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Cast Iron Crash Course

Cast Iron Skillets

Cast Iron Skillets (photo by BlackIronDude.blogspot.com)

Do you cook with cast iron?

If you’re avoiding this classic black cookware for fear of a messy, unwieldy situation in the kitchen, note: it doesn’t have to be like that.

When you know what you’re doing, cast iron is remarkably clean, easy and low-maintenance. Plus, it’ll last hundreds of years (unlike your teflon pan, which you’re supposed to replace every other year). Plus, it adds iron to your diet. Plus, it’s an old and beautiful and traditional.

Here are the basics.

If you’re buying your first skillet, try to find one that has a smooth (machined) cooking surface. Those that come straight out of the mold without machining are slightly rough (read: hard to use). Over time, you can get the same results with any skillet you choose, but the machined one will be much easier on you in the beginning.

Look for Griswold, a good machined brand. Because it’s no longer in manufacture, you’ll need to find it used. All the better: used cast iron is likely seasoned cast iron. Check your thrift store, Ebay or Craigslist and see what you can find.

Griswold Logo

Griswold Logo

Cast iron skillets come from the manufacturer in a flat grey. With proper use, they soon turn a lustrous black. This happens through seasoning: the art of applying layer after layer of fat and hardening it to a mirror-like shine.

To start, dribble a little oil on your cast iron skillet and rub it in with a clean cloth. Then preheat your pan. Preheating not only helps with seasoning; it also gives you a stable temperature, which makes for more controlled results in your cooking.

The first several times you use your skillet, add a little more fat to the pan than you would normally use. Subjected to heat, those fat molecules will rearrange, or polymerize, into a very hard, protective, elastic coating. Eventually, after you’ve been cooking with it for a while, your skillet will have dozens of these layers, melding together into one lovely cooking surface.

In short: it’ll be seasoned.

What to cook, in the meantime? Not eggs. Once your pan is fully seasoned, eggs will be a breeze, but until then, they’ll be a frustration. Instead, we recommend starting with caramelized onions. A must for just about any savory meal, caramelized onions add sweetness and depth to all kinds of dishes. And because it takes very low heat and lots of fat to achieve caramelization, it’s perfect for a new cast iron skillet.

How to Cook Caramelized Onions
     the perfect first project for your new cast iron skillet 

Preheat your pan on low. Melt a lot of butter in it - two or three tablespoons at least. Stir a chopped onion into the butter until it's well
coated, then... wait. Stir, don't rush. This is not a sauté, where you gently scald the surface to a crispy brown. You're not steaming it,
either; you'll want to stir it often enough that the onion's own moisture doesn't steam it prematurely. After about an hour, your originally
white onion should be a deep, very soft, very sweet golden brown: a delicious ingredient in just about any soup or sauce.

Specifically, choose one made of stainless steel, with a flat edge and rounded corners. As you cook, your spatula will smooth and polish your skillet. Even if you’re starting with a non-machined pan, a good spatula, combined with proper seasoning, will achieve the same results. (It’ll just take longer.)

If you like to scrub, you’ll want to check that impulse here. A cast iron skillet doesn’t need to be disinfected, so much as it needs to be wiped bare and left dry. Properly cared for, you might even get to the point where you never wash your skillet at all – all you do is cook with it, wipe it out and put it away.

But things don’t always go according to plan. Here’s a list of ways to clean your skillet, from least to most intensive.

  • If, when you’re finished cooking, your food slides off the skillet without leaving anything behind (perfecto!), “cleaning” means simply wiping it out with a dry cloth.
  • If there’s a little food left in the pan, try sprinkling some salt on it before wiping it out. Salt is abrasive; it may give your cloth the edge it needs to do the job.
  • If that doesn’t work, hit it with a splash of water and spot-clean the stuck bits off with a (soap-free) scrubby. Afterward, dry your skillet thoroughly by letting it sit for a moment on a hot burner. Then dribble in some oil and wipe dry with your cloth.
  • If you’re looking at some seriously gummed-up residue on the bottom of the pan – for instance, hardened bacon gunk – never fear. Add an inch of water, set your skillet on a hot burner, and boil for a minute or two, gently scraping it with your spatula. When all the stuck gunk has unstuck, pour out the water, rinse, and spot-scrub anything you missed. Set on a hot burner to dry. Dribble in some oil, and wipe clean.

We’ve covered the “do”s. Now for the “don’t”s.

Don’t leave water in your skillet. It’ll rust, and that’s a problem.

Don’t leave your skillet on a hot burner with nothing in it, either. That hard-won seasoning will eventually smoke itself away, and if the pan gets too hot, it can crack.

Also, think twice before you cook anything acidic (like tomato sauce) in your pan, as acidic foods do eat away at the seasoning. If you choose to do so anyway, just expect to spend a little time rebuilding the layers you lost.

Okay, so one more “do” on the list. Click over to this article on all things cast iron by Paul Wheaton. Not only is this the source that inspired our blog post; it’s got links, history, tips, stories – lots of really good, interesting info, in a quirky, conversational voice. Thanks Paul!


About Healing Ponds Farm

Healing Ponds is 40 acres in Buxton, OR. Our farm store, Ludemans Farm & Garden Center, is in Beaverton. We do open-pollinated seeds, pastured eggs and meats, raw milk herd shares, chicks and a lot of other things.


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