Some thoughts on Cast Irons
Tony here; today I feel like talking about cast iron pans. I want to tell you a wee bit about my feelings towards these amazing kitchen tools, then show you how to take an old cast iron pan and make it like new and nonstick to boot.
I am infatuated with cast iron pans and cookware. It stems from my love of old durable things and a respect for our grandparents and great grand parents for having the forethought to make things that last. You can’t say companies today are very concerned with durability these days. In fact I believe that many are concerned with exactly the opposite. Ever heard of planned obsolescence? I’ll let you look into that sad world for yourself. There are cast irons out there that are generations old and still going strong. Who among us honestly expects the pans we buy in stores today to last that long? The worst offenders out there are the nonstick varieties that remain nonstick for what, maybe a year? And you are not even cooking with it every night. So after a few dozen uses these teflon and all the other nonstick coatings degrade little petrochemical shavings into your dinner every night. And then you have a regular old aluminum pan (which I’m not thrilled about cooking with either) after you’ve had the pleasure of eating all that delicious nonstickyness.
I just went to a site that said these pans are safe and tested for the last 50 years by peer reviewed blah blah BS. Let me be clear: who does these studies? That’s right, the guys making the pans. I have come to the point where large corporation’s reassurances about what is and what is not safe for me means nothing. A corporation does not care about my health or yours, or anyone’s. They care about looking like they care, that’s it. Perhaps there are exceptions out there, but take my word for it, most want the dollars.
Furthermore I think people vastly overestimate our ability to test all these new substances we have been pumping into the world for all possible effects on our bodies. Or assuming that anyone has bothered to test anything at all. What we don’t know about how our bodies work dwarfs what we do know. At any rate even if you don’t agree with me that nonstick is toxic gick, these pans just plain wear out. That’s my two cents.
So enough of the angry at bad guys section of this blog and on to what we can do about it. As I said, I love cast iron pans. I grew up with these pans; my mom had a set that I believe came from her mom. I was actually a bit afraid of these things on account of the 40 years of burnt on built up meat residue. Also, I felt that they were hard to clean, especially when I cooked sausage, and we cooked up a lot of sausage. I would have never called those pans “nonstick”. However I can tell you that now most mornings of the week I fry up some eggs on my cast iron pans, over easy yet crispy on the edges, for Emily and myself. They slide around with ease and turn out delicious!
We have just forgotten how to treat these amazing pans. When you give a cast iron pan a little love it will love you back, and maintain a perfectly natural nonstick coating. The oil we use when cooking will actually bind with the pan, over time producing a nonstick surface. This process can be sped up by seasoning a pan which I will talk about later. What’s more the pan can last for generations. Hand them down again and again and reduce the mega mountains of waste buying cheap nonstick pans creates.
Now if you tell me your brand new lodge pan will never be nonstick, I might have to agree with you. It turns out that they just don’t make them like they used to – literally. The old pans were cast and then put through a milling process to flatten the bottom so they were perfectly smooth. New pans are only cast, and left with a bumpy bottom, which is much more difficult to make nonstick. I now have a new hobby of searching for old cast iron pans at thrift stores, swap meets and garage sales.
Now one could go to antique stores, or online and pay some premium prices for some of these pans. Old brands like Griswolds and Wagners are highly sought after which has driven prices up. I have seen some of these with seventy dollar price tags on them. These can be fun to aquire, but hey, I just want to cook on the thing, not hang it on the wall. The most important thing for me when searching for cast irons is that the bottom is FLAT. The flat ones make the best nonstick pans. Also, sometimes the bottom is bubbled out a bit which can cause uneven heating and rocking if you have to cook on an electric stove-top. Other than that I don’t really care what they look like. No name pans (without a company stamp) will make eggs just as delicious as a Griswold. Grungy, rusty pans with years of baked-on grease can be revitalized to like-new quality, and you can get them cheap. That is what I will show you today. I’m not totally sure I should since I’m entertaining the thought of selling refurbished pans, but hey I’m a fan of full disclosure. I have gotten practically addicted to taking these ugly forsaken pans and with just a little effort making them useful again.
