Cast Iron is Awesome September 01, 2015 06:30

I have a real thing for cast iron cookware. There's just something about it that seems so solid and permanent, and almost romantic in a way. It always surprises me, though, when I tell people about how much I love it, and all I hear back is "But cast iron is so difficult!". I'm not sure when it entered into public lore that cast iron cookware was a delicate flower that needed special care and attention, but I am living proof that this couldn't be more wrong. Those that know me know that I'm a bit of a haphazard sort of person when it comes to the kitchen, and anything that requires gentle care just ain't gonna survive long around me. 

Cast Iron

The first thing I love about cast iron is the price. Even the brand new pieces, when you consider that you're buying something that will be handed down to your grandchildren, are quite reasonable, and if you can score some at garage sales or thrift stores (spoiler alert: you totally can!) they're downright cheap.

Second, cast iron is amazingly durable, and there are only a few things that you can do to them to wreck them. My only hard and fast rules with our cast iron are:

  1. Don't use the dishwasher
  2. Don't soak the pans

The reasons for these are pretty simple. The dishwasher and soaking in a sink will both promote rust, which is kinda not what you want in your food. Aside from that? Go nuts! Use soap! Cook acidic foods! Use metal utensils!

Think I'm crazy? 

The seasoning on a cast iron pan is made up of a series of thin layers of oil that has been polymerized by the heat of cooking and bonded directly to the metal of the pan. This means that a quick wash with some dish soap isn't going to harm it, and if you've done a proper job of seasoning all parts of the pan, neither is an acidic food like tomatoes. As for metal utensils? I dare you to try to scrape that seasoning off. If it's built up in thin layers from repeated cooking, you can go at that stuff with a chisel and still have a tough time getting it off.

So how do you get that lovely seasoning? That's the fun part!

Most brand-new cast iron comes pre-seasoned. This means that there's already a thin layer of polymerized oil baked onto it, so all you have to do is give it a quick wash and dry, and then start cooking in it. The seasoning on it won't be ideal for the first few uses, but the more you use it, the better it will get until you have the gorgeous shiny black finish we all covet. The one thing to keep in mind with new cast iron is that newer casting techniques omit the "polishing" step that older cast iron received. That means that you'll notice a slightly rough, pebbled finish on your new cast iron. Some people just season right over that, and others lightly sand it down. The choice is yours!

(Just don't sand down these bumps on the lid - those are self-basting bumps, and they're there for a reason!) 

But what if you get a second-hand piece? Well, if it's grandma's old cast iron skillet that she's been cooking breakfast in for 50 years, you're set. Just keep on using it. If, however, your cast iron pieces tend to show up like mine get to have some fun!

On a recent vacation I found a 10" cast iron skillet at a swap meet for $6. I snapped it up cause we'd been looking for one that size, and then 2 days later spotted one in a scrap metal pile near where we were camping. Two 10" cast iron skillets in one week! Score!

Used Cast Iron Pans

Now, as you'd expect, a piece of cast iron that had been sitting in a scrap metal pile wasn't exactly in top shape. Actually, the one from the swap meet was a bit bedraggled too, so I decided to strip and re-season them both. There are lots of methods for doing this (spray-on oven cleaner, lye bath, electrolysis), all with their proponents and detractors, but I prefer to clean mine in the oven. Before you attempt this, check to see what temp your oven gets to on its self-clean function. Mine doesn't go above 500°F, which is about the top temp that most cast iron is rated for. Any higher than that and you run the risk of warping or cracking the pan, so if your oven self-cleans higher than 500°F, either pick an alternate cleaning method or use the bake function, not the self-clean.

The first step to this is to give the pan a good scrub with some soap and water. You want to get off as much gunk as you can, because whatever is left on there is going to burn off in the oven. The less stuff burning off, the less smoke filling your kitchen and making you regret your life choices.

Trust me on this one.

Clean Cast Iron Pans

Next, place your cast iron pans on the middle rack, and either line the lower rack with tinfoil or place pans there to catch any drips. Or, you know, live dangerously like I do.

Hit start, and walk away! Don't walk too far though, and maybe turn on your exhaust fan and open some windows. I've read horror stories of people catching their pans on fire using this method (I firmly believe they didn't scrub them enough beforehand), but maybe just have a fire extinguisher on hand as well. I don't want to be responsible for someone burning down their kitchen.

Once the self-clean has finished (or you've baked your pan for a couple of hours) you should notice that all the built up crud and old seasoning or your pan has turned into ash. Give it a good wash in the sink.

Baked Cast Iron Pan

If you don't know the history of your pan, now is a good time to examine it. For my pans, I'd noticed the swap meet one had a stylized "W" on the bottom and I was excited to see how old this lovely Wagner pan was.

Wagner Cast Iron Pan

It turns out that the swap meet pan is a relatively modern one, but once all the crud was burned off, I could see that the one from the scrap heap was also a Wagner! The logo suggests that it was made between 1935 and 1959. Score!

Vintage Wagner Cast Iron Pan

You'll notice that your pan will now have a bit of a dark grey colour, and probably some rust patches. The next step is to deal with that rust! 

Plain old white vinegar is the easiest way to do this - just soak the pan for 30 mins to an hour, and then give it a good scrub in the sink. Don't soak the pan longer than this as vinegar can start to eat away at the iron and cause pitting and erosion spots. As soon as you've washed off the vinegar, it's time to start seasoning. From this moment on, every minute your pan is exposed to air without the protection of seasoning, it is starting to rust. 

Everyone has their favourite oil for seasoning pans. I've heard a lot of people talk about flax oil, and others talk about crisco or lard, and I personally use canola oil for my first layer, simply because that's what I have on hand. You want to look more for unsaturated fats, and those with high smoke points, but otherwise just about any old oil will do the trick.

Seasoning Cast Iron

Dry your pan well with a towel, and then heat it up on your stove top. You're not trying to get it screaming hot yet, you just want to make sure it's nice and dry. Once dry, give it a nice all-over coat of your chosen oil, rubbing it in as well as you can so there are no drips or pools. Pop it back in the oven (this time you really do want to use a pan or foil underneath to catch drips!) and heat it up to 350-400°F. Everyone seems to have a different idea on what temp is best, but I personally use 375°F because the smoke point for canola oil is 400°F and I prefer not to light my oven on fire.

Seasoned Cast Iron Pans

Once your pan has baked for about 20-30 mins, turn the oven off and let it cool. Congrats! Your pan has its first layer of seasoning. It should be a nice shiny dark grey/black colour, and not sticky to the touch. If it's sticky, heat it up again! This first layer will protect the pan from rust, but it's not going to do much to stop food from sticking. For that, you need to build up multiple layers, and the best way to do that is to cook with it. Cook a bunch of bacon, bake some corn bread, make a peach cobbler - the choices are endless! Every time you use that pan, you're improving it, layer by layer, until one day you have a gorgeous heirloom pan to be proud of.

Cast Iron Cooking