Everything I Know About Cast Iron

Feb 15, 2019 | Cooking Tips

In my kitchen I currently have three different sized, and shaped cast iron pans, along with a cast iron bread pan. (not to mention my enamelled cast iron).These get used more than any other pans I own.

Why am I telling you this? Am I just bragging about my sweet cast iron collection…yeah, kind of. But more importantly, it’s because I want you to understand before we get to deep into this, the value of a well maintained cast iron pan.

Some families have cast iron pans that have been passed on for generations. Each new custodian of the family pan is responsible for maintaining it for their children and their children’s children.

This seems kind of crazy right? It’s just a pan. You can go buy one for under $50. Why does it matter so much? I think the question is…


What’s so great about cast iron any way?

When treated well, and properly maintained, a good cast iron pan will last you the rest of your life and pretty much until the end of time. Once properly seasoned, they are non stick without the addition of harmful chemicals. This makes them safe and very easy to clean.

Cast iron also holds heat very well. Once it gets hot, you can turn your burner down a bit, conserving energy. Not only that, but the pans can withstand tremendous heat. They can be used on the stove top, in the oven, or even over an open fire.

You can bake in them. Use them for deep frying. Sauteing. Cooking eggs. Really, whatever you want. They even make great pizza. And, you can get a really terrific sear on a steak and then just put the whole pan in the oven to finish it.


What are the draw backs to cast iron?

One of the biggest complaints about cast iron is that it’s heavy. It is. There is no getting around that. Another major complaint is that it takes too much effort to maintain. And one final complaint is that food sticks.

So yeah, cast iron is heavy. That’s true. But the other two complaints aren’t entirely accurate.

Difficult to maintain.

The thing about cast iron is that you have to think of it as a living thing. What I mean by that is it’s not going to do well if you never use it. Or, if you don’t pay attention to it. The more you use the pan, the better it will be.

Every time you cook in your pan you are using oil, and fats are coming out of the food. Those oils and fats, work their way into the iron, which is porous, and work to season it. So, every time you use the pan it is getting seasoned.

The truth is this, cast iron can be kind of a pain when you first get it. Even “pre-seasoned” pans need to be seasoned multiple times before they really hit their stride. However, once they are fully seasoned, and they are getting regular use, they take no time or effort to maintain at all.

Think about a puppy. When you first get a puppy, it’s kind of crazy. It poops and pees on the floor, it’s chewing everything. It has way more energy than you can contend with. It kind of sucks. But after a little while the puppy calms down. It learns to do it’s business outside, and it’s energy levels level out. Then, it’s awesome. You have a fully grown dog that loves you and that you love.

Think of new cast iron the same way as you think of a new puppy. It’s going to suck for a bit, but after a while you can’t imagine your life without it.

Cleaning

Another issue people tend to have with cast iron, is the question of how to clean it? Depending on who you ask you may end up with a thousand different, contradictory rules. It will make your head spin.

The main thing to remember is that oil in the iron from seasoning and cooking are what make the pan non-stick. Dish soap is specifically designed to cut through grease or fat and oil. So, you definitely don’t want to use dish soap in your cast iron. However, brand new cast iron should be washed in hot soapy water prior to seasoning.

How I clean my pans.

Generally, a little hot water rinse and wipe out with a towel is all I need to clean my pans. Because they get so much use, very little sticks to them. So a quick wipe is all they need.

On the rare occasion that something does stick to my pans, I use salt to clean it. I take coarse salt, and pour it in my pan, like 2-3 tbsp. Then a few drops of oil. Using a cloth, and the salt as an abrasive I scrub the pan. It doesn’t take long. Alternatively, those yellow and green scrubbies, generally work well as long as they don’t come pre-soaped.

There are specialized cast iron cleaning items you can get like chain mail, which is said to be great for cleaning cast iron. However, I’ve never used it and can’t recommend it. I will put an Amazon link below so you can check it out yourself.

Soaking pans.

Sometimes, especially if you are baking a casserole in your pan something may stick to the sides. In this case I recommend soaking the pan. I know some people’s eyes bulged out of their head reading that but calm down, I’ll explain.

I never submerge my pans in water. I just don’t. The bottoms of the pans don’t get as much seasoning as the cooking surface, and so are susceptible to rust. You want to keep them as dry as possible. However, the cooking surface of a well maintained cast iron pan will be able to maintain a soak. The water isn’t going to ruin the seasoning. It will however, soften any stuck on food bits.

To soak a cast iron pan just fill it with water and set it aside until the food has softened. Then clean as you normally would.

Drying.

Iron is very prone to rust. If any moisture is left on the pan for an extended period of time, it will rust. So, after washing it is very important to dry the pan thoroughly.

Generally, I will dry the pan with a towel and then heat the pan on the stove just until I am sure there is no moisture left in it.

It doesn’t take long or much effort, but drying cast iron is a very, very important step.

Oiling.

Once the pan is clean and dry it needs to be oiled. This is as easy as pouring a teaspoon or two of oil into the pan and then wiping around inside and out with a paper towel.

Now, your pan is ready for your next use.


Seasoning Cast Iron.

Seasoning cast iron can seem like this hassle that you have to do regularly. And it’s almost like this mythical thing. But really, do it a few times when you first get your pan and you should rarely if ever have to do it again.

How do you season a cast iron pan?

I just want to say right off the bat, that this is not a complicated process. It does take time, but it’s passive. You don’t have to do anything.

To season cast iron simply rub it inside you out, top and bottom, with lard or shortening. Place it upside down in your oven, with a baking sheet underneath it to collect oil, and bake on 350°f for about an hour. Shut the oven off, and leave the pan in the oven to cool completely. It’s best just to leave it in the oven over night.

When the pan comes out of the oven, it likely be a bit sticky. This is normal. Give it a rinse under hot water, dry it and oil it, and it should be good to go.

Generally, when I get a new cast iron pan, I repeat this process three or four times over the course of a few months. After that it is usually perfect.

When do you need to re-season?

If for some reason you need to use soap on your pan, if a pesky relative was trying to be “helpful”, or if for some reason things are sticking to the pan a lot, you will need to re-season it. It’s the exact same process as with a new pan.

Cooking with cast iron.

The most important thing to remember about cast iron is that it really needs to be pre-heated. You need to get the pan nice and hot before you use it. Because cast iron is so heavy, it’s going to take longer to heat than a stainless steel pan.

Heating the pan allows the oils in the iron to heat and expand, coating the surface of the pan thus making it non-stick.

Here is one point of confusion. People hear “non-stick” and they assume they don’t need to use oil in the pan when cooking. You absolutely do, just like with a regular non-stick pan. You’ll need less than in a steel pan, but you will need some.

That’s it. Those are really the only two things you need to be aware of when cooking with cast iron. Heat it, and use a bit of oil.


Things to look out for.

Because cast iron pans are porous, I generally avoid cooking things like curry in them. I suggest you do the same unless you like yellow, curry flavoured eggs in the morning.

Some people say to stay away from highly acidic foods in cast iron as well, but a few tomatoes aren’t going to hurt it.


Conclusion.

My cast iron pans are truly my favourite things in my kitchen. They work perfectly. It took time and effort to get them to where they are now, but it was time and effort well spent.

If you are thinking about getting a cast iron pan, or if you have one and have never really been sure of it, I hope that this has helped. I hope that you start using it, because I’m sure that you will fall in love with it when you do. And, if you really take care of it, you will have a family heirloom for generations to come.

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