Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Cast Iron

I love things that are well made, that seem as though they'll be around for decades to come. And although I'm a bit compulsive about culling my own belongings, there are certain items that have been passed down through my family over the years that I would never dream of parting with. So it will come as no surprise that I adore my grandmother's cast iron skillet, a family heirloom that is also possibly the most durable good you will ever come across.

If you look closely, you'll see the imprint indicating that the skillet was forged in Erie Pennsylvania. Good old time American craftsmanship if I've ever seen it.

Happily, given the limited storage and display options that my apartment offers, the skillet is also an extraordinarily useful item. Despite its considerable heft, I find myself wrangling it to the stove at least twice a week.

It conducts heat evenly and retains heat extremely well, which makes it the ideal implement for searing meats. But I also find myself using it for a variety of tasks including baking (cornbread and frittata particularly), roasting (perfect for a small shoulder roast or the like) and cooking fish on the stovetop. This last task is not traditionally recommended, but in my experience it works wonderfully well, and when I found out that Le Bernadin, the high temple of fish, uses only cast iron cookware, I felt fully vindicated.

So why is cast iron cookware not a more common item in American kitchens? My guess is that people have been scared off by all of the talk of seasoning, of scrubbing with salt rather than soap, and of the ongoing maintenance. And I'll admit that often the instructions that are given for cast iron care are off-putting and complex. But as is the case so often, life doesn't have to be so difficult.

For the uninitiated, when you buy a new cast iron item (they are surprisingly cheap by the way), its surface is just about as far opposite from nonstick as you can get. However, the seasoning process will make the surface more nonstick than Teflon, and will erradicate all of that concern about chemicals in your food and the associations with well liked but adulterous politicians.

Seasoning consists essentially of coating the pan with a thin sheet of oil, and then heating it for some time, either in a low oven or over a low flame, until the oil is absorbed. You do this five or ten times, and the surface is no longer porous...all of the small crevices will have filled with baked oil. The more you oil it, the better the surface (and the more resistant it is to rust), which is why old, well used cast iron pans are highly prized.

General wisdom goes that you should re-season the pan after each use, and that you should not use soap of any kind on cast iron as it will only serve to compromise the seasoning. Therefore you should use coarse salt to scrub away any cooked on food. Now if this were actually the case I probably wouldn't ever use cast iron either.

My mother, as she often does, has debunked this labor intensive myth and come up with a much easier method. Now you can't get around the initial need for seasoning, but once you've got a good thing going, all you need to do after each use is heat the pan on the stove, turn off the flame, rub a little coconut oil on the pan with a paper towel and leave it alone until the pan has cooled down. As cast iron retains heat like nothing else, this will be a good fifteen or twenty minutes. Once it's cool, simply wipe off any excess with a paper towel. Couldn't be simpler. And if I may put my two cents in on the cleaning question, if you can't get the pan clean with a scrub brush and very hot water, a tiny bit of mild soap like Dr. Bronner's isn't going to do any harm.

Et voila, you will eventually have a pan that gleams with nonstickiness.

If you come across an old cast iron pan with old cooked on food, do not despair, there is hope. I speak from experience grandmother, who was a wonderful woman in countless ways, was not, as far as I can tell, a great cook. Thus this pan had a lot of non-iron material stuck to the surface. I can only assume it was the result of some botched cooking experiments.

I started off by sanding the offending particles off. But that was slow going so I began to research alternatives. I was advised to throw the pan into a hot fire for three hours and then re-season. But if I were to come across a fire of that size in Manhattan I am fairly confident that I would want to run away from it, not towards it with a skillet in hand. However, it turns out you can achieve the same effect with a self-cleaning oven. Simply leave the skillet in the oven during the cleaning cycle and you will have a nearly virgin surface to deal with. The seasoning will need to be re-done, but the surface will be perfectly smooth and food-free. No manual labor required.

Aren't you tempted to give it a go now?


Terry B said...

Wellll, I'm semi-tempted to give it a go after reading this, Laura. I've had a couple/few cast iron skillets over the years, but never warmed to them. I think I've successfully given away any in my possession, in fact. Besides the whole seasoning thing, the other thing I've found off-putting is that cast iron reacts with acids, such as wine and tomatoes, both staples in my cooking. According to some cooks, though, as long as you're cooking for a short time only, this isn't a problem. Still, I'm kind of thinking I'll keep any future cast iron adventures vicarious, through you and your grandmother's wonderful pan.

Laura [What I Like] said...

Yes, things like braises that include wine and tomatoes are probably better left to the enameled dutch oven...but there is more to life than braising! I'll have you on the cast iron band wagon one day, mark my words!

Melly/Melody/or Mel said...

I love my cast iron..cept now with my new ceramic cooktop, I can only use pans that are totally flat on the bottom. No ridges. Damnit!

I love a nice ribeye seared in a cast iron pan and finished in the oven to a perfect med rare.

Cindy said...

All good advice. I use mostly hot water and a scrubby sponge on mine. It is the perfect (really only) thing in which to make steak poive--a few minutes on a blazing stove top and then into a very hot oven. What else can handle that?

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