Thursday, May 27, 2010

Veggie Might: How to Care for Cast Iron Cookware

Penned by the effervescent Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about the wide world of Vegetarianism.

Yesterday, Kris floored us with her Top 10 Kitchen Items list. So much good stuff—I use 6 of the 10 (pepper grinder, kitchen scale, food processor, bulk storage containers, tongs, and slow cooker) weekly, if not daily.

My choice of skillet, however, is cast iron all the way, and if I keep treating them properly, the two I have will be my nonstick pan of choice forever and ever, amen.

Growing up Southern, every kitchen I knew had a cast iron skillet for frying chicken and baking cornbread. It’s a versatile piece of cookware, which makes it great for tiny New York apartment. Once I started cooking again, after a long hiatus of take-out and junk food, the cast iron skillet was my first purchase.

Seasoning a Cast Iron Pan
If you’re starting out with a new cast iron pan, you’ll need to “season” it. Seasoning is essentially baking on a layer of oil to fill in any nicks or divots in the surface of the pan and create a protective layer that prevents rust. Season your new pan, even if it is “pre-seasoned.” If you’re salvaging an antique, seasoning will restore the beauty to its former glory.

The InterWeb is rich with tips for seasoning your cast iron pan. My tried and true method is a combo of Grandma/Dad/Mom’s and a trick I picked up on What’sCookingAmerica.com.

1) Clean the pan with a mild soap and hot water. Use a fine-grade steel wool, salt, baking soda, or this handy potato method from TheKitchn to remove rust. (See below.) Rinse and dry completely.

2) Pre-heat the oven to 350°. Line the bottom of the oven with a baking sheet or foil.

3) Coat the entire pan, inside and out (Thanks, WCA!), with vegetable shortening (or any neutral cooking oil). Wipe off the excess.

4) Turn the pan upside-down and place it in the oven. Bake for 45 minutes.

5) Remove the pan from the oven and wipe off the excess oil. Give the cooking surface (and sides) another coat of shortening, wiping off any excess. Return to oven for another 30–60 minutes.

6) Turn off the oven, open the door, and allow to cool a bit before removing the pan.

7) Again, wipe off the excess oil. Your cast iron pan is ready to use.


Seasoning can be repeated anytime your pan is getting a little sticky or funky. Acidic foods, like tomatoes, break down the coating. Also, water is the enemy. Case in point:

Last week, I left my 5” cast iron skillet on the counter next to the sink for a couple of days. In that time, I washed a couple of sink-loads of dishes and made several pots of tea, which I spilled repeatedly. (I’m a klutz.)

When I went to use my little pan for a quick egg breakfast, the entire underside was covered in rust. I cut a potato in half, sprinkled a little baking soda on the rusty area, and gave it a scrub. Seriously, I don’t know what it is about the potato, but combined with baking soda, it only took about three passes (slicing off the used bits of potato each time) and 10 minutes for all the rust to disappear—even from those little grooves. (Tip: If you’re in the market for a cast iron pan, don’t get one with little grooves on the bottom.)


Even though the cooking surface looked okay, I re-seasoned the pan anyway (coating the inside AND outside). Now it’s back in action, and the outside is way more rust-resistant.

Cleaning and Maintaining a Cast Iron Pan
There is much debate over whether or not to use soap on a cast iron pan. It all depends on your comfort. I am squarely in the no-soap camp, but do what feels right for you. You just may need to re-season more frequently.

1) Clean your cast iron pan immediately after cooking. Letting food sit, particularly acidic foods, will break down the coating you’ve worked so hard to build.

2) Rinse with hot water and remove any debris with a natural fiber or plastic scrub brush. Do not use metal on cast iron—scrubbers or utensils. You can prevent metal on metal crime.

3) Dry immediately and thoroughly. Lingering water = rust. I usually put the pan back on the stove for a minute to cook off any renegade droplets.

