example. While the happiness research clearly shows experiences are better for happiness than material goods, material goods that enhance or encourage happy experiences through use are usually worth acquiring if those are experiences that you personally enjoy.
One of my favorite materials for cooking is cast iron. It has many great properties that made it ideal for many types of cooking. On top of that, standard cast iron cookware is inexpensive and yet it clearly fits in the frugal category, not the cheap category.
Cheap cookware is not durable and/or not very functional. Despite the low price for cast iron, this is not the case.
It is extremely durable. It’s survived the settling of the American West and many items can be handed down generation to generation as long as basic care is taken. Even abused items that have rusted can be revived pretty easily. With regular use, a cast iron piece of cookware will only get better with time.
It’s also very functional. The high heat capacity and heavy weights of most cast iron pieces means it’s great for holding heat, which is critical for many types of cooking. This is the same reason that cast iron is a great material for things like wood stoves and grill grates. It’s great for searing and browning meats. It’s great for sautéing. It does well for stir frying. It can go from the stove to the oven. Cast iron is very multifunctional. About the only thing cast iron is not great for is some sensitive sauces when good control of quick heating and cooling is needed, and cooking highly acidic sauces like a tomato or vinegar base as the acid can attack the cast iron and lead to high levels of iron in the sauce. Note that this is less of a problem with normal, well-seasoned cast iron since there is protective layer of polymerized fats protecting the underlying iron.
I have many cast iron pieces that I use regularly, including a dutch oven for large meals and for making bread at high heats, a pizza “stone” made from cast iron, a small skillet (melting butter, baking a single large cookie or brownie treat, etc), and a griddle for crepes and pancakes for my kids. But my favorite and most often used piece is a 12 inch skillet.
I have a basic Lodge L10SK3 Pre-Seasoned Skillet, 12-Inchcast iron skillet, as well as a separate cast iron lid. You can find these skillets in many places online as well as many brick and mortar stores. If you follow the link above to amazon, you’ll see 80% of the reviews are a full 5 stars across nearly 9000 reviews and most of the rest a 4 stars. This is a nice product.
The basic Lodge skillet works really well, but if you get into the debates from those that are really passionate about cast iron, you’ll find a few complaints. Many will talk about the cast iron skillets that were made in the past as being better than those you find today. The two top brands were Griswold and Wagner. These were available in the early part of the 20th century but these businesses eventually went under around the 1960’s. There are a few differences between current cast iron and these older pieces but one of main differences is that the old skillets had very smooth inside bottoms since they were machined smooth during production. Not surprisingly, this adds cost and many buyers (at least back in the 1960s, were not willing to pay this extra amount. So now we have the current cast iron skillets that are not machined smooth. Molten cast iron is simply poured into sand molds and then cooled, leaving a textured surface on the finished piece.
Since cast iron lasts forever, you can actually find some of these old skillets on Ebay (or a garage sale if you’re really lucky). The problem is that these are hard to come by and in-demand and there are also a lot of fakes floating around. There is also at least one new company I’m aware of called Finex™ making cast iron skillets with smooth bottoms and some other nice features and they seem to be doing well as a new company. It’s worth checking them out if you have a passion for cast iron…..they have an interesting product and story. These are all really cool skillets but both the newest and oldest cast iron skillets however they are about $200, compared to only $30 for a Lodge™ skillet (and even more of a difference if you get a lid too).
Again, if you really enjoy cast iron, then maybe it’s still worth it to spend the extra money but I struggled to see how these other skillets were going to have 7x the value (to me) of the Lodge™ skillet. But what is there is a third choice? I’m going to share another option with you that I have done myself after experimenting a bit. It’s a simple DIY method to upgrade your cast iron skillet using easily available materials.
Cast iron is a relatively hard metal, harder than copper or aluminum but it is still only about half as hard as most types of stainless steel (based on the metal industry standard Brinnell scale hardness measurements). So I figured it might be possible to simply sand it pretty smooth with some basic tools and that a complex CNC machining process with really hard abrasives shouldn’t be necessary. It turns out that this worked really well.
All I did was take a common electric orbital sander and sanded the inside bottom of my 12” skillet smooth. That’s really it!
Start with 60 grit sandpaper until it’s sanded down to bare cast iron (it will be a light, bright gray color), then go to 120 grit, and finally polish smooth with 220 grit or higher sandpaper. An orbital sander makes this a really quick job but you can simply do it by hand with a bit more effort. I have done this with a smaller skillet that was too small for the sander head and it worked fine but takes longer. Clean the skillet well with soap and water, dry it, and coat the bare metal with a layer of vegetable or other cooking oil. From there, you can go through the “seasoning” process (you’ll find a lot of info doing a quick google search on how to season cast iron), or simply start using it to cook, making sure you always have a thin layer of oil in the skillet to prevent rusting. Over time, maybe a month or so of infrequent cooking, the bright gray iron surface will develop a gorgeous black patina of polymerized oil/fat that will protect the metal and create a relatively non-stick skillet.
Now you have turned a $30 skillet into a $200 skillet! Plus you have the added satisfaction of doing this upgrade on your own. I also enjoyed watching the skillet bottom “season” to a beautiful black color over time.
So you started with a material item, which supposedly isn’t where you should spend money to be happy, but in this case helps you with an experience, namely cooking and providing a great meals to friends and family. You have added happiness from upgrading it with your own efforts that you’ll remember every time your metal spatula slides smoothly across the bottom of your polished skillet bottom. Because I enjoy using my skillet so much, I find myself brought more back to the moment when I’m cooking. And focusing on what you are currently doing (being in the present) is another clear tip from happiness research. A frugal happiness bonanza for very little time and money investment!
So maybe I’m a bit overboard here. But you know what? I don’t care! I’m glad I can really enjoy “little” things like this because this is what a lot of life is made of. I’m trying to concentrate and enjoy many of the simpler things in life and it’s really working. I have an “important” job that takes me on global travel, nice meals, and nice hotels. And while I do enjoy those, truthfully I would rather be home with the people I love doing simple things, or out on a rustic wilderness adventure. Those are my happy places and why I’m pursuing the freedom to be there more often.
Hopefully a few of you readers here at IBFree also like to cook and want to try this yourself. Let me know what you think!