The Culture of Cast-Iron Cooking

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Cast-iron is just about as intimidating a piece of cookware can get. It frightens children, strikes fear into the hearts of brave men and bashes the faces of burglars the world over.  Despite the obvious heft of a cast-iron pan, it IS actually more than just a weapon.

Cast-iron pans have many attributes that make them special. They are the absolute best piece of cookware for searing meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, anything. They simply rock at making things crispy, crusty and crunchy.

Cast-iron pans are also extremely good at holding heat and maintaining temperature while cooking, making it easy to switch from searing meat, to reducing a pan sauce.

Speaking of sauces, cast-iron is especially good for starting dishes on the stove and finishing in the oven, giving you an opportunity to make delicious stews and roasts.

You may be thinking “I thought you said they were intimidating?” “What’s so scary about a pan that can seemingly do it all?” One word: maintenance.

In order for your cast-iron pan to not turn into a rusty mess that all foods will stick to, you MUST “season” your cast-iron. “Seasoning” refers to the process of building up protective and non-stick layers of polymerized oil onto all surfaces of the pan. Doing this right should mean your trusty cast-iron will last a lifetime.

There are several guides available describing the seasoning process, but I’ll provide a simple breakdown for those who are interested.

  1. Preheat oven to highest temperature (At least 450° F,  preferably 500° F)
  2. Remove any visible rust from the pan using the rough side of a sponge or 00 Steel Wool.
  3. Clean the pan thoroughly with soap and water. Dry completely.
  4. Coat every surface of the pan with a neutral oil with a high smoke point (Flax Seed Oil is generally suggested to be the best), let it absorb in the pores of the cast-iron, and remove the excess.
  5. Place a sheet of aluminum foil on the bottom rack of the oven to catch any dripping oil.
  6. Place the cast-iron pan in the oven upside down on the middle rack. Let cure for at least 1 hour.
  7. Remove cast-iron pan from oven and inspect. Allow it to cool completely. There should be a hard glassy coating on all sides of the pan. If the coating is sticky, too much oil was used and you need to restart.

Here’s a guide for general maintenance that is necessary after each use to ensure your pan’s seasoning continues to protect your pan and remain non-stick.

  1. After cooking, allow pan to cool most of the way but not so much that the remaining fat solidifies.
  2. Pour roughly 3 tablespoons of kosher salt into the pan and add water as necessary.
  3. Use the salt as an abrasive, and with a paper towel, scrub off any of the black stuck on bits.
  4. Wash with WATER ONLY (soap will destroy the seasoned coating)
  5. Place the pan on the stove over medium heat. Allow all moisture to boil off.
  6. Once the pan is smoking hot, place a tablespoon of neutral cooking oil into the pan and spread thin over the cooking surface with a paper towel (Careful not to burn yourself!). Once the oil is absorbed, remove any excess oil.

So there you go. It can be a pain, but if a busy college student can take the time to maintain a cast-iron pan, so can you. The intimidation goes away, don’t be afraid. Don’t be stupid, but make sure your fire extinguisher is up to date. And if you really mess up, don’t fret. Cast-iron is literally dirt cheap. $15 will get you a new pan.

So try it out for yourself. You never know, you could end up falling in love with your pan and giving it a name.

This one’s for you, Bertha.

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