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The Care and Feeding of Cast Iron

The care and feeding of cast iron from Dryad in the Elm at www.dryadintheelm.com.

Why Should You Use Cast Iron? (Or, Why Should You NOT Use Teflon.)

Well, for one, if you are currently stocking your kitchen with nothing but Teflon you can’t really sear or brown your meat very well. That’s just tragic. One of the first things I did when I started learning how to improve my cooking skills was to get a cast iron skillet and a stainless steel skillet (for deglazing, some people deglaze in cast iron but I like my steel skillet). Plus, you can sear on the stove and then move your skillet to the oven for roasting. I love doing this, I tend to get better results than with roasting alone.

Cast iron is healthier than Teflon, especially if you don’t use vitamin supplements. (If you do use vitamins, don’t use ones with iron in them if you use cast iron to lessen your chance of iron toxicity.) It isn’t really about the Teflon leeching chemicals into your food (which is a concern to many people anyway), it’s about danger to the air you breathe. Never, ever put Teflon in your oven. This is especially important if you have birds or pregnant women in your home. The fumes that are released when Teflon reaches a certain temperature have been linked to the death of birds, “Teflon flu” in humans, and birth defects. The risk is higher in Teflon that has become scratched or damaged; the dangerous fumes are released at lower temperatures in damaged cookware.

I have birds. Two little beloved cockatiels. Before I had birds, I had these lovely little red Teflon pots and pans that I replaced because I wanted to sear and deglaze. Sometimes these pans would turn darker, almost black. When I found out about the gasses, I found out the color change was a safety feature on my pan. I was overheating my cookware into dangerous temperatures. If I hadn’t wanted to cook better, when I got my birds they probably would have contracted a “respiratory disease” that I would have thought was from a draft, then when they died I would never have known why. So glad I wanted to eat better food. I probably also reduced our chance of cancer, probably lung cancer.

So, I got my cast iron, and I’m thrilled about it. I have a wider range of cooking skills, I can cook in a fireplace (I don’t own one at the moment, but maybe someday), and if I treat it well I have a family heirloom to give to my son when he moves out so he can enjoy his own home cooking.

Did I have to give up non-stick cookware? Um, no. I think I’ve only had two or three sticking messes on either my cast iron or my stainless steel the entire time I’ve used them. Make sure you pre-heat your cookware and use oil. That’s enough. I suppose on my cast iron I get tiny bits that stick occasionally, but it turns into seasoning so that’s great. The more seasoning you have, the more your skillet is non-stick. Tiny bits both absorb flavors (to impart to later meals and enhance them) and work like a lubricant to keep your food sliding off easily. Think of rubbing a pencil on a stuck zipper, it works like that.

Using Cast Iron

I’ll cover seasoning in a minute, if you ran out and bought a skillet you probably got one that already has seasoning on it. Just rinse it off under hot tap water and scrub lightly with a bristly brush for a few minutes. If you aren’t going to heat it up to use it right away, wipe it dry and then put it on a low burner on your stove for a few minutes to make it bone dry. Never, ever put your cast iron away while it’s even a little damp or it might rust.

You don’t need to use higher temperatures with cast iron, it becomes hotter than Teflon does at the same temperatures due to Teflon’s insulating properties. If you own a gas stove top, as far as I know heating your skillet or griddle is as simple as turning up your stove to a temp just below medium. If you have an electric stove (as I do), turn the burner up to medium low, let it sit for about ten minutes, then turn it to just below medium. You go more slowly with an electric stove so the heat can distribute more evenly to prevent your skillet from warping or even cracking. Maybe this isn’t necessary, but I’m taking no chances. With either stove, now you wait for ten to twenty minutes and let the skillet heat up fully.

When I first got my skillet, I used to have to open up all of my windows or the apartment would become thick with smoke. Don’t let that happen, it means your skillet is at too high of a temperature. Keep the skillet just below the smoke point of whatever oil is in it to avoid burning your food (and potential carcinogens in the smoked oil). I use canola oil and clarified butter because it has a higher smoke point than olive oil. Experiment to find what works best for your skillet and stove. If your oil smokes, toss the food, rinse out your pan with hot water, and try again. Once you know where to put the temp, smoking won’t be an issue.

Use a metal spatula, stainless steel with rounded corners and a flat edge. The rounded edges help to clean the corners and grooves on your cast iron. Plastic might melt and get into your seasoning, and bamboo or wood (or plastic) won’t flatten the seasoning. I’ve heard some people say that a metal spatula will damage your skillet or seasoning. Nope. When I used bamboo, my seasoning was flaky and bumpy. When I switched to metal, I saw a nice surface begin to develop. If you have a Lodge skillet (and most other brands) that hasn’t been sanded flat, your skillet is full of groves from the sand-casting process. When cooking you will be cramming food into those pockets on the surface and filling them with bits that will carbonize. The metal edge shaves those bits flat and makes your non-stick surface grow.

