Cast iron rocks

Egg and (veggie) bacon.
Egg and (veggie) bacon.

I love my cast iron pans.

I always heard how great cast iron was supposed to be. How a decades-old seasoning on the pan is something to treasure. How properly-seasoned pans are completely non-stick. How easy iron is to care for. And I didn’t believe any of it.

My ex-husband and I picked up a humongous cast-iron pan once, and I do mean huge. One of those giant skillets that has a second handle so you can carry it without dropping it. It was a new pan, a Lodge, completely unseasoned. I don’t recall what we did to try to season it, but we did use it at some point. I think it’s possible that all we did is start cooking in it, figuring that the seasoning would then develop. Which is sort of true. But as soon as we tried to clean it, we discovered it was a pain. It started rusting quickly, and it was too heavy to use regularly, so we gave up.

But, more recently, I’ve been converted. With good pans and the right treatment, cast iron is non-stick, and is incredibly easy to care for.

The pans

I bet when you think of cast iron you think of a rough, rustic sort of pan, right?

It turns out that modern pans aren’t like the old ones. You can get modern pans, made in the U.S.A. with reasonable quality, from Lodge. Now they come with a bit of pre-seasoning so you can use them right away. They are heavy, and a bit rough. Some other pans on the market are rougher and more rustic. You can get them to be nicely seasoned, eventually.

But the old pans — pre-1960 or so — they are a completely different beast. Old pans were more finely finished — machined mirror-smooth. They are thinner, so they are lighter weight. And being so smooth already, once you get them seasoned… well, they are amazing. Better than any modern non-stick pan. So I buy vintage pans when I can find them at the thrift store. Mostly I’ve found Wagner Ware. Sometimes they are so abused you can’t even tell what brand they are, but you get a nice surprise when you clean them up.

Caring for them

It turns out that once you get the pans ready for use by reconditioning and seasoning (both of which are thoroughly addressed at the Black Iron Blog), taking care of the pans is dead easy. Here’s what you do:

  1. Cook your awesome meal. Eggs, fish, bacon, fried chicken, deep-dish pizza, whatever.
  2. Let the pan cool a bit so you can handle it.
  3. Run hot water on it. Don’t worry, it won’t rust if it’s seasoned. Rinse out some of the crud.
  4. Wipe out the rest of the crud with a towel. If there is something you can’t get out, you can use a paste of salt and water to get it out, or a plastic scrubbie. Not one of those flat green pads. If you absolutely can’t get something out, put a bit of water in the pan and bring it to a boil. That will loosen up the stubborn crud. Wipe the pan as thoroughly as you can. Spotless.
  5. You know what you don’t do? That’s right. Use soap. “But,” you say with a look of horror, “how can I not use soap?” Here’s why and how. Dish soap is designed to cut down grease and oil. What do you use to make a good seasoning on your pan? Grease and oil. So what does dish soap do to the developing seasoning layer? It damages it. Eats away at it. You don’t want that.

    Instead, you wipe it as clean as possible. Run more hot water on it if you must. And then — you dry it off thoroughly, wipe it with the thinnest possible layer of oil, and set it on the burner, set to low, for seven minutes. This dries out any remaining water to prevent rust, and it also gets the pan temperature so damn hot that no nastiness can survive on your cast iron.

  6. Leave the pan on the burner until the time is up. (Don’t forget it!) Then take a clean cloth or paper towel, and wipe the pan down, removing the excess oil (there will be a bit more now that the pan has heated) and leaving an even thinner layer. You want it thin, or it might get sticky. Don’t worry, even with a very thin layer, the pan will be happy. Your pan is now ready to store.

The oil you use is something that everyone has an opinion about. I seasoned my pans initially with Crisco, and I think that works just fine. But now I mostly cook with olive oil, and so that’s what I wipe the pans down with too. Olive oil isn’t supposed to be great for this, but with the technique I’ve been using, it works just fine. It does contribute to the seasoning polymer that builds up on the pan, which keeps getting better and slicker as I use it.

Keep doing this everytime you cook in the pan, and pretty soon you will have what I have — a pan that is completely nonstick, that allows you to flip an egg by shaking the pan (well — it takes some practice), that even burnt teriyaki sauce won’t stick to.

When you cook in it, heat the pan first, then add oil. This also prevents sticking. I heat it until drops of water tossed in it sizzle and jump around, then add some olive oil or any other oil I may need to use.

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