1 In Chef Secrets/ Tips

Cast Iron: The Pan, the Myth, the Legend

Cast iron is the Swiss Army knife of the kitchen. This powerhouse of a pan is excellent for searing, crisping, and baking everything from entrees to desserts. But that’s just the beginning of why so many chefs and home cooks love cast iron cookware.

 

Why is cast iron so epic?
With its rustic look and pleasant heft, cast iron can easily be the centerpiece of your kitchen aesthetic. Plus, cast iron only gets better with age. If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon one of those fabled $20 Griswolds at a yard sale, don’t pass it up.

Because cast iron is so durable and easy to refurbish, a single cast iron skillet can be used for many lifetimes. Cast iron also has all the benefits and none of the drawbacks of Teflon pans; it’s naturally non-stick and won’t release harmful toxins.

 

How should you care for your cast iron?
Seasoning, cleaning, and caring for cast iron is easy. But what is seasoning and how is it done? (Hint: It ain’t salt and pepper.) Seasoning improves cast iron’s natural non-stick quality and protects against rust. Cast iron is seasoned by heating fat until it polymerizes, forming a solid coating on the pan (minus the synthetic chemicals). The thicker this coating gets and the longer seasoning is maintained, the better the pan performs.

Many new cast iron pans come pre-seasoned, but it’s best to ensure excellent seasoning by doing it yourself.

Here’s how to do initial seasoning:

  1. Clean: Pour salt onto the pan and rub it with a paper towel to remove any grime collected on the shelf. Next, wash it with hot water and a soft sponge (more on cleaning in a minute). Dry it completely.
  2. Oil: Pour a small amount of oil (about the size of a quarter) onto the pan and rub it into every surface using a paper towel. Oils with unsaturated fats work well, like vegetable, canola, olive, and avocado oil. The pan should have a light (not sticky) sheen after oiling.
  3. Heat: Heat your oven to 450°F and put the pan inside for 30 minutes. The pan will smoke, so be sure to turn on your exhaust. When removed, the pan should be noticeably darker: Careful – it’s hot!
  4. Repeat: Repeat the steps to oil and heat the pan four to five times, or until it’s almost pitch black. Once the cast iron cools, it’s seasoned and ready to use.

Using your cast iron often is the best way to build and maintain its seasoning. Of course, with cooking comes cleaning.

Here’s how to clean and maintain your cast iron:

  1. Wash: Clean while the iron is hot (food is harder to remove from a cool pan). First, rinse the pan with hot water, then wash it with a sponge (no soap). For especially stubborn bits, a chainmail scrubber may be used.
  2. Dry: Dry the pan thoroughly with a soft towel.
  3. Season: Rub the inside surface with an oil-dipped paper towel, allow the pan to cool completely, then store it. This layer of oil blocks moisture and air, preventing rust.
  4. Even if you do mess up (hello, rust), cast iron is incredibly forgiving and can be made as good as new (as good as old?) with a little elbow grease.

     

    What does cast iron cook best?
    The better question may be, what doesn’t work well with cast iron? It’s great for both the stovetop and the oven, capable of handling high heat. Plus, cast iron holds onto heat for a long time, which is the secret to searing without sticking. If you’ve cooked Green Chef before, you know we love to get a perfect sear on proteins before baking them to a juicy finish in the oven—all in the same pan.

     
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    There’s really only one thing you should avoid if your cast iron is minimally seasoned: acidic foods. Cast iron can make acidic foods taste metallic and dull their color. Until you have a good layer of seasoning, hold off on the tomato- and wine-based sauces.

    The more you cook with oil and fats, the better the cast iron’s seasoning gets, so dishes that require frying or searing are ideal. Sirloin steaks, vegetable fritters, meatballs, tofu slices, tuna steaks, potato hash, and sunny-side-up eggs are sure to sizzle, sear, and brown beautifully in a cast iron pan.

    Baking with cast iron also gives dishes crisp, golden crusts and imparts deeper flavors than other cookware. Our hearty Pumpkin Mac ‘N’ Cheese first gets caramelized notes from cast iron while it cooks on the stovetop. Then, after a quick broil in the oven, the pumpkin mac will be warm, melty, and delightfully cheesy.

    Now you’re ready to get cooking with cast iron!

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Mary Hawkes
    October 24, 2016 at 8:46 am

    Wow! What an informative article! I thought I knew about how to care for a cast iron skillet, but I sure learned a lot when I read this blog. (And it was an entertaining read, too.) Thank you, Green Chef!

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