I love my cast iron skillet. Even though I have had it for just a few years, it is the most used piece of cookware in my home. Perhaps it is nostalgia for what I perceive to be the good old days – think Pa and the boys cooking up some chow on Bonanza – or simply a longing to, in some small way, shun our spit-shined, high tech society.
Whatever the case, I am now really “in” to cast iron.
If you were lucky enough to get some cast iron cookware as a gift, you probably have some anxiety about using it. And even if your are a cast iron diva – well experienced in its glories – you may have some questions about it’s use and care for the long term. Today I offer some cast iron tips and suggestions that will guarantee your cooking adventures with cast iron succeed.
1. Seasoning is your friend
Cast iron needs to be seasoned in order to acquire non-stick capabilities. An unseasoned piece is a disaster waiting to happen. You food will taste like, well, rusty iron. Food will stick like crazy. And clean-up? Forget it.
These days, if you are starting new, you can purchase a pre-seasoned pan. That is what I did. Lodge as well as other manufacturers sell pre-seasoned pans for just a few dollars more than the unseasoned kind. But not to worry if you acquired an old rusted out or unseasoned pan from a friend, relative or thrift store, You can find my instructions for seasoning a cast iron pan from scratch in the tip area below. (See pictures of some old, rusted cast iron skillets to the right. These are completely salvageable.)
The key to obtaining a slick, well blackened cast iron pan is to continually re-season. You do this by wiping a thin layer of vegetable oil along the inside after each use. (I use this little mop thingy I purchased on Amazon). I am still doing this to my skillet and it is getting nice and dark. I am sure that the time will come when I can give this up but for now, I like how nice and shiny the pan is getting.
2. Cook with a bit of oil
Or use cooking spray if that is something you use. Just like coating the pan with a thin layer of oil after each use, while the pan is new you should cook with a bit of oil. Of course you would not do this while frying bacon and, as a matter of fact, cooking foods with a lot of fat in them will simply accelerate the long term seasoning process.
Keep using that bit of oil while cooking until your pan has a dark, satiny patina. Then be brave and try cooking without. If you find you now have a non-stick pan, great! You can add extra oil only if you wish to add some flavor.
3,. Preheat the pan
Cast iron heats evenly; no hot spots or cold spots on this puppy. To take advantage of this even heat, preheat first. Be sure to let you cast iron heat up gradually as the burner or oven heats up since a cold pan on a fiery hot burner could break or crack from thermal shock.
And remember, that pot or pan will be very hot. Use mitts (or Ove Gloves) for protection.
4. Store cooked foods somewhere else
The acid in foods will break down the seasoning in your pan and impart a metallic taste. When the meal is over, take the time to store your food in a suitable container.
5. Never every use soap for cleaning and dry thoroughly
Soap will destroy that wonderful, non-stick patina. Don’t do it. Instead, scrape off the bits of food left in the pan and if necessary, use some salt and a tad of water as a scrubbing agent. I have a scrubbing sponge that I use exclusively on my cast iron. When done cleaning, I store it away in a Ziploc baggie so I do not mix it up with the day to day soapy sponge.
Whatever you do, do not allow your cast iron cookware to air dry. It will rust. Instead, dry it well and for good measure add that coat of oil we talked about in #1 above.
6. Quality counts
The best quality pan is a pan that has been passed down from Grandma with a 50 year history of use and seasoning. Alas, not all of us can be that lucky. For the rest of us, a good quality pan will more than pay for itself. Look for a fine grain on the surface without a lot of pitting. Equally important, make sure the cast iron has a uniform thickness and that it sits level on flat surface. No wobbles, please.
7. Have a blast!
Sure you may have some fancy, department store cookware in your cupboard. I do. And I must admit, it does a great job. But there is something rewarding in pulling out a pan that is steeped in tradition and history even if it is brand new. Experiment cooking with your cast iron. Try oven frying and baking and whatever you do, use it often. Have fun.
Favorite Cast Iron Foods
There is no question that I have a love affair with my three cast iron pieces: a 12” skillet, a 4 quart Dutch Oven (also called a camp stove) and a smaller, 10” skillet. So what are my favorite uses for cast iron? Just for fun I will list them for you:
Hamburger patties: Fried in a bit of Worcestershire sauce they are perfect. The splatter does make a mess. Try this outdoors on your rocket stove.
Fried potatoes: Don’t knock it until you have tried it. I cut the spuds into wedges and toss them in about a tablespoon of oil. After preheating the skillet in a 450 degree over, in go the potatoes. These are sooooo good.
Biscuits: I cheat and use a mix (Fisher’s). I drop them in the skillet (indoors) or Dutch over (outdoors) and bake. Great with soup.
Salmon fillet: Yep, even the salmon goes into the oven on my cast iron skillet. I add a bit of butter, garlic and basil if it is in season.
Pineapple Upside Down Cake: Wishful thinking since I actually have not made this myself but I have had it at a friends house. To die for.
The Final Word
Cast iron is inexpensive and, with nominal care, practically indestructible. It can be safely use indoors or out, over gas, electricity or a campfire. With two or three pieces, you can cook almost anything. What is not to like? As you think about outfitting yourself with gear, consider versatile cast iron.
One thing for sure: it will not make you sick from toxic fumes or coatings that come off during the cooking process. And for that reason alone it is highly recommended.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
Backdoor Survival Tip: Need to re-season an old cast iron pan? Here is what you do:
- Wash the cookware with hot, soapy water and a stiff brush. (It is okay to use soap this time because you are preparing to re-season the cookware).
- Rinse and dry completely.
- Apply a thin, even coating of MELTED solid vegetable shortening (or cooking oil of your choice) to the cookware (inside and out).
- Place aluminum foil on the bottom rack of the oven to catch any drippings.
- Set oven temperature to 350 – 400 degrees F.
- Place cookware upside down on the top rack of the oven.
- Bake the cookware for at least one hour. After the hour, turn the oven off and let the cookware cool in the oven.
- Store the cookware uncovered, in a dry place when cooled.
From the Bargain Bin: Here are my favorite cast iron items. Next on the list? A 15” skillet!
Lodge Logic 12-Inch Pre-Seasoned Skillet: This purchase changed the way I cook. I se my cast iron cookware for everything from salmon, to bacon and eggs, to biscuits. For under $20, there is no excuse not to own this survival basic. Don’t forget the Lodge Set of 2 Pan Scrapers, a must have for cleaning those food bits from your cast iron cookware.
Lodge Dutch Oven/Camp Stove: I originally purchased this Dutch oven because it was so darn cute. But over time, I have learned to love it for its versatility. Remember, a camp stove is designed so that you can bake with it by arranging charcoal on top of the lid as well as underneath the Dutch Oven itself.
Ove’ Gloves Hot Surface Handler: I cannot say enough about these hand and arm protectors. I have permanent scars from hitting my arm on the rack of my oven. I can only imagine what I would look like if I did not use these with my cast iron cookware. Forget the colorful silicon hot pads. These are 1000 times better!
Four Silicone Brushes: I call these”mop thingies”. Great for layering a nice thin coat of oil on your cast iron pans.
Lodge 5-Quart Double Dutch Oven and Casserole with Skillet Cover: This is another cool piece. This Dutch Oven does not have legs and is designed for indoor use – but it can be used outdoors too. Just don’t forget the Ove Gloves.
Lodge Logic Pre-Seasoned 15 Inch Cast-Iron Skillet: Similar to the 12” skillet only bigger. Definitely on my bucket list.
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