Cooking with Cast Iron

I have written previously about how much I enjoy cooking. Part of that includes using cast iron cookware.

I own three well-used cast iron skillets, a nice Dutch oven, two breadstick pans for cornbread (the breadsticks come out looking like ears of corn), and a couple of other pieces of cookware, and I use them as often as I can. One of them is a large skillet that belonged to my dad’s grandmother. I also used to have a Dutch oven with little feet on the bottom, and a lid made for holding hot coals on top, to be set on a campfire and used for baking. I say I used to have that piece – it came from my mother’s mom, and I’ve already passed it on to one of my boys. All of that to say, if you take care of your cast iron stuff, it will last FOREVER. Seriously.

Some people don’t like using cast iron because they say it’s too heavy, but that’s part of what makes it so durable. It also carries a lot of history – some experts believe the Chinese first developed cast iron cookware about 2500 years ago. It was very popular among early American settlers, and as the nation moved west, the newcomers brought it with them. And NO self-respecting chuck wagon cook would ever start out on a trail drive without several pieces of it.

There are several benefits to cooking with cast iron. One is that it conducts, distributes, and retains heat, easily and evenly. I also really like the fact that it is oven proof. Since there are no wooden or plastic parts, you can start cooking on the stovetop, searing a piece of meat, for example, then move it into the oven to let it finish cooking. And when the cookware is properly seasoned (we’ll get to that), it is almost completely non-stick, and easy to clean afterward.

New cast iron can be expensive, but I like shopping for the stuff at thrift and second-hand stores. One word of caution – new or poorly seasoned cast iron can leach metal into the food, especially if you’re cooking anything with tomatoes (it’s the acid). But once the cookware has been well-seasoned – black with a shiny patina – you can make all the chili you want. Clean it up when you’re done, and it’s fine.

In the October 2014 issue of Southern Living magazine, they published a list of
“The 11 Commandments of Cast Iron Care.” Below is what they said.

1. Respect it. You are its steward, and it’s your duty to pass it on to the next generation.

2. Use it often. The more you use your cast iron skillet, the better it will work, and the more you’ll care for it.

3. Save this page. Tape it to the inside of your pantry door.

4. Clean cast iron after each use. Wash with hot water while pan is still warm.

5. Don’t use soap. Ever. And no matter what, don’t ever put cast iron in the dishwasher.

6. Scour smartly. Use coarse salt like Morton’s Kosher Salt for scouring stubborn bits of food without damaging the seasoning. Use a paper towel to rub the salt into the bottom and around the inside edges of the pan. A stiff bristle brush also works well. Still sticking? Loosen residue such as caramel by boiling water in the pan.

7. Dry it immediately. Wipe dry after washing and heat over low flame for two minutes to open the pores of the iron. Use a paper towel and tongs to apply an even, light film of vegetable oil or flaxseed oil on the inside of the pan.

8. Store it in a cool, dry place. For pans with lids, add a paper towel wad, and keep ajar to let air flow.

9. Understand “seasoning.” For cast iron cookware, this is the polymerization of fat bonded to the surface of the pan. In layman’s terms, seasoning is the glossy sheen that gives cast iron cookware its non-stick properties and keeps it from rusting. Protect and maintain the seasoning and your skillet will last forever. See below to learn how.

10. Bust the rust. Rub cast iron with steel wool. For the seriously stubborn rust on old, neglected pans, take the cast iron to a machine shop and ask someone to pressure blast it with air or sand. Then start the seasoning process below to build a protective coat.

11. Re-Season it. Here’s the best way to rebuild the seasoning and bring your skillet back to life.

  • Wash vigorously. After busting the rust, washing cast iron with warm and – just this once – soapy water. Dry well.
  • Rub with vegetable oil. Use a paper towel to rub oil inside, outside, and on skillet handle. Wipe away any excess.
  • Bake at 400° for an hour. Place upside down on upper oven rack. Line bottom rack with foil. Bake. Repeat oiling and baking until seasoned.

You’re welcome.

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