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Cast Iron: The best cookware you can own, and how to care for yours.

posted Mar 18, 2017, 8:08 PM by Greg Coffey   [ updated Mar 29, 2017, 7:42 PM ]

    Let's set the record straight; I am a big fan of cast iron cooking, because cast iron is the best way to cook.  Not only can a good piece of cast iron kitchen hardware be used to fry some eggs in the comfort of your home, it can also be used to whip up a stew over the campfire, or bake a delicious bread in the oven.  The culinary versatility of this class of cookware is wonderful, not to mention that it'll last several lifetimes if properly cared for!

In this article, I'd like to share with you my thoughts in three key areas related to cast iron husbandry:
  1. Finding one that's right for you
  2. Using your cast iron to the fullest
  3. Caring for your cast iron (most compassionately)

Finding one that's right for you:

    Everybody's diet and kitchens are different, and so our needs when it comes to cooking tools will also vary.  Assuming that you make use of heat to prepare your foods, a quality piece of cast iron will probably do you well in one, or more, types of cooking in the kitchen.

We can start by making some general categories; skillets, dutch ovens, griddles, and specialty or hybrid types;
    Skillets are generally useful for stove-top or open fire cooking, but can also be used in the oven to produce delectable cornbread or in conjunction with stove-top searing for sumptuous steaks.
    Dutch ovens often offer a deep pot with a tight-fitting lid capable of churning out soups, stews, sauces, beans, or can be used for deep-frying.  A good dutch oven will be equally at home on the range, in an oven, over a fire, or buried in a pit with hot rocks.
    Griddles are characteristically large, flat surfaces without much for a side-wall.  Foods that come to mind for the griddle include pancakes, tortillas, and long thin cuts of meat (e.g. bacon).
    Specialty or hybrid types of cast iron include (but are not limited to) skillets with raised features to give grill lines, waffle irons, cornbread skillets (pre-divided into wedges), tetsubin (teapots), and skillets where one is made to invert on the other to form a dutch oven.

    If any of the above types or uses appeal to you, that is likely the pan you want to start with.  For the sake of moving this article along, lets assume we go with a skillet.

    Unfortunately, the best cast iron you can buy is no longer made, and is found at yard/estate sales, antique stores, and online.  I'm speaking of course of the brand Griswold. Griswold is my personal favorite because the quality of the product manufactured by them was without equal.  As a little aside, to make cast iron, one first melts iron with various alloying components, then casts it into a mold.  The mold is made of special sand, and as such, leaves behind a textured surface on the pan where the iron was in contact with the sand.  This textured surface is NOT ideal to cook on, and should be removed (more on this later).  What Griswold (and others) did when producing their pans was machine (cut) the cooking surface to be perfectly smooth before sending the pan off for sale.  That additional step adds a lot of cost, and so the modern manufactures discount that practice in favor of lower purchase price and higher volume sales.  If you can't find a nice old Griswold skillet, the second best choice is an old Wagner, which should still have the machined cooking surface.

    Sometimes fortune will favor you at a yard sale, and you'll come across a well-worn modern skillet that has the same smooth cooking surface as the antiques.  If this be the case, please do yourself a favor and check the manufacturer.  As far as I'm concerned (and I am concerned about your culinary pleasure), there is only one modern brand that is worth more than a dollar, and that brand is Lodge.  New Lodge pans will still have the sand casting texture, but with the tools and methods described herein, you'll have a functional pan for a lifetime to come.

Using your cast iron to the fullest:

    You'll notice when cooking with your cast iron that it behaves a little differently than other cookware you might have used.  For one thing, the pan will take longer to reach temperature than other metal pans, on account of its thermal properties.  The added time to heat it also translates to added time the pan stays hot after you've removed it from a heat source.  This is a great thing once you get the timing down, as you can turn off the heat and continue cooking for several minutes at a steadily reducing temperature.  Believe me, this is the perfect way to finish off some eggs, or to deglaze for a nice roux.  It also means that you have incredibly even cooking temperatures for the duration of the cooking process, and can beautifully sear foods by letting the pan come to temperature before adding them.

    Through proper use, a non-stick surface (called seasoning) can be obtained on your pan that rivals the best PTFE coatings on the market.  There is a lot of advice out there on how to prepare and repair your pan's seasoning, and we'll look at it in depth in the section below.  For now, know that oils are your friend when it comes to cooking in cast iron, and you should not fear using them liberally.

    Our favorite oil to use when we cook here is coconut oil, but if you have an allergy, or may cook for someone with an allergy, you should look into other types of oils.  Coconut oil has just about the perfect balance between saturated and unsaturated fats you need to properly cook with your cast iron.
    Why a balance?  Well, the seasoning depends upon the presence of unsaturated fats in your cooking oil, so to build and maintain a nice layer of seasoning, you should always have some of them in the pan.  Unsaturated means that the chain of carbon atoms that makes up the fat molecule is not fully bound up with (saturated by) hydrogen atoms.  With some of the carbons double-bonded to each other, they are more reactive around metals, and so will form bonds with each other that make huge networks of molecules (polymerization).  These polymerized fats then form a very thin layer against the metal that repels water, and so prevents food from sticking.  Molecular magic, more or less.
    The downside of having those unsaturated fats sitting in the pan is that, because of their reactivity, they are more likely to suffer peroxidation, and become rancid.  It is good practice to leave a coating of oil in the pan when not cooking, and because of this, oils that might go rancid easily (due to high levels of unsaturated fat) should be avoided.
    Coconut oil has just the right amount of unsaturated fats to form and repair your pan's seasoning, and a high enough concentration of saturated fats to leave it in the pan without it going rancid.  The reason I like to leave excess oil in the pan is because the layer of oil prevents ambient moisture from collecting on the pan's surface and causing rust to form.  Plus, when you're ready to cook again, you just turn on the heat, top off the oil, and you're good to go.