Most of this information I’ve learned from Paul Wheaton. Here is his great article that inspired me to do this.
Restoring Your Old Cast Iron Pan
Here is a pan I found at an antique store. It was outside the store amid piles of rusty metal.
The first thing to do with this is burn off all the crud. You can stick it in a fire with some nice coals for a few hours. If you have an oven with a self cleaning cycle you can take out the shelves and set a brick on end then place the pan on the brick. Here’s mine in the fire:
After a few hours at 500+ degrees the grease and chunks will be baked off and there will be some rust and ash.
A wire brush will remove the ash and the rust. It is worth getting all the rust off so the bottom is as smooth as possible.
Next, wipe it down briefly with a paper towel or old rag to remove some more rust-dust. Apply some edible grease and rub it into the entire surface of the pan. This is what protects the iron from rusting anymore. As for what type of grease, there is debate on what is the best. Basic principles are to use oil that burns at a high temperature. I like to use bacon drippings but vegemites could use grape-seed oil. Butter is no good since it burns quickly. But hey, use what you got, if that’s canola or olive. This is my pan after oiling it:
The pan will look grey and silvery at this point, the classic black look comes after repeated cooking. At this point you could just call it good and start cooking on it. Seasoning the pan, however, will give you a head start on making your pan nonstick.
Seasoning a Cast Iron
A cast iron will naturally season if you keep cooking food in it and clean it properly. However you can build the nonstick layer more quickly by seasoning it. It is easy to add a seasoning layer after cooking if you have a few minutes to spare. It is kind of fun, but not necessary.
1.) Make sure the bottom of the pan is clean and free of food bits, as flat as possible.
2.) Add a few drops of oil/ grease to the pan, just barely enough to coat the inside of the pan with a paper towel. We want a thin layer of grease, not globs.
3.) Put the pan on low to medium heat for about five to ten minutes. Allow the pan to smoke gently for a minute or so then turn off the stove and cool. The oil will cook on to the pan in a spiderweby pattern. The nonstick layer is formed when these spiderweb layers stack one on top of another! This is the polymersiation of edible oils.
To be fair, teflon is a polymer too, but teflon and it’s like started from crude oil. My pan is polymerized with bacon fat. People have been eating bacon fat far longer than they have been eating crude oil and were healthier when they did so. Anyways, here’s what it looks like.
Maintain Your Pan
How to Cook in a Cast Iron Pan:
1.) Use lots of oil or grease when cooking. This keeps food from burning on. The oil also bonds with the pan and over time builds up the nonstick coating. That is what the black layer is, an all natural coating of cooked oil!
2.) If using seasoning like salt, pepper, etc. sprinkle it in the bottom of the pan with the oil before you add the food, this helps to keep the food from sticking
3.) Mind the heat and try not to burn food, this will ruin your food and make the pan hard to clean.
4.) Use a thin stainless steel spatula with a flat edge and rounded corners. Don’t use plastic. Be gentle if you have to scrape a little food off, remember that we are trying to preserve that thin black layer of non stick oil.
How To Clean a Cast Iron Pan:
There will still be oil residue in the pan when you cook with enough oil at the right temperatures. When done cooking all you should have to do is wipe the pan out with a paper towel leaving a very thin layer of oil/grease . Of course sometimes there will be accidents and food will get cooked on. Try the following methods for cleaning stubborn foods.
1.) Scour the pan using one Tbsp of oil and one Tbsp of salt. The salt will scrub off light stuck on food, yet leave the nonstick coating intact.
2.) For really nasty messes fill the pan ⅓ full of water and boil for five to ten minutes. Don’t let it boil dry! Gently use a flat spatula to scrape the bottom of the pan. Let the pan cool and the mess will soften, then you can wash it out with a sponge or plastic scrubby under plain water, avoid soap. Be careful not to scrub off the nonstick layer. Dry, then use a paper towel and a Tbsp. of oil to renew the surface and keep it from rusting.
I know all of this seems like a bit much, but in practice it doesn’t take much time at all. So now go forth and cook tasty things!