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Old 07-11-2005, 11:29 PM   #1
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The Care And Feeding Of Cast Iron

On the thread relating to the appropriate use of stainless steel, cast iron seemed to be given a bum rap by some. The indication being that foods – particularly eggs – often stick, that it rusts, and that it is somehow difficult to maintain.



As one who retains, and uses regularly, the several cast iron skillets he used throughout his bachelor days almost 6 decades ago, I feel somewhat qualified to speak – or rather write - on the subject.



Firstly, cast iron (or any other cooking utensil) should not be blamed for the errors of the cook. Used correctly, foods don’t stick to cast iron any more than they do to non-stick products. (And with recent claims that a chemical in the Teflon non-stick coating may be a carcinogen, that is worthy of consideration!) Excessive heat is the usual problem when foods stick. Especially eggs. As Emeril regularly points out, that knob is for regulating the cooking temperature: use it!



Then it is essential to have either water or a fat of some kind between food and metal. Any metal! If that film is not there, the food will stick.



Now, in the case of the subject metal, cast iron, a very simple, but very necessary , procedure must be followed:



To begin with, the pan must be immaculately clean. If a new cast iron skillet, wash it thoroughly and rinse it even more thoroughly, then wipe it dry immediately to prevent rapid oxidation: rust. If an old, crusted skillet, renew it in one of two ways. One easy, the other dangerous! The easy way: using a self cleaning oven, tilt the skillet against a wall of the oven and follow oven cleaning procedure. When cooled, remove it from the oven and wash it as above. If you don’t have a self cleaning oven, this dangerous method can be used – but great care is needed! Using a large plastic container (empty, clean 5 gal. paint bucket?), place the dirty old skillet in the bucket, handle up. Fill the container with cold water to cover the skillet. Now you must be very careful: buy a can of ordinary lye (sodium hydroxide). This stuff is extremely caustic, wear rubber or plastic gloves when working with it, and don’t allow it to get on skin or in your eyes. (If that should happen, flush repeatedly with clean, cold water!!!) Pour very slowly about ˝ the contents of the can into the container of water and skillet. Stir gently with a wooden stick to dissolve the crystals of lye. Then lightly cover the container with wood or cardboard. All this should be done outdoors, in a place where neither children or pets can touch it. Leave it for a day or two. Then, using impermeable gloves as before, gently lift the clean skillet from the container. Rinse it thoroughly will cold water, and dry in immediately. Carefully pour the lye water into a sink drain (it will clean your drain pipes just like “Drano”) Never, never let the lye water touch aluminum – it will dissolve it quickly!



Now put your clean, dry , metallic gray colored skillet on a stove burner, and turn the knob to “high”. When the skillet is very hot, turn off the flame and add a little cooking oil. The amount depends on the size of the skillet. Using a folded or crumpled paper towel and a fork, spread the oil carefully over the entire inside of the skillet. Now invert the skillet on a cooling rack, and do the same to the outside. The result will be a shiny, black iron skillet. Let it cool completely, then wipe it dry with clean paper towels. Your skillet is now properly seasoned and ready to perform perfectly.



(Note: While any cooking oil will work – as will lard, Crisco, or bacon drippings – keep in mind the some people are allergic to peanuts, and that olive oil has a very low burn temperature).



When sing your skillet, simply heat it over medium heat, then add a little oil or fat and spread it over the bottom and up the sides a little. The add your food – eggs or whatever. After eggs have set, move them gently with a spatula and continue cooking. If you don’t overheat them, they’ll slide right out of the skillet, perfectly done.



To clean, simply rinse under hot water – NEVER USE ANY SOAP! – and dry with a paper towel.



As Jacques Pepin would say, “Happy cooking!”

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Old 07-12-2005, 08:19 AM   #2
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Nice rundown on the care of Iron cookware. I have a huge iron skillet I use all the time. Although I admit when I burn the bejebus out of it I have had to scrub it with soapy water. But I re-season it as you have descibed when this happens.

I also acquired some really nice sauce pans that are made of iron. I do not keep them seasoned and they rust. Personally I do not mind the rust and will cook with it in the pan. I was told that the rust if anything is beneficial and I have never noticed it chnaging the taste of the food.

If you had a iron pan that needs to be 'reconditioned' because it is in really poor condition would you consider sand blasting it back to the metal? Or would you suggest buckling down and scrubbing ot back down to the iron?

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Old 07-12-2005, 11:49 AM   #3
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Bknox, it isn't necessary to sandblast or scrub cast iron: merely get it hot enough to burn out all the orrganic material in the pores of the metal. That is precisely what a self-cleaning oven does. Some of that material vaporizes and becomes smoke (lots of it if the pan is in bad shape. The rest burns to ash, and can be rinsed out, and the pan dried to prevent rust. (Washing in a dishwasher will rust the pan every time!) This method returns the pan to its original state, a metallic gray color. Polishing it with non-soap steel wool will make it look like it just came off the store shelf. But that's a wasted effort, since seasoning will give it that beautiful black luster it should have.

