A Tirade of Cooking Pots

The “lightweight cast iron wok” from IMUSA

This should be one of those group terms, like a piteousness of doves or a murder of crows. An assortment of cooking pots and pans should be a tirade. But it’s not, it’s just a bunch of pots and pans you’ve acquired over the years and most of them you really don’t like at all. This is why we keep buying them I guess, we are always hoping to get a good one.

A little while ago I wrote about polishing my cast iron pans by hand and now that I’ve used them a bit I do think they are the best pans I own, but only for certain things. They overcook stir-fry easily and a cast iron wok would be a good thing to own. When I saw this wok from a company calling themselves IMUSA I was intrigued. The name itself is deceptive because IMUSA sells Chinese products and from what I see by comparing online they buy the same products other importing companies buy and just re-brand them. Woks of this type sell under several company names.

Real Cast Iron Wok
from Lodge

IMUSA calls their product “lightweight cast iron” and that hooked me right away because I worked in a foundry for years and I’m a blacksmith and I have never heard of such a thing. In the Walmart where I bought this wok I looked it over carefully. It has an obviously artificial surface, on the outside of the pan something American companies call “ironstone” and on the inside of the pan something that looks almost the same but is nonstick. I will assume it’s Teflon-based because it’s very uniform and looks nothing at all like the seasoned finish you get on a new cast iron product from Lodge. I’ve seasoned a lot of pans with vegetable oil and I’ve never gotten a finish like what is on the interior of the IMUSA wok.

I cooked a meal in this wok the day I bought it and I did like the way it works. Nonstick, needed no seasoning, cooked evenly. But the longer I thought about the description of this wok the angrier I got. I compared it to the weight of the Lodge griddle I own and I actually see no great difference. This is normal because if you could hammer out a Lodge griddle into the shape of a wok it would still have about the same amount of metal in it.

IMUSA says this wok has the good qualities of traditional cast iron but without the weight. One of the problems with this statement is that one of the best qualities of the old cast iron cookware is the ability to hold heat. They heat up slowly but there’s a lot of cast iron in the old pots and pans so if the fire dies down before the meal is done, they keep cooking the food awhile longer. This is based upon metal mass. Iron and steel don’t conduct heat very well but they don’t give it up quickly either.

This ate at me for quite a few days after I finished my meal of stir-fried cabbage, carrots, celery and onion with some good sausage thrown in. Foundries are hellish places to work and it’s difficult for a foundryman to see people chattering about technical terms and getting away with being wrong for the sake of marketing. After a few years in a foundry you care about such things.

Next I questioned whether this pan is even cast as opposed to stamped or forged, but I did see polishing marks both inside and outside and this is one of the reasons I bought the pot. You don’t see a lot of polished cast iron pots for $20. They usually cost about a hundred. It wasn’t a perfect surface but it was better than you get with Lodge. I concluded that it is cast, because I can still see the sandcast surface just below the rim of the wok where the polishing grinder didn’t reach. I know that it’s an iron-based alloy because I tested with a magnet. I know it’s not stamped and I know it’s not forged, those would be different in appearance and manufacturing marks would usually remain. It’s expensive and pointless to polish them out. So it’s cast and then ground to a smoother finish, but that still doesn’t mean it’s cast iron.

Another thing I see that makes me doubt it is, involves how the aluminum handles are attached. Cast iron is very brittle and will break if you drop it. Lodge cast iron is heavy and cast all in one piece to give it strength, but you could still bust it up with a hammer if you tried. You would have a hard time even casting genuine cast iron as thin as the walls of this wok. Drilling it and hammering rivets through it? I don’t think so.

I wrote the company with questions about what their term “lightweight cast iron” means and I also asked what the finish on the wok is. They told me they put less iron in the wok so it is lightweight. That isn’t a real answer because the difference between cast iron and steel is the amount of carbon in the alloy and it’s small compared to the amount of iron. Take away iron and you have less product, you don’t have a lighter cast iron. So it’s a marketing ploy, not a revolutionary new metal alloy made from iron and space feathers.

Let us review our knowledge of metals occasionally, even though we are older now. Cast iron is very high carbon. Has an exploding spark, not dull red and straight.

I thought a spark test would prove me right or wrong because I expected to see a difference between the spark patterns of Lodge cast iron compared to IMUSA lightweight cast iron. Sadly they look about the same and it would take an alloy test to determine what they really are. I voided the return policy by using a high speed grinder on the edge of the wok as well as the handle end of my Lodge griddle, so now I’m stuck with the wok. The only other test I can run is to break it up with a hammer. If it just bends, it’s cast steel. If it breaks I can look at the fracture patterns and the color of the metal in the fresh break and compare to known types of cast iron. But then I wouldn’t have a wok. I will guess cast steel, because this is a pretty thin casting to pour out of cast iron.

IMUSA says the interior of this wok is seasoned with soybean oil. I don’t see any reason to believe this, it looks like a Teflon coating to me. The instructions the company provides say to use only wooden or plastic cooking utensils with it or you will damage the coating, and that’s the advice you give for a Teflon pan. If it’s cast iron with vegetable oil seasoning, you can use whatever you want. I use a stainless steel spatula but you could use the flat end of a crowbar if you liked and you would not harm the finish or the wok if it was seasoned cast iron. If the seasoning wears a little thin just touch up the surface with a little cooking oil. That’s what I will do when I wear off the Teflon. I don’t really want to eat Teflon but otherwise I do like this wok. The walls of the wok are thicker than the usual stamped or forged carbon steel woks and it seems sturdy enough to survive my kitchen. It cooks nicely and holds heat better than my stainless steel wok. Neither my stainless steel wok nor the carbon steel wok I once owned were non-stick. In cooking terms, this is a much better wok. Is it worth $50? No. Is it worth $20? Yes. I paid $20 and I will keep the wok.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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