The other day Emily and I went to the antique store and, as usual, did more looking than buying. I go and have eyes only for old tools, cast iron cookware, and generally old rusty metal. When I go to look for a cast iron I love the shops where half the inventory is outside of the building and 90% of that is covered in rust. This is the way to get good deals. Unfortunately, this was not that kind of store but the more typical sort where most things have a price tag that make you want to put them back on the shelf and walk away slowly. I had looked through a shelf of exciting yet expensive cast irons and was about to move on when there on the bottom was lovely little 6″ pan covered in rust and totally unappealing. It was 4 bucks and I bought it. With this method there is a bit of risk. Sometimes the rust is merely cosmetic, which is what you want though sometimes it is very deeply pitted. This would make for a pan that sticks often and is quite a pain to use. The trick is to find the pans that are just on the edge of utter neglect and thus worth your time and effort. Before buying a pan I always try to find a flat surface and check the bottom for wobble. If a pan is left on a hot stove top for too long it will warp and have a sort of bubble butt. This makes it unusable on an electric stove as well as curved on the inside. Nice for a wok, not so much for a cast iron pan. I did my normal routine where I threw the pan in a pit of hot wood coals to burn off all the crud. See my other post on reconditioning cast iron pans. When cool, I took a wire brush to it making it clean yet naked: ready for oil. After removing the rust I could see that this pan did have a little bit of pitting but not a whole lot; I wasn’t ready to give up on it yet. I figured that if I really did some crazy seasoning I could fill in all those pits. I decided to oven- season the pan as this is the most thorough seasoning method I know. This requires oiling the pan and baking it at 500 degrees for about 40 minutes. This will bake on one really nice seasoning layer over all surfaces of the pan. I usually season on the stove top since it is quicker and seems less wasteful to me. To capitalize on the oven time I grabbed the rest of the pans from the kitchen; they were all in need of a little love. Four pans, cleaned and oiled and in the oven. After 40 minutes they had the nice “spider web” pattern which doesn’t really look like a web at all really. While the pans were still hot, I re-oiled the them with a very thin layer of oil and put them back in for another round. Just a teaspoon or so of oil on a paper towel was enough to do all the pans. You really need to have a good thick oven mitt for this since the pans are blisteringly hot. I was puttering in the kitchen for a while that day so my whole collection received about 6 layers of seasoning, more than I have ever done before at one time. I wish I had taken pictures of each seasoning, but here are the results:
All those seasoning layer stack and eventually cover the whole pan. You might notice that the newest pan is a bit red. Sometimes this happens when I go a bit crazy with the wire brush and reveal shiny metal. The pits were bothering me and I tried to brush them out, which doesn’t usually work. It doesn’t seem to affect my cooking and the pan will gradually darken with use. I was happy with how these pans turned out. The next day, however, I was cooking an Alfredo sauce and used my 8″ pan which turned out to be a big mistake. The watery sauce and all the stirring totally scraped the new seasoning off. It occurred to me that it might be wise to break in a new seasoning by using the pan for what it is best at: oily type cooking. Eggs, pancakes, stir frys, etc. Or better yet, if cooking water based food just use a stainless saucepan. But even if this happens it is easily fixable. I followed my cleaning regimen which I discussed in my earlier post and now the pan works fine.
All this cast iron business really got me thinking about what makes a pan sing. First and foremost, a flat bottom (the glassier the better). My round skillet is certainly the smoothest pan I own and it usually has no problems with sticking. Second, lots of oil (which is good for your heart and brain unless it it corn fed, gmo, animal fats or rancid, boiled, bleached vegetable oils). Number three is certainly using the appropriate spatula: thin, flat, flexible, with rounded corners. Below is a picture of the best cast iron utensil, nay the only utensil to use with cast irons.
I have to thank Paul Wheaton for this idea. For eggs and pancakes and the like it is very thin and very easily separates the food from the pan. When I want to clean crusty bits the flat edge of this type of spatula is the appropriate tool. The edge can be used to scrape without fear of gouging the seasoning since it is broad and spreads the force out over a large area.
The flat edge of the spatula can also wear down high points and fill in low points to a certain extent. Finally, the rounded corners protect from gouging and scraping. In this picture notice the rounded corners and how the spatula really “hugs” the pan surface. I am always on the lookout for these things at thrift stores and yard sales. It seems hard to find them new. Whenever Emily and I go to a wedding we give a refurbished cast iron complete with the appropriate spatula.