Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Cast Iron Skillets

As I get back into my paleo/primal/low-carb diet/lifestyle after a break of a few months, which I realise now was a huge mistake, I realise I should do an article on cast iron cookware, specifically, the skillets that I use to prepare so much of my food. This morning, the small skillet was finally re-seasoned to the point that not a bit of egg stuck. So, I feel now is the perfect time to go over the care and use of cast iron skillets.

First, a little background on what happened to my wonderful skillet, and why I was so excited that I fixed it. A well seasoned cast iron skillet is a non-stick cooking implement. You should be able to cook an egg or three without having to worry about anything sticking to the pan. This is how my skillet was… until one morning a couple months ago when I wasn't paying attention and set the skillet to preheat on the highest setting the stove allows (typically reserved for boiling pots of water). The excessive heat, combined with me not being in the kitchen to notice (I know about how long it takes my skillet to come to heat, so I typically use that time doing other things) for way too long for that level of heat caused the seasoning to cook/dry out or otherwise completely ruin. Had I been a bit more awake, and a bit less panicked upon discovery, I could have easily fixed it then, but I didn't, and now I have a reseasoning story to tell.

So, how did I reseason the skillet? I'll tell you what I didn't do. I didn't strip it (though I thought about it, as it wouldn't have hurt anything, and would have let me clean the bottom and outsides), because I didn't really have the time. I didn't do some fancy oven ritual like I've done in the past (before I learned better) using oil and possibly salt, and a whole bunch of paper towels. As, a) I didn't really have the time, and b) I didn't want to mess with it. Here's what I did do. I used it, near daily, and dealt with the pains of cooking on an unseasoned skillet as they came up, taking proper care during and after use. It might have taken a bit longer than the oven ritual would have been, but that time was spread out over months, and resulted in a better seasoning than I could ever have gotten out of the oven ritual.

That brings us to the meat of this post:

How to use and care for a cast iron skillet

And what to do when things go wrong…

First things first, pre-heat your skillet. Just set it on the eye, and turn the heat on to where it will be when you're cooking. Keep in mind that if it's cold, jumping straight to high heat might be a bad idea, and if you are cooking at high heat, you'll want to preheat to a medium-high, add your fat/oil, then bring it up to high. I don't heat dry to anything too far past medium. Now, as to the question of if you should add a cooking fat/oil or not, and how much, it depends on what you're cooking. If you're cooking something fatty, like bacon, there's no need. But it you're kicking around some strips of meat and vegetables for fajitas, it's a good idea. If you're using fat/oil, let it come to heat before adding your food.

Now, what to cook with. In this day and age of Teflon and other non-stick coatings, we have been conditioned to use plastic, wood, bamboo, or anything other than metal, so as to avoid scratching the surface. This is exactly the opposite when it comes to cooking on cast iron. You want to cook with a metal spatula (burger flipper) with a flat edge and preferably rounded corners (because your skillet is rounded as well). Scraping the pan is exactly what you want to do, this helps hone a flat cooking surface.

Now, how to clean your skillet: wipe it out. That's all there is to it. Just scrap it flat, dump any scrapings into the compost/trash, and wipe it out with a paper towel. If it's really bad (sticky, burnt, etc.), don't use soap. If your pan is very well seasoned, a little soap shouldn't hurt it, but there's still no need. Here's what you do. While the pan is still hot (or you can bring it back to heat if it's cooled), scrape as much out as you can and pour in vinegar, preferably distilled white vinegar (you can also use a cheap wine). This will deglaze the pan and make all the sticky gunk come right off as you scrape with your metal spatula. Dump it out and wipe with a paper towel. If it's really bad you may need to repeat until the towel comes away clean. Now, and this is the most important part, while the pan is still hot (heat it if you need to), dip a towel (or paper towel) in your cooking fat/oil/grease, to get just a tiny bit on there, and wipe it all over the inside of your skillet. Once coated, take a clean towel (again, paper towels work too), or a clean dry part of the other towel, and wipe out all excess, leaving a very thin coating in the pan, and let it air cool.

As long as you use and care for your skillet in the above manner, it will form a nice seasoning, and soon you will find food doesn't stick as much, then not at all. Even if you ruin your skillet, as long as it's not cracked, you can scrub away any rust and follow the use and care instructions above and soon it will be as good as, or better than (in some cases), new.

Note: a lot of the above information, and more, can be found in Paul Wheaton's article How To: Cast Iron Skillet Non-Stick and Lasts a Lifetime on RichSoil.com. On thing you won't find there is the deglazing (vinegar/wine) method for when food gets stuck or the skillet gets sticky. It's something I discovered on my own that I just don't think I've mailed him about, but it works quite well.

Take care of your cast iron and it will take care of you, and your children, and their children.

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