Over time, you will notice this flat part growing in the center of your skillet, and slowly it will reach the outer edges. I think it took my skillet about a year to do this, but I don’t think I used it very often that first year. This is the healthy seasoning or patina that will retain flavors from meal to meal, giving your cooking a personalized flair that you will learn to use to your advantage. I especially enjoy the flavor of potatoes I make in my skillet, it tends to pick up flavors of ham and my favorite spice blend from other meals.

If you want to make a dessert and your pan is too spicy from previous meals, stick it in the oven at 500° F for about half an hour and burn off the flavor to neutralize it. This resets any flavor. Open your windows and turn on your fan, this will smoke.

As I mentioned before, you can go from stove top to oven with cast iron. Preheat while you are searing, and once your food is lightly browned, move it into the oven. I like to sear my potatoes and then pour a cup of pork broth with pepper, and frozen diced ham with broccoli on top and bake at 350°F until the broth evaporates (about twenty minutes to half an hour). This means that my potatoes don’t get mushy in the broth, but they soak up the flavor and are nice and tender inside. The frozen broccoli and ham means they take longer to cook than the potatoes, keeping them from burning. They can also be added towards the end of cooking if you’d rather use fresh than frozen. Top with cheddar, and yum.

Cleaning Cast Iron

Do not ever put your cast iron in the dishwasher, and do not ever put it away damp. Those are the only real rules about cleaning.

There are people out there who will foam at the mouth and throw things at each other, debating whether or not to use soap on cast iron. It’s not that big of a deal. It amazes me what people get themselves worked up about on the internet.

On the pro-soap side, well, they seem to be satisfied with their seasoning, so how can the anti-soap people complain? I’ve never personally used soap (heating the pan kills bacteria and old food turns into carbon) but if the thought of old food on your skillet grosses you out, knock yourself out and go for the dish soap. If you do use soap, you may have to re-season your skillet after you wash it (just one oven cycle, not the several required on a bare skillet). That seems like a waste of time and energy to me, especially in the summer when my small apartment gets hot quickly. At the very least, you might need to set your skillet on the stove over low heat until it is dry, let it cool to the touch, and then rub with oil to prevent rust before storing. Your seasoning will not retain as much flavor, but if your house must be pristine that may be not be an issue to you and you should certainly enjoy your life the way you want to. Soap doesn’t damage seasoning as much as the rabid fanatics in the no-soap camp say, but I’m not rabid and I figure that depends on how it was initially seasoned and what you cook in it. You probably should burn it dry and oil it though.

Over here in the no-soap camp I’ve only twice run my skillet under hot water once the skillet had cooled down from cooking. You can do that if you’ve made a horrible mess, just scrub lightly with a brush or rub with your spatula and pat dry. Then, put it on the low burner and let it dry. I don’t need to rub it with oil afterwards, but if the water rinsed off too much oil you might give it a try.

Most of the time, I just scrape it with my spatula while it’s still hot (oils get gummy sometimes if I let it cool first) and then I let it cool down. It’s usually cool enough by the time I’m done clearing the table from dinner. Then I rub it with a paper towel. Easy as pie, no fuss. I tried to be more sustainable once and use a dishtowel. The towel was never clean again. So, paper towels it is.

By the way, if you read what I do and mentally pat me on the back with an “atta girl” and mentally pat your own back at the same time, let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time I had an overnight visit at a woman’s house and I know she has used cast iron for years. When I went to bed, I noticed she had her skillet soaking in the sink, in soapy water. The next morning when I got my coffee, it was still there. I nearly had a heart attack, and I know a gasp escaped me and my hand went to my throat in a total pearl-clutching display of middle class white woman shock, but I managed to not actually scream and faint. When the dizziness passed, I realized that I didn’t actually see giant holes of rust in her pan, so she must have been giving it this same treatment for years with no issue.

On the other hand, before I knew anything about cast iron at all I saw someone put a skillet they had just gotten from their father in the dish washer, next morning it was covered in rust. So don’t do that. Sadly, that skillet was thrown away, I cringed a couple of years later when I found out that it could have been very easy to restore.

