Monday, March 3, 2014

How to Season and Care For Cast Iron Skillets

Looking for a non-stick frying pan that you know you will be able to fry the perfect over easy egg?  Look no further than your own cast iron skillets.  "What?" you ask.  It's true.  With a properly seasoned and cared for cast iron skillet you will be able to fry anything in it with all the confidence you get from current non-stick cookware on the market today.

In this article I will show you how to wash your skillet and how to season your skillet so it will remain non-stick.  In general, you will learn how to take care of the skillets that have been in the family for years but are probably stuffed in the back of your cabinets getting rusty.  When you are finished, your cast iron skillets will be like brand new, and will be healthier to cook with than any brand of skillet you find on the market today.   

In my opinion, nothing cooks like a good old-fashioned cast iron skillet.  My great aunt even made her delicious homemade butterscotch for her homemade pies in her cast iron skillet.  Fried chicken tastes better when fried in cast iron.  When properly seasoned, your cast iron skillet will out-cook and out-last any other cookware you own.  I am using skillets that were my grandparents' as well as those I purchased on my own throughout my lifetime.  That means that the newest of my skillets are at least 30 years old and the oldest are far beyond 60 years old.

If you are like me, cooking websites might make you hungry.  The sooner you have your skillets seasoned, the sooner you can make those wonderful eggs!  (Cooking those eggs will also require the thinnest metal spatula you can find so that when you flip the eggs, you have not cut into those beautiful yolks.)

Washing Cast Iron Cookware

If you have not used your cast iron for awhile, it might be a little (or a lot) rusty.  Even if you have been using your cast iron recently, you will probably still have to season it properly.  If you have cooked things like gravy or other items that will soak up the previous seasoning, you will have to start from scratch with these washing instructions.  In fact, it is a good idea to start from scratch every now and then anyway, just to make sure your skillet has the best cooking surface possible.
For the initial washing of your cast iron, whether it is old or brand new, wash in warm soapy water.  If there is rust or stuck on food, you may use a copper scrubber to clean it.  Even if all the rust does not come out right away with this washing, that is okay.  It will be cleaned out with the seasoning procedure.

One time many years ago I read a story about a woman who would put her cast iron skillets into the fireplace and burn off all the old crusted grease and food that accumulated over the years of use.  She left the cookware in the flames until the flames died down and the iron was reddish in color.  If you choose to try it, make sure to allow the iron to cool sufficiently before trying to remove from the fire.

How to Season Cast Iron Cookware 

After you have thoroughly washed your cookware, it is time to season it.  This takes time to do so you can stop periodically and let the cookware cool in between steps.  The more your cookware has been neglected, the longer this process will take.  You will need to make sure you have plenty of paper towels available for this process.  You will also need to stay close to your stove while seasoning your cookware so you don't let a fire get started. (I have read about those who do this in the oven rather on top of the stove, but I have never done that.  I prefer having the cookware where I can control it in case it gets too hot and starts a fire.)

To begin, place your cookware on a burner and turn the heat on high.  Make sure the burner is the proper size for the cookware. Allow the cookware to heat up until you can feel the heat on your hand when you hold your hand above the pan.

Next, pour enough vegetable oil into the pan to cover the bottom of the pan completely.  You will need to watch the pan carefully from here on so that the oil does not get so hot that it catches on fire.  Once you see the oil is getting hot, remove the pan from the burner and set aside on a cool burner until the oil is cooled enough to not burn your hands.

Once the oil has cooled, fold some paper towels thickly and rub the oil around the entire inside of the cookware.  You will see that the paper towels have become discolored as they pick up rust and other residue from years of use and neglect.  Throw away the used paper towels and set the pan back on the burner to heat up again.  If you previously wiped out all the excess oil, add some more.  (During these cool down periods you may walk away and do other things before continuing the seasoning later.  Just make sure to turn off the stove first.)

When the oil has reheated, again set the pan aside on a cool burner for awhile.  Repeat the process of wiping out the pan with the paper towels.  Each time you repeat this process of wiping out the inside of the pan with the paper towels you will see that they come out cleaner.  Continue to repeat the heating and cooling proces until the paper towels come out clean except for the oil itself.

Allow the pan to cool completely and wipe the entire pan inside and outside with a clean paper towel to make sure the entire pan has been coated with a thin covering of the oil.  Doing this on the outside of the pan helps prevent it from rusting while it is not in use.

