Cast Iron, Part 1

Roasted Chicken al la Cast Iron

There’s something about the mystique of a cast iron skillet.  It conjures up the idea of home cooking.  And campfires. And comfort food.  Even another time altogether.  But for those people who don’t actually own cast iron pans, it conjures up two more feelings:  panic and confusion.  All from a frying pan. Oops.  Sorry. We now call these skillets.

So why all of this panic and confusion?  In an increasingly not-so-rare coincidence, I was asked this same question three times this week: how do you season and maintain cast iron cookware?  The answer is shockingly simple.  But more on the beauty of cast iron first.

Just about everyone wants really cool, nifty cookware. I have a set of All-Clad that I love, and have been using for years. They heat evenly, clean easily, and look great.  Which also describes cast iron.  I have four cast iron skillets, and I use one of them as often as I use my All-Clad. So why not use cast iron all the time?  Well, for one thing, the All-Clad weighs much less, which makes it easier to swing around the kitchen.  And the cast iron needs a wee bit of maintenance.  And it’s the fear of this mysterious maintenance that scares away so many people.

What is this maintenance?  It starts with seasoning the new pan.  You only do this with cast iron.  Your new All-Clad, Calphalon, Viking, etc. doesn’t need it.  Yet the steps for cast iron are simple and amazingly easy.  All you need to do is wash and completely dry your new cast iron pan.  Then generously spread (also known as “schmearing”) canola oil over the whole pan, including the outside, except the very bottom. Place it in a 200°F oven for three hours. Remove it, and let it cool completely.  Wipe off the excess oil with paper towel, and you’re ready to cook. To maintain this seasoning, wash the pan after cooking with soap and water, and no scrubby pads. And make sure the pan is completely dry before you put it way.  That’s it.  Over time, you’ll get a nice sheen to the pan, which will also help give it a virtual non-stick surface.

There are so many benefits to cast iron, starting with it’s price.  You can get an 8” skillet for under $10. But the real beauty is that it will also be around longer than you will (sorry about that). My favorite skillet is from a former co-worker, Sally, from a cool chocolate company (Harbor Sweets!) where I worked for five years. She got it from her mother. Sally was a mere 73 years old when she gave it to me over ten years ago. Yes, my favorite frying pan might be 100 years old.  And it works like a charm.

Another benefit is that it goes from stovetop to oven easily, without concern for damaging the handle, rivets, etc. You just have to remember to use an oven mitt when it’s hot.  And you can’t put a regular non-stick pan in a hot oven.  The non-stick surfaces tend to degrade in ovens over 400°.

The benefits of cast iron far outweigh it’s simple maintenance. So run out and add a cast iron skillet or two.  Or three.  You’ll be thrilled with it.

Coming up next time: some cooking tips and recipes with cast iron.