Seasoning Cast Iron

Very recently I ran across a woman who is now one of my heroes. One of these days, I will find an old, rusty Griswold and I will run across it as if by magic in a thrift store. It will be meant to be. I will take it home and restore it, then I will season it with the magic of flaxseed oil. Thank-you, Sheryl. Your dedication to the pursuit of knowledge is highly appreciated. My hat is off to you for you are a lady and a scholar.

So. If you have a skillet that you washed with soap or was restored, it will need to be seasoned. I’ve yet to see a skillet that didn’t come pre-seasoned for sale (brand-new anyway). I suppose it might happen. If you run across cast iron that is grey instead of black, it needs seasoning.

This is Sheryl’s advice. (I know my attempts before filled the house with smoke and I had to open all windows and turn on all fans. Less oil is used here, so I don’t know if that will happen.)

All of the usual oils are wrong (lard, Crisco, bacon grease, and all the usual recommendations). Not one of them will result in a hard, smooth surface. They will work, but for the best non-stick surface use flax seed oil. It dries to a hard, tough surface due to fat polymerization. It’s the only edible oil that will do this. In fact, it’s a much healthier option than any of the other oils used. If health is your concern, you may wish to strip the existing seasoning off and re-season with organic flax seed oil from a health food store (and if health is your concern, don’t worry about smoke points and free radicals when seasoning – once the skillet is seasoned the free radicals will be gone).

Make sure your skillet is bone dry. Heat it if you need to make moisture evaporate. Rub the skillet down with the oil, then rub the oil off with a paper towel until the pan looks dry. You should not be able to tell it is oiled. A thicker coating will result in a patchy seasoning, don’t do it. Put it upside down in a cold oven (you shouldn’t need to catch any drippings) and heat to 500°F or as high as it goes. When the oven reaches the correct temperature and the indicator light turns off, set the timer for an hour. After an hour, turn the oven off but do not open the door, and let the pan cool with the oven for two hours. Do this again at least five times (I say It doesn’t have to be the same day). The skillet should have a sheen to it. If not, do it again until it does.

Restoring Cast Iron

Once upon a time I was watching Alton Brown (my son and I both love him) and he was doing a show on cast iron. He was at a dump (or a set made to look like one) and rejected the cast iron skillet he dug out of the pile. It made me want to cry. Why would you do such a thing, Alton? I know you know that skillet could have been saved, loved, cherished, given a good family a warm and happy meal for years to come. Poor skillet.

Personally, I’ve never been lucky enough to score some vintage cast iron in need of a little restoring, but there are several ways depending upon the extent of the rust. The first part, stripping the seasoning, may be able to be accomplished by the self-cleaning cycle on your oven if it has one. After that, I’m going to turn this over to the people at Serious Eats, as they seem to have done their research and put it to practical use very well. The part about the battery charger, if you don’t have someone perhaps someone you know is really into cars, or perhaps your local auto-body shop is willing to lend you a hand. This page also looks interesting, and seeing as how the domain is castironcollector.com, they probably know what they’re talking about. I’m really digging the thought of trying molasses on rust.

Also, after you get the rust off you can sand the surface smooth with a disk or orbital sander if you like. Or get your sweetheart to :). I would recommend wearing a dust mask, and I can’t really recommend what type or brand to use, I’ve heard rumors of people doing this but my power tool knowledge ain’t so hot. I also see here that Common Sense Homesteading uses a wire brush on a drill attachment.

Once your skillet is clean and smooth, grab that flaxseed oil and give it a whirl to reaseason.

Foods to Avoid

I think that’s a myth. I mean, I’ve heard from several sources that you should never put acidic foods into a cast iron skillet, as it can cause the food to discolor and your seasoning to become damaged. Yet I’ve seen countless fried green tomato recipes for skillets, as well as pineapple upside down cake, and I myself have thrown many onions into mine. There have been times that my seasoning has behaved oddly for a meal or two, but never so badly that I thought I had ruined something. A couple of meals later, it’s just fine. Also, that usually happens when I cook pork that is high in fat, the fat gets things kind of sticky but if I cook some potatoes in it usually things return to normal right away. I bet if I threw my skillet in the oven for a little while that would fix the issue, but it’s never been so bad that I found this to be necessary.

Maybe, just maybe, if you had a new skillet or you had a habit of washing with soap and water you might run into problems with your seasoning. If this happens, perhaps baby your seasoning and pamper your pan with some nice fatty foods for a while, avoid acidic foods, and cut back on the soap. After a while you should be able to use your pan as you wish.

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One thought on “The Care and Feeding of Cast Iron

  1. Pingback: Sourdough Aebleskiver Recipe (With a Super Amateurish Video!) | Dryad In The Elm

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