Cast iron cooking can evoke many happy memories from the past. When cast iron cookware has been loved and taken care of, it is often passed down through many generations. I am sure many of us have sat at the feet of their grandmother while she was cooking up something wonderful. Just the mention of cast iron can bring flashbacks of great moments in our life. Cast iron is not just for grandmothers and is becoming more widely used and adored today. Are you intimidated with cast iron? Do not fret, I am here to give you all the ins and outs of this cookware.
Purchasing any set of aluminum or non-stick cookware that will last can be quite costly. Most cookware only has a life of five to seven years depending on how much it is used. After that, the quest continues for yet another set of cookware. Studies have shown that nonstick cookware can be unsafe to use. With overuse the coating can flake off and get into the food you are cooking and no one wants that. With proper care, cast iron can last a lifetime and never have to be replaced.
If you weren’t lucky enough to inherit your grandmother’s cast iron, you can create an heirloom of your own. She knew a well-seasoned cast iron pan was a key asset, and you can have one just like hers. Cast iron is readily available in the many stores and online. When you purchase it new, you want it to be 100% American made. Cast iron that you purchase outside of the United States has been known to be cheaply made and, therefore, not ideal. Most stores now carry a line in their housewares department to choose from which makes it easy to add to your collection.
So you have gotten a new cast iron skillet, now what? When purchasing new, most of the time it is already pre-seasoned from the factory. Once you get it home, wash it in hot, soapy water to remove any residue from shipping and sitting on the shelf at the store. Most believe this should be the only time to use soap on cast iron while others shun the thought of ever using it. Rinse the pot of any soap residue and dry with a towel. You want to add a thin layer of oil or shortening all over the pan, even the handle and place it upside down on a foil lined cookie sheet in the oven. Turn the oven to 350 degrees and heat for an hour. When the hour is up, just turn off the oven and let the pan sit until it is completely cool. Some suggest to re-season two or three times before using. Each time you use your pan, another layer of seasoning is added. This is where the magic happens. The better you season it, the less food will stick to it.
If your cast iron has been neglected or allowed to rust, the first thought is to throw it away but all is not lost. Regardless of the extent of rust, there are options beyond discarding rusted cast iron. Most commonly, neglect or moisture results in profile rusting, which can be seen and felt on the cookware. Profile rusting can be easily removed at home. For severe rust that covers most of the cookware surface, take the piece to a machine shop to have it sandblasted and restored to raw cast iron, then follow the steps above and season immediately.
When cast iron is seasoned correctly, it is the perfect non-stick surface. Making it the perfect vessel to cook a wide variety of foods. The benefit of using a cast iron pan is that it gets screaming hot and stays hot. The heat level doesn’t fluctuate in cast iron like it does in thinner pans, like aluminum. This makes the cast iron an ideal choice for foods that need high heat. Meats that need a hard sear like steak or roasts that should be browned before braising perform beautifully in cast iron. The surface of the meat takes on a deep brown color and crust without burnt bits at the bottom of the pan. To get the most out of meat searing preheat the pan so it has time to absorb the heat. An added bonus is that it is oven-safe, so you can take it from the stovetop and put it directly into the oven.
Any good southern cook knows that cast iron is best for two things, fried chicken and cornbread. There is no need to spring for a deep fryer if you have a cast iron pan on hand. The sturdy pan is the perfect vessel for frying. The even heat to the pan keeps the oil the perfect temperature to get a nice, crispy golden crust on the chicken. Let’s not forget the cornbread, the most popular dish to be cooked in cast iron and for good reason. Preheating the pan as the oven comes to temperature will impart a crunchy, golden crust to your cornbread. The batter will sizzle when you spread it into the pan, and that is exactly what you want when making cornbread.
Some dishes are just not meant to be cooked in cast iron. Fish for example is delicate and is not the best option for heavy-duty cast iron, especially one that has not been carefully seasoned. The cast iron takes on the flavors of whatever it is cooking. If you fry batches of fish, give your pan a half-hearted wipe, and then use it to bake your favorite cobbler that cobbler may take on a fishy taste. So making that cobbler may be best in a pan designated for sweet treats and then have a separate pan for savory dishes. Also, any dishes that require being cooked in a lot of liquid or ones high in acidity may not be best for cast iron cookware. The water could make it rust if not completely removed after cooking and the acidity may eat away at the seasoning you worked so hard at getting just right.
From the first morning meal to the after dinner dessert, cast iron is definitely the way to go. Whether you are using it on the grill, in the campfire, or in the kitchen, it is a great investment that can be passed down through the generations of your family. Just always remember to wipe the pan down immediately after each use with a rag. If it needs a little more elbow grease, there are scrapers that you can buy for that. A quick rinse after each use and then placing the cookware back on the lit burner for a minute or so will insure that all water has been removed. Then just add a light coating of oil until the next use. So you see there is no reason to be intimidated with using cast iron. With proper care of your cookware, your dishes will be almost as good as grandma’s. Dishes may lack grandma’s loving touch but will surely put a smile in your heart when you cook them.