06 September 2012

Care and feeding of cast iron cookware

In light of a recent news item pointing out an association between non-stick cookware and childhood overweight, and another linking Teflon to heart disease, I'd like to talk about cast iron pans today. I own a few pieces of cast iron cookware, and I have a confession.

I regularly immerse them in dishwater full of detergent to clean them.

Alton Brown would scold me. Lodge would fire me. The author of this very good, comprehensive how-to would say I'm not careful enough. But you know what? I like a clean kitchen.

And a cast-iron pan that seems irretrievably "de-seasoned" can be brought back to life by cooking up a batch of french fries. And who doesn't like french fries?

Find cast-iron pieces at yard sales, flea markets, and thrift stores. For the urban home economist, there is really no reason to ever buy it new (though, if you do, follow the manufacturer's instructions for first use). Gnarly, rusty, sticky pieces can be retrieved; cracked and warped pieces cannot. What pieces should you get? Rowhouse Livin' gets by with a small skillet, a large shallow skillet, a round flat griddle, and a dutch oven. If you dig frying whole chickens, then you may enjoy keeping a large deep skillet on hand as well. Most other sizes and types will be superfluous for everyday cooking.

Clockwise from top left: Slow cooker, dutch oven, griddle, 8-inch
skillet, 10-inch skillet, tea kettle. Two of these things are not like the others.

Scrub the newly acquired cast iron with fine steel wool and wipe out dirt, old seasoning, and rust. Repeat until clean and free of rust. Add a tablespoon or more of vegetable oil (a high-temperature frying oil, not a salad oil), spread the oil around the bottom of the pan, and heat the pan on medium for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from heat and, using a paper towel or napkin, spread the oil up the sides of the pan. Remove excess oil and let cool on the stove (or in an unheated oven) overnight. The next day, make a batch of french fries in the pan.

We use the small skillet for frying eggs. Its surface is so well seasoned that it acts like a nonstick pan under a egg fried sunny-side up in butter. Too bad my doctor tells me I should poach my morning breakfast egg instead. The large shallow skillet is more of a workhorse: tomato sauce (yes), fried rice, sauteed vegetables of all kinds (greens, summer squash, eggplant, broccoli, etc.), and french fries, on days when I feel like spending a lot of time cleaning up splatters from my stove afterward. The round griddle sees weekend duty cooking pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches. The dutch oven serves as a cloche for baking bread, and as a spacious kettle for my devastating dairy-free potato-leek soup in the winter.

The dutch oven is not cleaned, really, between baking loaves of bread. After a few rounds, I brush out some accumulated burned crumbs, but I find no need to clean it with soap. As for the flat griddle, it gets a quick wipe with a plastic scrubber -- kludged from a plastic net sack that once held onions -- under running water, but no soap or detergent. Pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches simply don't stick to it. The two skillets, however, do get a dunk in the sink for cleaning. I wait until I've finished all the other dishes, and the detergent is about worn out, and I clean them as quickly as I can with the plastic scrubber and with as little detergent as I can get away with. But fried rice sticks, and so does pasta if I toss it with the sauteed vegetables in the skillet. So I pour some room-temperature water in the skillet and let it sit for a half hour at the most to try to loosen that food residue up, but sometimes only some detergent and elbow grease with the scrubber will work. Dry with a towel and inspect: if it looks a little raw, spread a small teaspoon of vegetable oil on the bottom and sides of the pan, let sit overnight, and then wipe off the excess in the morning. If it looks really raw, you know what to do. That's right. Make a batch of french fries.

What more could a kitchen want? Oh -- a slow cooker. Next!

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