Cooking with cast iron vessels conjures up thoughts of beans bubbling in a pan over an open fire on an 1800’s cattle drive, or pioneers swinging a pot of stew into a huge hearth to cook for hours. Witches cauldrons and skillet corn bread are probably the two most popular ideas that come to mind when one mentions cast iron cooking. Great grandmothers were the last ones to use these vessels, right? Not so!
A cast iron skillet in one of the planet’s most green-friendly cooking containers. It is made of, well, cast iron. It has no chemical treatment or non-stick coating that can release toxic materials when heated too high. With proper care a cast iron pan can last for many generations of cooking.
Modern cast iron skillets and cookware vary in price depending on size and manufacturer but a quality pre-seasoned one can cost less than $20. Some cast iron cookware is coated or pre-seasoned and will not need much seasoning before use, so be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions when you purchase a new item. Some pieces are made from individual molds which are destroyed after each piece is cast, making every vessel a one of a kind treasure.
If you inherit an old skillet that is rusty or dirty, a little TLC can restore it to new. If rust is present, buff it off with a steel wool pad. Wash the skillet thoroughly with soap and water. Once it is clean, soap should never touch it again. Dry it thoroughly after washing and rinsing. Now you have to season or cure the pan.
Seasoning a cast iron pan, mold or other cast iron cooking vessel (uncoated Dutch oven for example) isn’t difficult, but must be done before it is used for cooking. Once the vessel is dry, lightly rub the inside and outside with vegetable oil. Too little will not protect the surface, too much will leave the pan sticky.
Next, place the vessel in a 400 degree oven for one hour on the middle rack. Place a sheet of foil on the rack below the vessel to catch any drips. After an hour the oil will have absorbed into the pan and the seasoning process is finished. Turn off the oven and allow the pan to cool naturally as the oven cools. Do not remove it as it needs to cool slowly and it will be extremely hot.
Once the pan is thoroughly cooled you are ready to cook with it. At first you will need to use a little additional cooking oil until the pan balances the oil content. Because cast iron pans hold heat and cook evenly, you may have to adjust cooking times downward. One advantage of a cast iron pan or Dutch oven is that the entire pan can be placed in an oven if needed to complete a recipe in one container. You can sauté an onion, brown meat, then add additional vegetables all in one container.
Cleaning a cast iron skillet after cooking can be very easy. Always allow it to cool down so you can hold the handle without an oven mitt at first. Be cautious since the pan heats quickly. Never use soap and water because you will destroy the seasoning and you will have to season the pan again from scratch. Never put a cast iron vessel in a dishwasher.
Place the dirty skillet on a burner on low. Drizzle in a little vegetable oil. Using a paper towel and tongs (the metal will be very hot and can burn you) rub the inside of the pan to dislodge food residue. Wipe out with paper towels as needed using the tongs. Repeat until food residue is removed. Since the pan has been seasoned with oil, food residue usually dislodges easily.
Next, sprinkle salt into the skillet. With another paper towel and tongs rub the pan vigorously. Rinse out the skillet with hot water then dry it with a paper towel. Turn on the stove top and let the heat completely dry the skillet. After one minute on the heat, turn it off and lightly drizzle in more vegetable oil. Rub the inside down with paper toweling held by tongs. Allow it to cool completely on the stove top before storing
Your skillet is now clean and seasoned for the next cooking adventure. With proper care and use, you will be the great grandparent passing your treasure down through the generations to come.
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