- Food and Cooking
How To Take Care of Your Cast Iron and the History of It
History of Cast Iron
Iron has been used since shortly after 2000 BC to make everything from tools and weapons to cookware. They discovered that iron was stronger than bronze when mixed with a bit of carbon. The iron ore is heated in a charcoal fire, releasing the oxygen. This in turn mixes with carbon monoxide to form carbon dioxide. This allows a spongy, porous mass of relatively pure iron to form; mixed with charcoal, and other extraneous matter known as slag. Then they use crushed seashells or limestone to separate the slag out. At this point, the blacksmith would hammer out the slag and other small particles using a hammer on an anvil. This made wrought iron. Wrought means "worked".
At very high temperatures, such as with a forge, the iron begins to absorb carbon rapidly, and the iron starts to melt since the higher carbon content lowers the melting point of iron. The result is cast iron, which contains 3 to 4.5 percent carbon. It is harder and more brittle, making it likely to shatter under heavy blows. This means it can not be shaped at the anvil. It is poured either directly into molds or into 'pig iron' bars, to be remelted later and poured. This is how your cast iron cookware is made.
Other things are made with cast iron also. Trivets were made from cast iron to keep pots and dutch oven cookware from burning the wood tables. Spoons, ladles, and other cooking and serving utensils were also made from cast iron. Baking pans were made, allowing a cook to use a wood burning oven to cook with. The temperature to melt the cast iron is so high that you would not likely get your cooking fire anywhere near that hot.
In the mid to late 19th century, cast iron was even used in architecture. It was very popular in New York City for entire facades of buildings. These buildings are endangered and a group in New York is attempting to save them.
Curing Your Cast Iron
Caring for your cast iron is not difficult. If you are a cast iron user, you know that if properly seasoned, or cured, it is the first non-stick cookware.This is because a properly cured cast iron pan has grease in the pores of the iron which keep things from sticking. When you heat cast iron, the pores of it open, causing the grease to absorb into the iron.
To cure your cast iron, clean it first. A simple wash in hot water will do. You then want to heat it on a flat baking sheet covered with foil. Heat it for 20 minutes to get it hot. Take it out of the oven and grease the pan with shortening or lard, not oil. Then place it on your cookie sheet, right side up. This way the grease will not drip down into your oven making a mess. Heat it at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. If it smokes, reduce the heat in 15 degree increments until it quits smoking. Give it a little longer if you had to turn the heat down. Let it cool, wipe it with a paper towel, inside and out, put it back on the cookie sheet for a second heating. Upside down this time. Another 20 minutes at 350 degrees and your pan is cured. Using it will add to the non-stick qualities.
Some have suggested that you can use your gas barbecue grill to season it also and that keeps the smoke out of your home. Great idea and I don't know why I never thought of it. This method would work very well.
This does not mean that it will never stick again. This means that from now on, you will be building on your start. The cooking that you do should start building a deep layer of grease in the pan and make it very good at not sticking.
Cast Iron Trivets
Cleaning Your Cast Iron
There are two schools of thought on cleaning your cast iron. One is that you just wipe it out and never let it touch water. Soap is a no-no because it will break down your non-stick grease.
The other is that you just use a mild soap in your water and wipe it out. I prefer this method as it cuts down on the chance of cross contamination and gets the flavors of the other foods out of the pan. You would not want your fried chicken to taste like the fish you had the night before. When you finish this method, wipe it down with a paper towel. Then place it on the stove burner on low heat for a few minutes to force any water out. When you get done with this, lightly grease it with oil and put it away.
If you miss some water and your cast iron develops some light rust, use steel wool to scrub it off and then grease and season the pan. If it is not light rust and does not come out with steel wool, use the method below for burning it off. Do not use sandpaper or a steel brush, these can cause grooves and scratches which will hold food particles; making the pan no longer non-stick.
Some people wash them with salt or baking soda. These will also get the flavors of other foods out of them and will help get some crusted in foods out of them.
Do not ever put your cast iron in the dishwasher. It is a hand wash item.
Occasionally, you will goof and burn something into your pan. If it does not come right out, do not put water in it and let it soak. Cast iron does not like that water and will rust. Do not scrape with sharp instruments. That will scratch it and make it stick from then on and food will get in the scrape. Scrub it with steel wool. Not a soaped steel wool pad. If it still does not come out, do not throw it away and do not despair. A trick that I learned from my dad and grandfather is a life saver. It saves a lot of work and money, replacing cast iron is not cheap. Replacing good cast iron is just flat expensive.
They would build a campfire in the back yard in their fire pit. Then they would lay the cast iron right at the edge of the fire and it would burn the food and grease out of the pan. Sit and enjoy your campfire because the food needs time to burn out. When the fire finally burns down, do not take the pan out until it is cool. The next day is soon enough. Then, LIGHTLY tap it with a hammer. The nasty burned in food will drop right out of the pan.
You will have to start over seasoning or curing it but you have saved an expensive pan. I once sold a dutch oven for $150 so they are expensive. They go a lot higher too.
Do you have some cast iron that you use?
Some Tidbits About Cast Iron
When you cook with your cast iron, remember not to use it for boiling water. Cast iron will rust. If it does rust, sand the rust with steel wool and re-season it.
Do not store food in your cast iron. The acids in the food will attack the surface of it and cause pitting. High acid foods should be gotten out and the pan cleaned immediately.
Use the lid and the even heating of this thick iron will amaze you. The lid keeps the flavors and vitamins in your food. This is also a good cookware to use if you have a low iron count. How else do you think all those people used to get their iron before vitamins. Some of the iron will get into your food and make it even healthier.
When shopping for used cast iron, look for a smooth inner surface. If it is pitted, the food will stick. This is a sign of abuse or low quality. If you find an old piece at a flea market, that is rusty, dirty looking and real cheap, try the burn method. It will get all of that nasty off of it and then sand with steel wool. It will be ready to season before you know it.
It really is amazing how wonderfully useful cast iron is. I love cooking with it. I would prefer to use it as it is such a joy to cook on. People buy new pots and pans every couple of years and do not think anything of it. When you buy cast iron, you will never have to replace it. I still have my grandmothers and it is just like new.
I have a collection of cast iron trivets that I have been collecting for years. I hang them on the wall in the kitchen and when I need one, I just pull it down. They are decorative, useful and handy all at once.
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