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Seasoned With Love

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Is there any other piece of cookware as misunderstood as the cast iron skillet? With a functionality from camping companion to substituting as a pizza stone, the cast iron skillet is much more than just a frying pan. And with all that hype about how to care for them, one would think they were bringing home a new puppy. But even still, it does need a little bit more understanding than the ordinary stainless steel pot.

This old culinary staple, which many of us inherited from our grandmothers, is certainly the most forgiving of all kitchen utensils. After searing steaks, I will often put mine outdoors to keep the house from reeking of scorched meat. It doesn’t hold a grudge, even if I leave it out there and forget about it. Just recently, I left it sitting on the patio table, and after my chickens pecked away all the burnt meat bits, it filled up with rainwater. I only realized I had left it out after I noticed a couple of sparrows using it for a bath.

This brings us to that over-asked question: to soap or not to soap? Most of us would probably wince at the idea of just rinsing and wiping out a skillet that had been used as a chicken feeder and birdbath, so what to do, what to do? Well, a little soap never hurt anybody or their frying pan, as long as the pan has been well seasoned. I do have that kind of relationship with my skillet in which we have built up this trust over the years, and so whatever I choose will be okay. Now, the girls had already stripped it clean, so all it needed was a stiff brush, a little squirt of mild dish soap, a hot water rinse and an air dry. However, the rain had taken its toll, so it did require a little re-seasoning.

But it wasn’t a big deal. Most new cast iron comes from the manufacturer already seasoned. This simply means it has been put through a process of oil and heat, giving it a natural non-stick coating that we all desire to keep our eggs from turning into hideous, misshapen blobs when we lift them out of the pan. Even the manufacturer will suggest a soapy, hot water rinse at the start of your relationship just to rid the pan of any unseen vermin. They will also encourage you to season again, because the more you season it, the harder and better the surface becomes for cooking.

This nonstick surface begins with oiling. Any oil will do, and all the experts disagree, naturally. But the fact is that shortening works the best because it does not get sticky as oils do. But on the other hand, if the oil is heated past the smoke point of say, 400º F, ain’t nothin’ gonna be sticky. Now I’m pretty sure my grandma would have scoffed at both and just pulled out the hog fat. Anyway, as the oil heats, it breaks down and adheres to the cast iron as a plastic-like polymer. The cool thing about this is that soap does not affect plastic, so if your pan has a good season, voila! No need to shy away from a little soapy rinse, if necessary. So, into the hot oven it goes for about an hour at anywhere between 350º to 450º F. It is best to leave the skillet in the oven to cool. There’s no science behind this part other than the fact that burning your hand and a trip to the ER could be expensive.

So, you see, there is really nothing to seasoning your cast iron. But what about all those other alarmist warnings we’ve heard about–what to cook, not to cook, to salt or not to salt, and where does the potato come in? To keep things simple, here are some well-researched facts, do’s and don’ts for your cast iron skillet. Chances are, your grandmother evolved with this list in her DNA.

Iron and water make rust. Cast iron is iron, so it will rust. It should not be left in the sink for longer than it takes to soak out the worst cooked-on food. Never, ever put it in the dishwasher, unless you actually want the lovely, shiny black patina to turn filmy, rust-red. After cleaning, wipe dry with paper towels. Don’t store with lids on, as moisture can become trapped. If rust occurs, it can be eliminated by scrubbing out the rust and re-seasoning.

Cooking acidic foods such as tomato sauce or wine is okay. Otherwise, the cast iron po po would have arrested me long ago. Remember that plastic-like polymer? If your pan is well seasoned, no worries. If you’re still worried about this, though, add more oil. Fat is your friend.

Insignificant amounts of iron can leach into your food, depending on the thickness and hardness of your pan’s seasoning. You cannot bank on it like spinach or liver, so if you’re thinking to cure anemia, better get supplements.

The skillet should always be preheated. Not preheating causes food to stick. When searing meats, don’t turn it or try to tug it out. Meat has a release point when the outer surface is done. Cast iron doesn’t heat as evenly as other types of cookware, but it does hold the heat better.

The best way to keep your cast iron in good shape is to use it often. The more you fry fatty meats or foods, the better your seasoning will be. Bacon is the bomb.

A periodic scrub with salt and a cut potato is good for regular maintenance. The salt helps to remove cooked-on grime without scarring the seasoning and the potato is simply the ergonomic vehicle upon which you press to move the salt around the pan. Scrubbing with the cut end down releases just enough moisture to turn the salt into a cleansing paste.

If your cast iron is properly seasoned and cared for, it will reward you with a lifetime of love and delicious food. And it’s way easier to take care of than a puppy!

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