How do you care for cast iron cookware?
Perhaps you’ve heard about the potential toxic hazards of Teflon or other non-stick coatings that’s been cropping up in the news now and then for the past few years. They’ve found links between the chemicals released and low birth weights, and increased allergens in mice–not so pretty a picture.
Now though, you may be thinking “Well great, now what do I cook my eggs in?” The answer is an old fashioned one–cast iron cookware. With the right treatment, this wonder-metal can cook with temperature precision, food slides off as easily as if it was Teflon, plus you get the added benefit of iron in your food.
So you’ve bought this incredibly heavy thing that has a sticker advertising “Pre-seasoned” on it and you take it home and try to make an omelet and make an awful, smelly, scorched mess of things. What went wrong? Well, the trick with cast iron is it needs to be cared for properly. My mom uses my great-grandma’s cast iron skillet and everything it turns out is magnificent…and trust me my mom is no great chef (sorry, mom). The secret is she knows how to care for her pan.
Cast iron has this quality of infusing things with subtle hints of flavor of previous cooking. Dutch ovens have been called “Old Black Magic” because it seems whatever you make in it–stews, roasts, even desserts–comes out deliciously. So, here are a few rules to get you started with your cast iron cookware, and a healthier way of living.
Rule #1 Get that coat off!
Cast iron needs to be seasoned. Most cast iron cookware nowadays comes pre-seasoned but coated with a wax-like substance. To get this off, wash your new wonder item with hot water and steel wool and soap to get the coating off. Make sure you wash all surfaces–outside and in, handle, and top and bottom of the lid (if there is one).
Rule #2 Seasoned to perfection
To get the best flavor and make a protective barrier for your cast iron, you should still season your new pot. There are several ways to do this. One is to apply a thin coat of melted shortening (like Crisco) or oil (vegetable, canola, etc.) with a cloth or paper towel over all surfaces–inside and out. Heat your oven to 350 degrees and if you have a skillet or open pan, place it upside down in the oven with a baking sheet with foil underneath to catch the dripping oil. If you have a Dutch oven, seal the lid and just place it in. Let it bake for about an hour, then turn the oven off and let it cool while still in the oven (I just leave it overnight). You should do this a couple times to get a good seal on your cookware.
The iron is porous, so think of it like high jagged mountains and low valleys. Seasoning fills in the valleys to make a nice level cooking surface. That first omelet you made just got all caught up on those mountains. Seasoning your cast iron will eventually help your skillet be as smooth as any non-stick material, and soon your omelet will slide right off.
Rule # 3 Now We’re Cookin’
Preheat your cast iron before you use it. Never put a lot of cold water into a hot pot or pan as this can cause it to crack–and vice-versa. Make sure you use potholders as the handles get just as hot as the rest of it! And remember, every time you cook, it’s like you’re re-seasoning your cookware.
Once your skillet is at the temperature you like, you can usually adjust the stovetop to a low temperature. The iron retains and distributes the heat so well it’ll keep everything piping hot still, and you’ll use less energy cooking your dinner. Often I’ll start my dutch oven on medium, and after it has warmed up switch my electric stovetop to low and a smaller circle of heat. It still boils whatever stew I’m making and I’m using a lot less energy.
Rule #4 Cleaning Cast Iron
There are two schools of thought here. One is that no soap should ever touch cast iron. The argument is that it’s porous, and will undoubtedly leave a soapy taste on your cast iron. In this version, you scrape out all the excess food, then scrub it with hot water and a scrub brush.
You can even rinse it in hot water, pour coarse salt in, and rub with paper towels or a cloth until it is clean then rinse out the salt (in the old days they used to use clean sand). Pat dry with paper towels and then either put a thin coat of oil with paper towels on it or spray with cooking oil. Wipeout excess and store where it will stay dry. This is how we clean our skillets and dutch oven on a regular basis–we scrub with a stiff-bristled vegetable brush. With a well-seasoned pan, it takes about 30 seconds to get it clean!
The second theory is that it’s ok to use dishwashing soap. However, never let soap or soapy water sit in your cast iron for long–so it doesn’t soak up that flavor. Also, if you do use soap you will need to reseason it more often.
I have heard good arguments, however, that if you never use soap and don’t often use the cast iron the oil will go rancid…and that can’t be good. So if you don’t use yours on a nightly or even weekly basis, wash with a bit of soap and hot water, dry thoroughly, then coat again with a think layer of oil (you can even place it on the warm stovetop for a few minutes to make sure its completely dry), and add the oil while its warm so it better absorbs. Wipeout excess oil (you don’t want it pooling where it can turn rancid) and store where it will stay dry.
Rule #5 Wear it out don’t Rust it out
If your cast iron isn’t thoroughly dry before you put it away, it could rust. If you notice a discolored area or a metallic taste, or if it turns your food black, scrub the rusty spot with steel wool until its all gone, and then re-season it again.
So in short, cast iron cookware may take a bit more care, but so does everything worth having. You’ll have better control over the cooking temperature you use, use less energy, you’ll use less oil when you cook because it will already have a wonderful cooking surface, it will be non-stick without any toxins to worry about, you don’t have to buy any special utensils to use in it, and it will add iron to your diet–what more could you ask for?
I guess it is true that “grandma knows best.”