Pancake Challenge: cast iron vs. non-stick

You know that expression, “It ain’t your grandmother’s ____”? As in “This here ain’t your grandmother’s pickup truck”? Well, I have something that is my grandparents’, and it still works just fine for my generation. It’s a cast iron pan. I have two of them, and they literally belonged to the Greatest Generation.

The other day, I decided to make pancakes and thought I’d pit my grandparents’ cast iron against something that really ain’t my grandparents’, namely a non-stick skillet. Which would brown those babies better? Which would give me the fluffiest result? Which would require the least fuss?

I whipped up a batch of basic pancake batter and set up the challenge. I might as well put in a word about pancake cookery, and quick breads in general. Basically, the two things you should avoid like those tomatoes you forgot in the back of the crisper are overmixing and confusing your rising agents. The general idea is to mix the dry ingredients together in one bowl and the wet ingredients in another.  Then you put them together in one bowl and stir until just combined.  As soon as the liquid hits the baking powder or baking soda, its limited amount of fizz starts working. If you continue to mix or wait too long to cook it, the thrill is gone. You’ll be left with tough, flat pancakes or muffins or banana bread. So then the next key is to not confuse rising agents, usually baking powder and baking soda. Some quick breads require both, but many only require baking powder. That is milder because it tempers baking soda with other things like corn starch. Unless you have an acidic element in your wet ingredients (buttermilk, fruit juice, etc.), you are probably NOT supposed to use baking soda. It’s harsher and can make your baked goods taste very nasty indeed. Read your recipe carefully!

Back to the Pancake Challenge. So I mixed up my batter, heated up the pans with canola oil until a drop of water sizzled on its surface (allowing a little longer for the cast iron), and poured me some pancakes. Cue Jeopardy music…

pancakes

Both were doing pretty well, though I had to turn down the cast iron skillet after a while so it wouldn’t get too hot. It could then chug along on a medium-low flame. The non-stick kept an even temperature with a medium flame. When bubbles popped on the surface and the sides looked dry, I flipped the pancakes.

Then I gave them some space to do their thing and poked ’em a little to see if they were firm on the second side (that means they’re ready).

pancakes2

Then I removed my little darlings and put them out for inspection.

pancakes3

Alas! They looked the same! You can see here, with the cast iron on the left and the non-stick on the right. Both were golden brown and any deviation from that was due to some overly intent listening to Car Talk. Both were pretty fluffy. I admit I did have assumptions, which for the sake of making me look good I will call hypotheses. I thought that the non-stick would turn out irresistably golden, evenly colored beauties while the cast iron would make tougher ones that had the whole spectrum of charcoal brown to light gold on one side. I thought this would be bitter-sweet, since I don’t like the idea of a chemical finish making my food look nice and I wanted something old fashioned to triumph for once.

As it turned out, I couldn’t pick one set of pancakes any more than a mother can say which kid she loves best. Each had their ups and downs, the downs being that cast iron requires a lot of fiddling with the burner temperature, continually turning it down to keep he pan from getting too hot. The non-stick obviously uses more energy to because it it less efficient, receiving heat and immediately letting go of it again to keep that consistent temperature.

So there you have it, folks–it’s a draw.

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2 thoughts on “Pancake Challenge: cast iron vs. non-stick

  1. Hi,

    I love your blog! the baby hampsters are a good way to rationalize. except for me, i will replace baby hamsters w/baby rabbits because i just had a dream that someone handed me a shoebox of baby rabbits to take care of. You know, I keep having dreams that I have animals to take care of, and that I have other things to do too. i’m sure i am trying to tell myself to pay attention to the neglected areas of my life.

    so, ANYWAY, thanks for the pancake results. i never would have thought cast iron would be equal to nonstick in terms of presentation/pancake-surface-prettiness. Now I am even more “fired up” to get cast iron! (you did not mention the women’s self-defense qualities of cast iron–adding some iron to our diets while giving us a weapon to use against the occassional robber!)

    esther

  2. I have thrown out all my non-stick cookware after reading an article by Dr Mercola ( http://www.mercola.com/products/cast-iron-cookware) about the dangerous fumes emitted by Teflon at only 446 degrees. It’s an eye-opening article and even though he is also selling his own brand of enamel-clad cast iron pans it has caused me to go back to using good old cast iron. Cast iron is better at retaining a constant temperature too which means less adjusting and consistent browning. I haven’t used enamel-clad ironware but I’d like to try it for rice instead of my Japanese aluminum rice cooker. Le Creuset is enamel-clad ironware but very expensive. I think Target is coming out with something comparable but more affordable. The one drawback for me using iron is that it is heavy and that the muscle definition you gain will only be in your serving arm.

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