As for your cast iron pots, why not season them, too? Then cleaning will require simply rinsing and wiping dry. And they'll look so much nicer than with splotches of rust on them. (And foods won't stick, either, if you use that knob properly!
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Old 07-12-2005, 12:03 PM   #4
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Thanks for the tips. The pan I am refering to has a lot of build up on the bottom I would like to get rid of (the bottom that sits on the stove, not the inside bottom you would cook on). I will try to cook it off in the oven.

Thanks again,
bryan
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Old 07-12-2005, 12:30 PM   #5
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Once a pan is well seasoned there is nothing wrong with using soap on it. Sometimes you just have to. I use soap whn need be and my pans are slick and black.

Make sure you dry it VERY well.

My mother used to put hers in the dishwasher and hers are like teflon.
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Old 07-12-2005, 04:36 PM   #6
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As soaps - especially detergents - are solvents for grease, fats, and oils, it is obvious they will remove the oil, etc., used to season cast iron. It is the tiny amounts of those oils or fats in the pores of cast iron that enable its non-stick properties. Perhaps a quick swipe with soap won't remove all of the oils, and if more is added during the next use, the seasoning might be retained.

A dishwasher is another matter: dishwashing detergent is even more aggressive, and then the relatively long and hot dryiing cycle is ideal for oxidation )rusting_ of the now bare cast iron.

B/w sticks my skillets in the dishwasher all too often, and they invariably come out rusty and I have to reseason.
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Old 07-13-2005, 12:16 PM   #7
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If I were not such a luddite I would have a camera and would post a pic of my skillets as proof . I dont always use soap -- just when I have to for sanitary reasons. I dry thoroughly and reseason once a year, even if they look like they don't need it.


Luckily my mother doesn't have a dishwasher any more!
Her skillets are going on 50 years old now and are slick as ice.
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Old 07-13-2005, 01:02 PM   #8
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oldccot, I've only had to "repair" the seasoning on a skillet once after abuse by a housesitter. I put it in the barbeque and covered it with hot coals. Next day I took out a piece of cast iron ready to wash and reseason. Had the rust been deep, I suppose a grinding wheel or the lye treament would have been needed.

but I agree with you, I've never had food stick to properly sesoned cast iron. And for real searing and browning, there is nothing better!
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Old 07-13-2005, 04:00 PM   #9
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Like jennyama - I have a friend who has a VERY, VERY old cast iron skillet - hers can basically have soapy water sit in it all day and it doesn't hurt it - but I'm saying this skillet is probably well over 100 years old too - it's the slickest, shiniest, blackest cast iron skillet I've ever seen (and I'm terribly jealous).
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Old 07-14-2005, 12:21 AM   #10
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Let me weight into this frey with a bit of alternitive reasoning, or speculation at worst. When oil is heated to a sufficeint temperature, the volatile molecules present either evaporate, or leave as smoke particulate mater, along with hydrocarbon gasses. What's left behind is a slick, smooth element called carbon, hence the black color. Anyone who has made pinewood derby cars, and also many industrial workers recongnise carbon for its lubricating properties, though it's usually in the form of graphite.

In any case, when a cast iron pan is well seasoned, the carbon creates an impermeable shell that both protects the metal from oxygen exposure, and creates a very smooth surface that, when covered by a thin film of oil, makes a nearly stick free suface.

When the carbon is thick enough (as happens with months of daily use) soap merely removes a thin outer layer.

Another bit of widom that my wife taught me; To clean any cooking item that has baked on food of any type, and this includes very tough, crusty stuff, is to place the item in a large plastic garbage bag with a glass bowl filled with a cup of amonia. Secure the end of the bag with string or other tying material and let sit overnight. Like lie, amonia is a strong base, and will dissolve the baked on food. IN the morning, just wipe with a paper towel. This method has the advantage of simplicity, and is much less caustic than is lye.

And the warnings about lye are true. I worked at a soda pop factory after graduating high school. One day I stuck my hand into the bottle washer as it had become jammed. I though I was safe because the power was disconnected. After a moment, my skin began to feel like it was burning. Fortunately, there was plenty of cold water available and a simple washing took care of the problem.

The only problem with amonia is that it is an irritant of the breathing organs and so should be left in a well ventilated area, preferably outside.

So to sumarize, season your pans, and wash them with soap only sparingly. They will provide countless years of great service with minimal effort on your part. And yes, I love my cast iron. And that grainy texture found on the new Lodge pans, it goes away and becomes silky smooth with regular use.

Seeeeeya; Goodweed of the North
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