Friday, October 7, 2011

Iron Cookware History

Pancakes on a cast iron skillet

Cast iron is a brittle alloy of iron and carbon that originated in China around the 7th century and was much later independently developed in Europe. The manufacture of cookware from cast iron was secondary to its development for the manufacture of munitions. For example, the first cast iron cannon in England was made in 1542, but the first English cast iron cooking pot was made in 1709. Add this to my Recipe Box.


Cast iron is mostly carbon. In the third century BC, Chinese iron workers introduced carbon from charcoal into melted iron to create a liquid metal. As liquid iron became available, the techniques traditionally used for casting in bronze, copper and gold were adapted to iron casting. By the 7th century, many iron items, including cooking pots, were commonly manufactured in China. Prior to cast iron molding, iron was manually wrought (worked) by melting over an open flame and pounding at relatively low temperatures.


Cast iron was developed independently at several European locations. Forges built in Austria in the 1300s were the forerunners of modern air blast furnaces and actual blast furnaces were used in Liege, Belgium before 1500. In 1619, King James granted a patent for making cast ironware, including pots, by a new method using coal. That patent was not successful, but in 1709, a brass foundry in Bristol made cast iron pots in wooden molds.

The Colonies

By 1765, tea was popular and cast iron teakettles were produced in Plympton. Mass. George Washington's mother, Mary Ball, received iron cookware in her mother' will and bequeathed her own granddaughter Bettie Curtis "...the remainder of my iron kitchen furniture," meaning the cookware from her fireplace. Flat-bottomed pots were more efficient for the cast iron kitchen stoves introduced in the 1830s, so cast iron cooking pots lost their legs. Manufacturers pointed out that these new pots could still be used in fireplaces by balancing them on trivets.

Types of Cookware

Early cast iron pots hung on iron hooks above cook fires. By the 1800s, a variety of ironware implements were adapted for the fireplace. Waffle irons with long handles were heated over flames, then removed before batter was added. Pie irons, similar to waffle irons, were lined with dough, filled with fruit and then closed like a clam. Toasters held bread slices upright and swiveled for both sides to brown. Spiders skillets sat above coals on long legs. Dutch ovens allowed baking in the fireplace.

Recent History

In the 21st century, most production of iron cookware has returned to China. Lodge Manufacturing Company of South Pittsburgh, Tenn., is the only U.S. foundry still producing it. Lodge markets pre-seasoned ironware coated with soy oil and heated to high temperature. Seasoning creates a resin barrier between the ironware and food prepared in it. The largest manufacturer worldwide is Le Creuset, a French producer that coats ironware with powdered glass enamel baked at high temperature.

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