    Another thing to be cognizant of are the utensils you use.  Especially when breaking in a new pan, you want to avoid anything that can be cut up by the rough surface, like most plastic utensils out there.
    Some people swear by wood as a mainstay in their pans, and certainly it is a good happy medium if using both cast iron and other types of pans in the kitchen frequently.
    For us (who use predominantly cast iron), there is only one way to go; stainless steel.
Stainless steel offers you what no other utensil will; the ability to scrape effectively.  As you break in a new pan, or work to maintain your seasoning in an old pan, there is nothing better to do than to scrape that cooking surface vigorously!  A good scraping will help to plane down any of the texture left behind by the casting process, as well as remove larger carbonized chunks of the food that don't add to the seasoning.
    For this level of scraping, I prefer a stainless spatula that can handle abuse, is lightweight enough to move quickly, and has a flat edge to plane the pan evenly.  The cheapest I've found so far comes from Rada, and is marked as a serving spoon/spatula.  Well, you can certainly serve with it... serve out some of the best darn cast iron cuisine you just whipped up!  In all seriousness, the flat edge is perfect for pan scraping, the size lets you easily set it down on the edge of the pan or counter without it being in the way, and the lack of a handle coupled with the stainless steel construction makes cleaning it the easiest chore in the kitchen.

So while you're digesting the materials science and chemistry from the above links, I want to share some other general-use tips:
  • NEVER wash with soap... the self-clean cycle of an oven will be better at disinfecting [if needed] anyway
  • NEVER put through a dishwasher, under any circumstances
  • When using on a glass-top range, be sure that the bottom is smooth, and do not slide it around like some kind of master chef would over a flame.  You will scratch the glass, and be sad.
  • The pans hold heat for a long time, and all parts get hot.  It is advisable to set the pan where you want to cook with it, and leave it there while cooking.  If the application calls for moving the pan (searing a steak then finishing it in the oven), you may want a silicone handle cover to prevent from incurring burns while moving it.
  • Open fire cooking is great, but the pro knows to rake coals out from the fire, and cook over the coals instead of the flame :-)
  • Dutch oven enthusiasts are everywhere.
  • When cooking anything acidic (tomato soup, for instance), the seasoning will be compromised, and will take some re-seasoning to bring it back to optimal.  There is a silver lining for anyone needing more dietary iron, as the more acidic the foods cooked in cast iron are, the more iron will leach into the food and be available for uptake in your body.
  •  If deep-frying, keep the lid (or other cast iron skillet) handy, as it can be used to quickly stop the oil from getting out of hand (and causing a fire).  If this happens, be sure to then immediately turn-off / remove the heat.
  • If cooking batches of things (e.g. pancakes), reapply [a small amount of] oil between each batch for best results.
  • If you use a lid to steam food in your pan, do not leave the wet lid on the pan after removing the food; the high humidity environment coupled with the heat will start to rust through the seasoning.
  • On a similar note, do not rest wet things in the pan unless you intend to immediately dry it out, or are actively cooking in it.
  • Also, avoid soaking the pans in the sink for days; that is actually NOT the proper way to do dishes (you know who you are).

Caring for your cast iron (most compassionately)

    The meal is done, the normal dishes all washed, and it is time to tend to the good'ol cast iron.
First things first, make sure you have scraped out the majority of the meal with the spatula, so you're left with little to no food residue in there.
    At this point, opinions differ; some people say that's it, and they'll leave the pan as is, others advocate throwing some salt in there as an abrasive and scrubbing it out over a sink (without water).  Others take an orbital sander to it and start the seasoning process afresh next time they cook (joke... hopefully).
    At any rate, once you have built up a good seasoning, wiping it out is all you'll need to do most times (no salt required).  However, there will be instances when a good scrubbing is needed, and when those times come, you will want to have the best tool for the job.

Here's our process for when the pan is in need of more robust care:
  1. Wait until the pan has cooled considerably, as you do not want to thermally shock (and potentially fracture) the cast iron by loading it with water while still hot.
  2. Run warm water into the pan, and allow to fill the inside.
  3. Use a stainless chain mail scrubber in small circular motions on the cooking surface of the pan until all the carbonized food has been worked off.  That's right, this is the best tool.  Seriously, this thing is like having the knights of the round table on a quest to vanquish the cooked-on food; it's that effective.
  4. Rinse out the pan with hot water (evaporates faster) and dry with a paper towel, or a dish towel that you don't mind getting dirty.
  5. Coat with a thin layer of coconut oil on all the surfaces of the pan, and store in a dry location (inside the oven, on the stove, hung on a wall, etc.).

That's it; you're done!

I hope this was an informative read, and that you get something out of all this.  I know that personally, the process of rescuing and using cast iron has been a rewarding experience for me, and several of my friends.

Maybe in a future article, I'll explain how to rescue a pan from the brink of rusty obsolescence...

*A note on enameled cast iron: it is excellent for all the great thermal properties of the regular stuff, and to cook acidic foods in.  Just make sure you use wooden utensils with it, and be careful not to chip the vitreous surface.  Further, the glaze can crack off if heated improperly; it is not as durable as plain cast iron.

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