Thursday, May 27, 2010

Veggie Might: How to Care for Cast Iron Cookware

Penned by the effervescent Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about the wide world of Vegetarianism.

Yesterday, Kris floored us with her Top 10 Kitchen Items list. So much good stuff—I use 6 of the 10 (pepper grinder, kitchen scale, food processor, bulk storage containers, tongs, and slow cooker) weekly, if not daily.

My choice of skillet, however, is cast iron all the way, and if I keep treating them properly, the two I have will be my nonstick pan of choice forever and ever, amen.

Growing up Southern, every kitchen I knew had a cast iron skillet for frying chicken and baking cornbread. It’s a versatile piece of cookware, which makes it great for tiny New York apartment. Once I started cooking again, after a long hiatus of take-out and junk food, the cast iron skillet was my first purchase.

Seasoning a Cast Iron Pan
If you’re starting out with a new cast iron pan, you’ll need to “season” it. Seasoning is essentially baking on a layer of oil to fill in any nicks or divots in the surface of the pan and create a protective layer that prevents rust. Season your new pan, even if it is “pre-seasoned.” If you’re salvaging an antique, seasoning will restore the beauty to its former glory.

The InterWeb is rich with tips for seasoning your cast iron pan. My tried and true method is a combo of Grandma/Dad/Mom’s and a trick I picked up on What’

1) Clean the pan with a mild soap and hot water. Use a fine-grade steel wool, salt, baking soda, or this handy potato method from TheKitchn to remove rust. (See below.) Rinse and dry completely.

2) Pre-heat the oven to 350°. Line the bottom of the oven with a baking sheet or foil.

3) Coat the entire pan, inside and out (Thanks, WCA!), with vegetable shortening (or any neutral cooking oil). Wipe off the excess.

4) Turn the pan upside-down and place it in the oven. Bake for 45 minutes.

5) Remove the pan from the oven and wipe off the excess oil. Give the cooking surface (and sides) another coat of shortening, wiping off any excess. Return to oven for another 30–60 minutes.

6) Turn off the oven, open the door, and allow to cool a bit before removing the pan.

7) Again, wipe off the excess oil. Your cast iron pan is ready to use.

Seasoning can be repeated anytime your pan is getting a little sticky or funky. Acidic foods, like tomatoes, break down the coating. Also, water is the enemy. Case in point:

Last week, I left my 5” cast iron skillet on the counter next to the sink for a couple of days. In that time, I washed a couple of sink-loads of dishes and made several pots of tea, which I spilled repeatedly. (I’m a klutz.)

When I went to use my little pan for a quick egg breakfast, the entire underside was covered in rust. I cut a potato in half, sprinkled a little baking soda on the rusty area, and gave it a scrub. Seriously, I don’t know what it is about the potato, but combined with baking soda, it only took about three passes (slicing off the used bits of potato each time) and 10 minutes for all the rust to disappear—even from those little grooves. (Tip: If you’re in the market for a cast iron pan, don’t get one with little grooves on the bottom.)

Even though the cooking surface looked okay, I re-seasoned the pan anyway (coating the inside AND outside). Now it’s back in action, and the outside is way more rust-resistant.

Cleaning and Maintaining a Cast Iron Pan
There is much debate over whether or not to use soap on a cast iron pan. It all depends on your comfort. I am squarely in the no-soap camp, but do what feels right for you. You just may need to re-season more frequently.

1) Clean your cast iron pan immediately after cooking. Letting food sit, particularly acidic foods, will break down the coating you’ve worked so hard to build.

2) Rinse with hot water and remove any debris with a natural fiber or plastic scrub brush. Do not use metal on cast iron—scrubbers or utensils. You can prevent metal on metal crime.

3) Dry immediately and thoroughly. Lingering water = rust. I usually put the pan back on the stove for a minute to cook off any renegade droplets.

4) Since it’s back on the stove, apply a thin, thin, thin layer of oil to the cooking surface. Heat for a few minutes; wipe off the excess; and store in a cool, dry place.

Cooking with Cast Iron
The more often you cook with your cast iron skillet, the more nonstick it will become. Eventually, you’ll only need a little bit of oil for even eggs to just slide right off the pan.

Plus, as I said before, cast iron cookware is versatile. It can go from the stovetop to the oven and handle both like a champ: sauté up a mess o’ greens and then bake a batch corn bread. You can pretty much do anything with a cast iron pan.

Cast iron cookware may seem like a lot of work, but the investment in time and care is worth the return you’ll get in durability, functionality, and longevity. This is cookware you can pass down through generations.

Can I get an Amen?


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