You’ve probably heard that cast iron cooking is making a huge comeback. Fueled by this new popularity are numerous internet sites extolling the virtues of cast iron and collectors’ forums focusing on cast iron of all types. Sites often characterize items as “users” or “collectables”. Collectibles are often rarer items that can focus on a specific maker (Griswold is a well-known example), users (such as waffle irons), makers marks, or “sets”. Some rare collectibles can launch bidding wars that range to $1000.00 or more. This post will focus on “users”. What to look for, what and how to cook in cast iron, what “seasoning” cast iron means, and how to “season” and care and maintenance of users. With that as background, we’ll start posting short videos and descriptions of recipes. Be on the lookout!
What to buy: While there is nothing wrong with purchasing a (relatively inexpensive) new cast iron pan (a “Lodge” for example), many people enjoy purchasing older pans. Many older pans have a smooth interior finish favored by some cooks and have the appeal of making use of cookware that can be well over a hundred years old. Ideally, look for a pan that does not “spin” or rock when placed on a flat surface. Truly flat pans can be hard to find and are not essential but, particularly if you are cooking on glass or electric coil range, flat can be a big advantage. Look for a piece that is the right weight for you. Some large pans can be too heavy to be used comfortably.
Seasoning: The debate over how to season, what it accomplishes, and what seasoning substance to use rages on and is well beyond the scope of this blog but the basics are quite straightforward. Seasoning is a process that involves the polymerization of an oil or other substance on the cooking surface. Generally, there is an initial seasoning process of seasoning a new or newly purchased pan. Then, the seasoning continues to develop with continued use. When purchasing a used pan, it often needs to be stripped and re-seasoned. How to strip an old pan is another fierce debate (Lye bath, electrolysis, “yellow cap” Easy Off, scrubbing using coarse salt.). There is a few don’ts that are largely agreed upon – do not use the self-cleaning oven feature to strip, do not soak (or it will rust) but a small amount of soap and water is fine, no fires, no vinegar and never use a wire wheel brush or sandblast. The initial seasoning process involves coating the entire pan with oil and then baking the pan at a heat that is beyond the oil’s smoking point (can be 375 to 450 or more depending on the type of oil). At that temperature, the oil polymerizes and creates a solid coating on the pan. A couple of tips – Use as little oil as possible. Before putting the pan in the oven wipe as much of the oil off the pan as possible otherwise, the oil can pool and get sticky. In my experience you cannot wipe it too much – less coating is better. Bake the pan upside down in the oven for several hours, turn off the heat and let the pan cool completely in the oven. Open a window and/or use an exhaust fan while seasoning or the kitchen may get smokey. Once a pan is seasoned just using it will continue to improve the initial seasoning.
What does seasoning do? Everyone agrees that a good layer of seasoning over the entire3 surface of the pan prevents rusting. There is some question whether the polymerized surface contributes to cast iron being non-stick. I believe it does. In any event, when effectively used cast iron is virtually non-stick.
Cooking: Cooking with cast iron requires some practice. “Low and slow” is the rule. Cast iron gets hotter than typical pans and stays hot longer. Always heat the pan before putting food in. Do not put food in a cold pan. Let food brown without turning or moving it. It will naturally “release” from the cooking surface.
Clean-up: A well-seasoned pan should be easy to clean. Don’t be afraid to use a little soap and water but don’t soak the pan. A stiff brush should be all you need. Scraping with a piece of plastic also works well. Once the pan is clean, make sure to dry it completely, then heat it on a burner and wipe the cooking surface with a little oil. The pan’s ready for its next use.
This is just a basic introduction to cast iron cooking. If you have questions, please ask in the comments section and we will do our best to answer them. More tips and tricks will come with the recipes to follow. And …. if you’re looking for a specific piece or type of cast iron let us know. Maybe we can hook you up!