At this point, your skillet is seasoned.  The heating of the pan allows the iron to expand and the oil soaks into it.  When the pan cools, the oil is trapped into the iron and this gives your pan a non-stick finish as well as prevents it from further rusting.  Rust, by the way, is the byproduct of iron being oxidized when it comes into contact with the oxygen in the air.  It will not hurt you.  But it is unappealing and will cause foods to stick.  Wiping the rust out with the paper towels helps get as much of it out of the pan as possible even after washing.

My grandfather would reuse his skillet with the same fats and oils in it from previous uses, causing the cast iron to pick up the meaty flavors.  He especially used bacon grease repeatedly.  Reusing your skillet between washings makes the skillet even more non-stick.  But wash it out once there are food particles in the grease.  You don't want food poisoning.  If foods begin to stick, that is another sign that it is tie to wash the skillet.  There are washing instructions further on.

A side note:  Even when you have seasoned your cast iron cookware in this manner, if you have not consistently used it, you may need to do a quick seasoning again before each use.  All this entails is to quickly heat up the pan with the oil and wipe it out once with the paper towels.  You can go ahead and cook with it immediately after this.

How to Wash and Care For Seasoned Cast Iron 

The more you use your seasoned cookware, the more non-stick it will become.  However, to keep it that way you have to wash it properly.  When I was growing up my mother always used SOS pads to wash the cast iron skillets.  She taught me to wash them that way too.  I hated cooking with cast iron because everything stuck to it and cleaning it up was a pain in the neck.  Once I learned how to season it and wash it properly, I've never had a problem with it since, and I've never bought another SOS pad.

So how do you wash a properly seasoned cast iron skillet?

It's simple.  Wash your seasoned cast iron in very warm water (as warm as your hands can stand) and use only a plastic scrubber.  Do not use soap.  Do not use a dish cloth.  Do not use a copper scrubber or one of those green scrubbers.  All of those will remove the seasoning and you will have to season the cookware all over again.  You will be amazed at how easily the cast iron cleans with this method once it is seasoned.  The only thing I ever have problems with are scrambled eggs and only then if I have used a pan that was not fully seasoned.  The plastic scrubbers take even scrambled eggs out easily.

You will notice that water bubbles off of your cast iron and that it does not stay wet as long as it did before it was seasoned.  You will want to allow the cast iron to air dry again because using a dish towel wipes out the oil that you have seasoned it with.  But overall, you will have cookware that is much better than the non-stick pans and won't leave any of the chemical residue so many warn us of from use of those pans.  The iron from the cast iron is not harmful and is a naturally occurring nutrient in our foods.

You will want to store all your cast iron cookware together because of the seasoning.  This is another reason to keep the outsides wiped with oil occasionally as stacking pans inside each other will cause rust without the oil coating.  Do not leave them so coated with oil, however, that they puddle because that can cause a fire when you put them on the stove.  Make sure that all the excess oil on the outside is wiped clean before storing or cooking.

Now that you have learned how to season, wash, and care for your cast iron cookware, I hope that you get a lot of enjoyment out of using it daily when you cook.  You can even bake safely with it.

Utensils For Cast Iron Cookware

When you are cooking with the current, modern idea of non-stick cookware, you are supposed to use either rubber or plastic, or wooden utensils so you don't scratch the surface of the cookware.  Scratched non-stick cookware is no longer non-stick, and it is said that it will leach harmful chemicals into your foods.

With cast iron you don't have to worry about scratching the surface or about harmful chemicals leaching into the food.  You can use any type of utensil that you wish to use when cooking with cast iron.  It will just depend on what you are cooking, not what you are cooking in.  Of course, for fried eggs, you might need a specific type of spatula to be able to pick up the egg and/or flip the egg over without breaking the yolks.  I have found that the rubber, plastic or wooden spatulas are too thick to do this well.  Most metal spatulas are also too thick.  The best spatulas I have found for making eggs are very thin metal spatulas.  I've been lucky and still use the spatula that my mother used way back when I was a child.  It is slightly cracked at one of the rivets and I treat it very gently so I can keep it around for many more years.  I've only found a few spatulas in the stores that work for me with eggs.  If you are lucky enough to find a thin metal spatula, take good care of it.  In fact, I have found that my spatula is also pretty well seasoned from years of use, and if I wash it the same way I wash the skillets, I have very little trouble cleaning it.  Sometimes I do have to break down and use the copper scrubber on the spatula, but not often.  Most of my skillets and that spatula are as old or older than I am.  Can you say that about products manufactured today?

No comments: