Cast Iron

I have a confession to make.  After resisting for so long, I have become a cast iron convert.

I've been using a lot of hand-me-downs or cheap cookware, and I got tired of replacing non-stick pans, especially with all the recent medical findings linking flaking teflon with health problems.  After being advised to avoid sets and invest in good pans and switch out as I go, my hubby mentioned, "Why don't we get a cast iron skillet?"  Cast iron skillet!?  These three words scared me like nothing else.  My mind filled with thoughts of great cooks in my family, and I was intimidated.  They are too heavy, and I'm a klutz....they are too hard to care for, you can't put them in the dishwasher....but part of me was romanced by the thought it was a part of my heritage as a southern girl.

Anyone from the south or knows someone from the south, somewhere in your grandmother's kitchen, there's a cast iron pan.  Around here, there's usually one in that kitchen, solely reserved strictly for the use of making cornbread.  To cook anything else in it, is sacrilege.  Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I bought a new pan.  It was about twice what I ever paid for a pan, and I still couldn't put it in the dishwasher, or into an oven over 350°F, even though there were no plastic handles.  Despite the bottom having a core to distribute heat, it still had hot spots.  Second night I owned the pan, I walk into the kitchen to see my husband standing over the stove, looking very frustrated and angry.  He was making his second or third grilled cheese, as the other sandwiches had spots that were burnt and the rest wasn't quite toasted.  So, I relented.  We went to Wal-Mart and bought a Lodge 10 inch cast iron skillet and the rest is, well, history.  I am head over heels in l-o-v-e.  I went on a short road trip down to the Lodge Outlet store, and for far less than I would have paid for the cookware set with stuff I would never really use, I've ended up with 2 10" skillets, an 8" skillet, a griddle pan, and dutch oven.  But since my first pan, I've done a lot of reading and research, and I'd like to share what I've learned for anyone that is curious or maybe like me a few months ago, a little scared of cast iron.  This is not the end all, be all, of information, but I hope it helps!

Advantages to Using Cast Iron
*  Cast iron is ovenproof!
*  It can be used for indoor/outdoor/grill cooking.  (Cast iron with wooden handles are the exception - they can not handle open flame cooking, for obvious reasons.)
*  Some doctors recommend cast iron, especially for folks that need to increase iron consumption.
*  Due to the material and construction, cast iron retains and distributes heat evenly.  No hot spots, and after the stove is turned off, food will hold at warm much longer without continued cooking.
*  Extremely affordable

What to look for when you are buying
*  Some cast iron companies outside the US produce cast iron with wooden handles.  If you buy any of these, please be aware, although the handles are wood, there is a large aluminum bolt holding that handle on, and cause the handles to get hot just like solid cast iron.  The only remaining US company that makes cast iron is Lodge (right here in Tennessee!).  Lodge's cast iron pieces use solid cast iron handles.  Although in recent years, they have added enamel coated cast iron cookware to their line.
*  Look at the grain and texture.  If the surface is pitted or extremely coarse - pass on it.  Cast iron is not smooth, but the surface should be uniform with a slight texture.
*  If you are looking to purchase used cast iron, watch for any chipping or paint.  Untrustworthy sellers have been known to touch up old cast iron with black paint.

Seasoning the Pans
When buying a new pan, first give it a good cleaning with hot water and a mild dish liquid to remove any wax coating.  (This will be the only time soap hits your pan.)  Now you are ready to season.

"Seasoning" the pan is where the dark patina and non-stick properties come from on a cast iron pan.  With use, your pan will become, as Alton Brown says, "as slick as a mambo band."  The more you use it, the more non-stick and darker it will become.  But before you use your new pan -or- if your seasoning 'broke', it will need to be seasoned.

Try this method to season your pans:
-Line the bottom rack of your oven with aluminum foil.
-Preheat to 350° F.
-While the oven is preheating, put your skillet on the stove (medium low heat) and melt a tablespoon of shortening in it.  Take a paper towel and wipe the whole pan down with the melted shortening, taking care to apply just a thin layer.  Pour off and wipe off any excess to prevent carbonizing when you put the pan in the oven or smoking while it cures.
-Place the pan upside down on the top rack of the oven.  This keeps excess fat from pooling and making a sticky mess of your pan.  The foil will keep any dripping off your oven floor.  Bake for 1 hour.  (Open windows are a help during this process.  It's not uncommon to have a smell while the cure is baking.)
-Turn off the oven, but leave the cast iron inside until the oven has cooled off; the cast iron's cure will continue to bake on while it is cooling.  Once it's cool, your pan has been seasoned.

Using Cast Iron
*  The first few times you use the pan, cook fatty foods such as bacon or burgers.  This will improve the seasoning and deepen the patina.  Avoid cooking acidic foods (like tomatoes) or alkaline foods (like beans) until you have established a good seasoning on your pan. Try to wait about 5-6 uses before cooking these types of foods in your cast iron.
*  Occasionally your seasoning may break, just reseason as above.
*  Do not store food in your cast iron - this can break the seasoning and promote rust.
*  Temperature adjustment - When using cast iron, keep in mind that the material distributes heat evenly through the pan and retains heat longer.  That being said, you may have to adjust the stovetop heat called for in recipes, unless they are designed for or state using a cast iron pan.  For instance if a recipe calls for medium heat, I'll use my cast iron at med-low.  (This is especially important to keep in advisement when dealing with oil!)

- Do not use detergent or put in the dishwasher!!!
There are different philosophies for cleaning cast iron: water and no water schools of thought.

Cleaning with water - Clean the pan with hot water and a plastic mesh scrub (no scouring pads or steel wool - they will scratch off the seasoning you worked so hard for).  Towel dry thoroughly.  Take a paper towel and wipe the cooking surface down with a very thin layer of vegetable or canola oil.  The oil should leave just a satin appearance, not wet or pooling, after you wipe the pan down. Wipe off any excess with another paper towel.

No water clean-up -  Make sure you have removed as much food as you can. While the pan is still warm, but cool enough to handle, add about a tablespoon of vegetable or canola oil and about a tablespoon of salt to the pan and scrub with a paper towel.  Wipe out the excess salt and wipe down with the thin layer of oil as detailed above.  If your pan has cooled down completely before cleaning, put it over medium heat just long enough to warm it up.


*  If you stack your cast iron pans or have items with lids, place paper towels between items and lids to let the cast iron breathe.
*  Make sure you store in a dry area, and your cast iron is completely dry before putting it away.  Some will even heat their pans briefly on the stove top after towel drying to ensure no moisture before they store their cast iron.

Rust Removal
If you get a little rust and your pans are not collectors items, you can use a fine to medium grit sandpaper or steel wool to remove the rust.  Remember you will need to reseason your pans if this occurs.

With a little information and no more work than other pans- because if we followed the manufacturer's directions, most of the pans we stick in the dishwasher shouldn't be - I think you'll find cast iron to be a fine addition to your kitchen!

*Originally posted on the forums of Kittencal's Kitchen by me, 10/09. :) See my links and drop by her blog!