4) Since it’s back on the stove, apply a thin, thin, thin layer of oil to the cooking surface. Heat for a few minutes; wipe off the excess; and store in a cool, dry place.

Cooking with Cast Iron
The more often you cook with your cast iron skillet, the more nonstick it will become. Eventually, you’ll only need a little bit of oil for even eggs to just slide right off the pan.

Plus, as I said before, cast iron cookware is versatile. It can go from the stovetop to the oven and handle both like a champ: sauté up a mess o’ greens and then bake a batch corn bread. You can pretty much do anything with a cast iron pan.

Cast iron cookware may seem like a lot of work, but the investment in time and care is worth the return you’ll get in durability, functionality, and longevity. This is cookware you can pass down through generations.

Can I get an Amen?

~~~

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18 comments:

MC said...

I've always looked longingly on cast iron pans, but have heard that they can warp/be damaged on an electric stovetop, and have been a little paralyzed because of that fear. Any thoughts? Should I just take the plunge despite my electric stove?

Jenn said...

Thanks for this article, my dad gave me 3 cast iron skillets that are gross-looking and I was actually considering throwing them away. Now it's off to rehab for them!

Leigh said...

MC, I have a gas stove, but I have read that electric burners can create hotspots that will warp cast iron pans. Whatscookingamerica.com gives this advice for using cast iron on an electric stove:

"Be sure to preheat the iron very slowly when using an electric range and keep the settings to medium or even medium-low."

That said, my parents have an electric range and have used cast iron my whole life with no problems. I say go for it!

esther said...

I love my cast iron skillet!

It's from Lodge and it was inexpensive but works amazingly well. :D I'm a firm believer in them. Please go out and buy one if you haven't already!

WickedThrifty said...

great post! i had NO IDEA about the potato tip, too cool!

i have tossed all of my scary dangerous nonstick pans and am ONLY using cast iron and steel now. i knew most of these tips but def. not the potato one!

i don't keep shortening in my house (yikes, hydrogenated!) but i use olive oil and it works just fine. i would never use soap (my mom taught me better than that!) but i also don't really use water, after hearing a tip about that-- even without using soap and following the seasoning rules, my food was still smelling weird. someone said 'don't use water, ever!' so now i just scrub it out with a pile of salt and olive oil. if that's super stubborn when i try to flick it out of the pan into the trash, sometimes i'll do a super quick rinse and dry immediately but i never allow water to stay in contact like in a sink. working great for me!

Anonymous said...

A-MEN! Love love love the cast iron. I have a set of three: Big, Medium, and Too Cute For Words, and I use them all the time for just about everything. They're better for your health, I've heard, than space-age nonstick, and you can use the medium one to keep the dog from opening up the kitchen garbage bin and rooting out the cheese wrapper.

Mattheous @ Menu Musings said...

I recently purchased a cast iron wok--I heard they were the best type of wok you can buy. I never knew they made cast iron skillets!

I was wondering the same thing as MC. I plan on grilling with my wok. Just picture it: a nice Spring day, vegetables fresh from the local Farmer's Market, a freshly seasoned cast iron wok on the Webber Charcoal Grill on my (by then) balcony...Ah, bliss! All I would need was a good episode of Doctor Who to enjoy it with!

There's a story in my family about my mother washing her mother's cast iron crepe pan. Needless to say, things did not go over well...

CJ said...

Amen!

Love my cast iron.

Toni said...

Also being from the south, I too have my standard issue, hand-me-down cast iron skillets. One that my mother got as a gift from the department store when she bought items for her first apartment... in 1953! (The name of the store is cast into the handle.) The other one belonged to her mother, straight off the farm from about 1900-ish. The first time I ever made cornbread it, (with great trepidation) it turned out perfectly... the skillet had far more experience with it than I did... we've been together ever since!

And yes, cast iron woks rock! (Much easier to type and/or read than actually say...)

