A Pan for All Seasons--Cooking with Cast Iron
The Original Non-Stick Surface
First, a disclaimer -- After reading this hub, I hope you will pardon my introductory blatant play on words. Now, that said...
Do you remember the Teflon pans of the 1960's and 70's? They were touted as a revolutionary cooking miracle.
Look, you can cook an egg without butter!
Your macaroni and cheese will no longer stick and make a gummy cheesy mess!
Your family will enjoy low-fat meals and you will save countless hours in scrubbing pots and pans!
But now we know that Teflon, although not "dangerous," should be used with some caution. And, as it ages, the non-stick surface does tend to flake off -- do you really want to eat plastic with your steak?
Teflon sounded like the miracle of the century, but it was never really necessary. Your grandparents had in their kitchen a faithful, durable, non-stick cooking vessel long before Teflon was ever imagined.
The properly seasoned cast iron pot.
What's All This Talk About "Seasoning"?
Seasoning is the process of coating an iron pan with oil, baking, and thus protecting the pan. The oil, once heated, cooled, and allowed to dry, creates a impermeable surface. Here's how to do it:
- Coat the skillet (or Dutch oven, or whatever vessel you are using) with vegetable oil.
- Bake in a preheated 350 degree F. oven for one hour.
- Remove from the oven; set aside to cool.
- Wipe with dry paper towels.
Buying Cast Iron, Old and New
Cast iron cookware might have been stored in your grandparents' pantry, but the manufacture of pots, pans, lids, skillets, bread pans, and everything else "cast iron" is still alive and well. Today at your local department store, sporting goods supply store, or favorite household goods website, you can purchase brand new cast iron cookware.
But if you look around at antique malls, flea markets, or garage sales, you are likely to find cast iron cookware that, although looking worn and shabby, can be restored to look and perform just like new.
What to Look For When Buying New Cast Iron
- Enamel exteriors are attractive, but can scratch and chip, rendering your investment less than attractive (and not what you paid for).
- Pour spouts on both sides are helpful. (You never know when a left-handed person--like me--might enter your kitchen to assist).
- Handles should be long enough to allow for easy grasping.
- Look for large "helper handles".
- Food is less likely to stick to a smooth (rather than pebbly) cooking surface.
If You Purchase New Cast Iron Cookware...
Here are the things you need to do to prepare and maintain your investment:
WASH – Of course you will want to do this. (Who knows what grubby fingers might have touched your precious cooking vessel?) Now, after that loving scrub with hot soapy water, rinse. Then rinse again (just to be SURE that all soap residue is gone). However, don't believe the online posts that say "never use soap on your cast iron pan. I'll explain why in a jiff. Next?
DRY – After your cookware is completely clean, make sure to dry it thoroughly.
SEASON – Use a vegetable oil (canola, safflower, soybean) or melted shortening. Whatever you do, don't use a low-smoke point oil such as olive oil or butter. (Your smoke alarm, nearby neighbors, and local fire department will thank me for this advice).
BAKE – Set your oven temperature to 350 F and place the cookware (upside down) on the top rack of the oven. Bake for at least one hour. (By the way, you should probably place aluminum foil underneath the pan to avoid drippings getting on the heating element.) After the one hour of baking, turn off the oven and allow the cookware to cool to room temperature in the oven — several hours.
STORE – cookware in a cool, dry place. Thinly coat the cookware with cooking oil in-between uses to maintain seasoning.
How to Restore an Old (Rusted) Cast Iron Pan
- Remove all the rust: Use fine steel wool to remove rust from all of the affected areas. It might take a bit of patience (and a bit more physical effort), but keep scrubbing until the rusty area returns to raw cast iron.
- Wash the skillet thoroughly: After scouring, wash the pan with warm water and mild dish soap. Scrub with a bristle brush or mesh sponge if needed.
- Dry the skillet: Thoroughly dry the cast iron immediately with a clean dish towel or paper towels. Don't let it air dry--it will rust again.
- Cover the pan with a coat of oil: Apply a small amount of vegetable oil to the entire piece, including the bottom and handle. Use only a small amount to avoid a sticky surface. Don't use butter or olive oil--both have a lower smoke point (that means that they will set off your smoke detectors as the oil on the pan burns off in the next step).
- Place the pan in the oven: Place the cast iron pan upside down on the top rack of your oven. Please take the time to place a sheet of aluminum foil or a foil-lined baking sheet on the bottom rack to catch any oil drips.
- Heat the pan for an hour: Bake the cast iron for one hour at 350 degrees F.
- Let the pan cool before using: Turn off heat, let cast iron cool; now you can start cooking!
How to Use Cast Iron (Old or New)
The more you use cast iron cookware, the more slick with seasoning it will become over time. But there are a few precautions to keep in mind:
- Cast iron gets HOT! Be very careful when grabbing a handle.
- Cast iron takes a bit longer to preheat and standard pans, and it should be brought up to temperature slowly (don't start out on HIGH heat).
- Once your pan has reached the desired temperature, begin cooking. Cast iron will maintain that level of heat, thereby providing a reliable and steady heat source. The pan can also be placed on top of a trivet or towel on the serving table, keeping dishes warm through most of your dinner service.
How to Clean Cast Iron
- NEVER put your cast iron in the dishwasher.
- Don't run cold water over a hot pan.
- Clean the surface of your pan with a stiff nylon brush and hot water. For stubborn food particles, you can also add kosher salt to the pan, and work the brush against the salt to serve as an abrasive. For more stubborn food particles, heat some oil in the pan along with some kosher salt and use a kitchen towel to scrub the surface to remove the particles — be careful to ensure you fold the towel enough to protect yourself from the heat. For super-duper stubborn food particles, boil some water in the skillet for a few minutes while carefully loosening the residue with the brush.
- Dry the pans thoroughly after cleaning. If you had been using the oven, you can stick the pan in the cooling, still-warm oven for awhile or heat it on the stovetop for a few minutes to make sure all the moisture is removed.
- Apply a thin layer of cooking oil to the surface while the pan is still warm.
- Store cast iron cookware in a cool, dry place.
What Cast Iron WON'T Do
- Cast iron does not heat evenly. So...take the time to heat it gradually and rotate a few times. But, once it gets up to heat, it maintains that heat level for a long time.
- A well-seasoned cast iron pan is NOT as non-stick as Teflon. You can't dump cold eggs into a cold cast iron pan, heat it with no oil, and expect those eggs to slip out with nary a trace behind. But, if your cast iron pan is well seasoned and you make sure to pre-heat it well before adding any food, you should have no problems whatsoever with sticking.
- Cast iron pans do NOT like to be soaked. Food stuck a bit? Let it sit and then address the problem when you are ready to do the dishes.
The Benefits of Cast Iron Cooking
- Cast iron pans and skills will produce the most amazing hash or any recipe that includes crispy potatoes.
- Want to make the greatest pancakes you've ever eaten or want your French toast to have that heavenly crispy edge? Use a cast iron griddle.
- Long before anyone thought of a crock pot, there was the cast-iron Dutch oven? 'Nuf said.
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