Be Not Afraid: Cast Iron Skillet Cooking

 

I’ll admit it. For years I was afraid of cast iron skillet cooking. It just seemed sooo complicated and I just didn’t think I could do it. Nor did I really want to try.

One day, my mother gave me an 8” cast iron skillet that had belonged to her mother and my life was changed. Well, my cooking anyway. Although I don’t know exactly how old it is, I’m going to guess it’s 60 years old if it’s a day. It looked as good as the day it was born and the seasoned surface was as smooth as glass. The first time I used it, I was hooked for life.

Why Choose Cast Iron?

How many sets of pans have you bought in your life? Most of the “economy priced” pans sold in department stores are made of aluminum. They’re available in different styles, sizes and colors, all the better to match with your kitchen, your dishes or whatever outfit you’re wearing today.

But then what happens next? Aluminum is a soft metal so your pans begin to warp. They get dented and the color begins to wear off the outside. Someone uses a metal fork and scratches the nonstick coating (which – FYI – they then eat). It’s time to replace them but you don’t mind. Maybe you can match the next set with the tablecloth.

Let’s say you decide to shell out a little more cash for some high quality stainless steel pans. Sure, you’re gonna pay a few hundred dollars but it’s going to last a lifetime, right? Except…that I find that they’re more trouble than they’re worth. I actually have 2 stainless steel skillets that I never use.

In order to avoid having your food stick to these pans, you must cook over higher temperatures. The pan needs to be preheated to just the right temperature, then you need to add just the right amount of oil and heat that to just the right temperature. Only then are you ready to cook your eggs.

The problem here is that I’ve never been able to make it work. Every time I attempt it, I spend the rest of the day scrubbing because there is one thing stainless steel pans are really good at: hanging onto stuck food.

Cast irons pans, on the other hand, are a dream. For the cost of just one set of those “economy” pan sets, you’ll have a pan that’s indestructible and, when properly seasoned, naturally nonstick. A cast iron pan will, literally, be the last pan you’ll ever have to buy. They don’t ever wear out, warp, fade, dent or crack. And the more you use them, the more nonstick they will become.

Fat Polymerization

According to the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils (ISEO), fat polymerization is ”All commonly used fats and particularly those high in polyunsaturated fatty acids tend to form larger molecules (known broadly as polymers) when heated under extreme conditions of temperature and time. Under normal processing and cooking conditions, polymers are formed. Although the polymerization process is not completely understood, it is believed that polymers in fats and oils arise by formation of either carbon-to-carbon bonds or oxygen bridges between molecules. When an appreciable amount of polymer is present, there is a marked increase in viscosity.”

Wait…what? Trust me, it’s relevant. Most of us call it “seasoning the pan”. This is the first step in cast iron cooking and the most important. Seasoning will give your pan a non-stick surface.

Seasoning is an easy process that should be applied to every new cast iron pan you get, even if it claims to be “pre seasoned”. It’s a process that also can be used on a pan that hasn’t been properly taken care of in the past or hasn’t been used in a while.

Depending on what you cook in your pan, it may need to be reseasoned from time to time. Cooking acidic foods such as tomatoes or using acidic ingredients such as wine or vinegar can damage the seasoning. Cooking foods that don’t have a lot of oil in them (such as baking pizza or cookies) can also leech some of the seasoning away from the pan. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t cook these things in your cast iron…it just means you’ll need to season it again at some point.

Here’s the good news: the more you cook in your cast iron, the more durable the seasoning will become. Every time you use oils (whether it be added oils such as olive or oils naturally found in meats) in your pan, the seasoning improves.

So what is the process? Here it is in 7 easy steps:

  • Preheat the oven to 375℉.
  • Thoroughly wash your pan in hot soapy water. If your pan hasn’t been properly cared for, has food residue/carbon build up or rust, use a steel wool to remove it.
  • Dry thoroughly.
  • Spread a thin layer of oil or shortening over the pan using a paper towel or basting/pastry brush. My personal preference is vegetable shortening as it’s easier (read: less messy) to use than liquid oils but you can use any oil you have on hand. Olive oil, sesame oil, flax seed oil, butter or bacon grease are not recommended due to their low smoke point.
  • Place your pan upside down on the upper rack of your oven. Place a piece of aluminum foil or silicone baking sheet on the lower rack to catch any drips.
  • Bake for one hour.* Shut off the oven and allow the pan to remain in the oven undisturbed until it’s completely cool.
  • That’s it! Go cook something!