William de Wyke said...

Soap, being a highly alkaline mixture of fat and lye, will strip the seasoning right off your pan. This is why the "no soap on cast iron" rule gets handed down, it comes from grandma, or great grandma, who were using their pans before detergent-based washing up liquids were invented.

Washing up liquid isn't soap, it's detergent and you're fine to use it on a seasoned cast iron pan. I do it all the time. Detergents are a complex mixture of surfactants, alcohol and other fun stuff that are really effective on liquid fats but won't lift the baked oil seasoning to nearly the same extent. They also won't strip the oil out of your skin the way real lye soap will.

The dishwasher though, is right out!

Think about it this way: if you have a baking tray that's had black crud baked onto it really badly then washing it in regular hot water and washing up liquid does very little to shift it. You need pot scrubbers, and maybe oven cleaner, to get it clean.

That black crud is the same stuff -- baked on oil -- that your pan is coated with.

Jess said...

Case in point as to the longevity of cast-iron: My mom still makes pancakes and hamburgers on a cast-iron griddle that her grandfather found in an abandoned cabin when he homesteaded in Oregon way, way back in the day. Delicious pancakes + wacky family history = awesome.

Leigh said...

Thanks for the amens and family stories, y'all. Such is the beauty of the cast iron cookware.

WickedThrifty, I use nonhydrogenated shortening, but oil works great too. It's come through for me in a pinch.

Mattheous, a cast iron wok is on my wish list; Dr. Who and wok-veggies sounds like a perfect afternoon.

William, thank you for mentioning the evils of the dishwasher. I don't have one, and I forgot all about it.

Donna Freedman said...

Several years ago I found a big black iron skillet in the "free" box at a yard sale. Now I can't imagine how I ever cooked without it. It's an essential part of my kitchen.
If it's acceptable to post URLs, here's the link to the essay I wrote about it on MSN's Smart Spending blog:
http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/SmartSpending/blog/page.aspx?post=1307929

Sharon said...

I love my cast iron! The best place to look for cast iron cookware, IMHO, is estate sales and auctions. The cast iron of your grandma's generation is pre-seasoned, and generally has a much smoother, more finely cast surface than any new cast iron made today. Mine was mostly inherited from my mother-in-law. It's easy to care for. I just clean with water and a brush after use, set my pan on the stove to dry, and wipe it with a paper towel dabbed in olive oil. Simple.

GrowingRaw said...

My cast iron pot is known amongst my extended family as the 'magic pot'. Everything I have ever cooked in it has tasted wonderful. It's especially great for slow cooking curries. You can brown the onions and meat on a stovetop then throw it in the oven when you add the rest of the ingredients so it can cook more slowly for a couple of hours. It's also good for roasts, especially chicken, because it heats evenly all over.

Originally I used my cast iron pots (I have one large and one medium) as camp ovens. Anything you can cook on a stovetop or in the oven tastes 3 times as good when you cook it over a campfire.

I've never had any trouble using my cast iron pots on the electric stovetop. Never even thought about it.

AmyinMotown said...

America's Test kitchen has a different method of seasoning that's worked well for mine -- get it really hot on a burner, pour in a bit of oil, and using a big wad of paper towels and tongs, wipe it around the surface until it absorbs. Repeat several times until it's all black and shiny. The oven method just made mine sticky and yucky --this worked well.

Anonymous said...

I love my cast iron pan. It's great for practically everything. I wash mine with water and a scrub brush and if something is stubborn, I use a little baking soda. When it's clean I hang it on a hook to drip dry. Then I use my can of Trader Joe's olive oil spray to spray a light coat on the cooking surface and if it seems like it's going to drip I just wipe it around with a paper towel.

Kitchen equipment said...

Very useful thanks. I'm still trying to season my own skillet so I shall try out some of your advice over the weekend. I'm a little lazy when it comes to pancakes and omelettes too, so I like to cook one side on the stove and then cook the rest under the grill.

Thanks,
John.