*This will likely create a bit of smoke. If you’re sensitive, be sure to open a window or turn on your kitchen fan!

Continuing Care Of Your Cast Iron Skillet

The logical thing to do next is to ask around for advice on how to manage the continuing care of your cast iron skillet. How do you clean it? How do you store it? What foods can you cook in it? What foods should you avoid? How do you preserve the seasoning?

How many different answers did you get?  I’m guessing all of them. I’m guessing that now you know that you should just wipe out your pan after cooking. Unless you should use rock salt to clean it. Except that a stainless steel scrub is the only way to go. Never, ever, let water touch it.

You should always store your cast iron in a dark cupboard except that it’s better to keep it in the oven. Hanging it from the ceiling is optimal unless it falls on your head. In that case you should take it down and leave it on your stove top.

Don’t cook stinky foods like garlic and onions in your pan. Acidic foods such as tomatoes, lemons or wine will end in disaster. Eggs will stick. Fish will dry out. And that family sized chocolate chip cookie? That’s certain to taste exactly like the ham and red eye gravy you had for dinner. You could cook a steak as long as it hasn’t been marinated (again with that nasty ACID). It might be best to stick to just cornbread and bacon.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what gives cast iron a bad name.

 

Real Life: Cooking With Cast Iron

So, what’s a girl to do? Well, the first thing is to remember that these pans are made from iron and steel. There’s not much you can do to hurt their feelings. The only real thing that will put a damper on your day is if it develops rust but since we know rust can be scrubbed out that’s not a deal breaker. Just kind of a pain.

Here are my thoughts:

Season your pan. Season it when it’s new (even if it claims to be pre seasoned) and reseason if you notice that food is sticking to it more than usual.

Clean your pan as soon as possible after cooking. If there are food particles stuck to the bottom of the pan, feel free to put a little water in the bottom after removing the food. You can let it sit until the food is loosened, which I’ve found takes about as long as it takes me to eat.

I like to swish the inside of the pan with some soap and water to remove any cooking flavors, using the scrubby side of the sponge to remove any food particles. After rinsing and towel drying, I use a towel or paper towel to apply a thin layer of vegetable shortening to the inside of the pan. Turn the towel over to the “dry” side and wipe any excess shortening from the pan, leaving as thin a sheen as possible. The whole thing takes less than 5 minutes.

If you prefer to use one of the other cleaning methods discussed above, feel free to do so. This is a judgment free zone.

Don’t allow your pan to remain wet for any length of time. Don’t put it in the dishwasher. Don’t let it soak in the sink until you “get around” to washing it. If it gets wet (intentionally or not) wipe it dry ASAP. This is simply so you don’t have to spend time removing rust from the surface of your pan.

Don’t store leftovers in the pan. Because…again….rust. No one wants rust in their leftovers.

Store your pan in an area where it won’t get wet. Cupboard, oven, stove top, above, below, east, west, I don’t care. Just not in a wet area.

Cook whatever you want. If it affects your seasoning, simply coat it with a little shortening or reseason it. Cooking some foods will have a learning curve but you’ll get the hang of it in no time!

Real Life Recap – Cooking With Cast Iron: Season your pan and don’t let it rust. The end.

That’s My Story And I’m (Non)Sticking To It

So there it is and it’s just as simple as it seems. What do you think? Are you ready to take the plunge? I promise you won’t regret it.

Be not afraid.

All my best,

Cynthia
cynthia@cynthiaeats.com

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2 Replies to “Be Not Afraid: Cast Iron Skillet Cooking”

  1. I’ve been cooking with cast iron for a long time. I love everything about it except how heavy the pans are. Recently I purchased a cast iron wok, but I cannot seem to get it hot enough for stir-frys. Any tips you can share for this? I use gas for cooking. 

    1. One of the problems with cast iron is it’s inability to transmit heat well.  With a gas stove, the heat of the flame is concentrated in one spot (circle?) instead of spread out evenly as it would be on an electric stove, which is problematic in regard to getting the entire surface of the wok hot.  

      The advantage of cast iron is it’s ability to retain heat once you get it up to temperature. My suggestion is to heat the wok in the oven for 20-30 minutes and then transfer it to the stove top. I hope this helps.

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