Skillet mac and cheese 

Macaroni and cheese is pretty much the greatest food in the entire world. If you disagree, you’re probably reading the wrong blog. For those of you that haven’t just hit the ‘back’ button, I present to you one of my own personal favorite recipes. This particular baked mac recipe is nothing new, but it represents quite a lot of experimenting and tweaking to get the texture, sauciness, and cheese mix just so. All of the magic takes place in a single skillet, which means fewer dishes to wash and more quality time to spend gloating over the fact that you made this all by yourself.

Skip to the short version

This is where all the magic happens.

This is where all the magic happens.

” It will serve three normal humans or two greedy oinkers “

Everybody has their own preference for the way they like their macaroni and cheese prepared. I don’t personally like a ton of sauce; I prefer a nice crusty top and lots of stretchy cheesiness with only a modest amount of sauce, and that’s what this recipe is designed to accomplish. If you want more sauce and less pasta, double the cheese sauce part of the recipe.

The cheese mix is a critical part of this recipe and can be adjusted depending on your tastes. I have tried dozens of different cheeses with varying degrees of success, and I’ve settled on gruyère, mozzarella, and asiago as my go-to combination. Gruyère is the headliner and checks all the boxes when it comes to desired cheese behavior. Mozzarella’s job is to provide creaminess, stretch, and a lovely browned, bubbly crust. Asiago is there to add back some of cheese flavor that was given up as a result of including mozzarella, and also because it’s awesome. If you want less cheese flavor, replace the gruyère and asiago with something milder, like jack or colby. As much as I like cheddar, I don’t recommend it. Cheddar always seems to end up grainy and oily no matter how carefully I handle it; the gruyère/mozzarella/asiago mix is much more forgiving.

As usual, I have no reason to include this picture. I just like looking at cheese.

As usual, I have no reason to include this picture. I just like looking at cheese.

As a side dish, this recipe will serve perhaps five reasonable, polite individuals who don’t mind sharing. As a main course, it will serve three normal humans or two greedy oinkers.


Ingredients

Part 1: The sauce

  • 1 tbsp butter (Yes, of course I mean real butter. No margarine. Don’t be silly.)
  • 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1.5 cups grated gruyère
  • 1.5 cups grated mozzarella

Part 2: Everything else

  • 8oz pasta (cooked al dente)
  • 1 cup grated gruyère
  • 1 cup grated mozzarella
  • 1 cup grated asiago


Other stuff you’ll need

  • an oven-safe skillet, preferably cast iron
  • a whisk
  • extra butter, flour, and milk for when you screw up the sauce


Directions

Before you do anything else, preheat your oven to 350 degrees F and cook the 8oz of pasta so that it’s ready to go when you need it. The choice of pasta is entirely yours, but I prefer stouter stuff like large elbows or cellentani. It has to stand up to being stirred and baked without falling apart, and ideally it will be good at trapping cheese sauce. Absolutely do not overcook the pasta or you will regret it – go for al dente or even slightly more firm just to be safe.

If you rinse your pasta with water after cooking it, somewhere a baby panda will die.

If you rinse your pasta with water after cooking it, somewhere a baby panda will die.


Part 1: The sauce

This part can be tricky until you get the hang of it. Regulating the heat correctly is a challenge, and your arm will probably get tired from all the whisking as well. The good news is that you’ll know pretty early if you’ve messed things up, and most of the time all you will have wasted is a little butter and flour. If you do end up screwing the pooch – and chances are you will the first couple times – don’t get discouraged. Just dump out the failed stuff, pretend like you did it on purpose, and start over. You’ll get there soon enough.

Preheat your skillet to medium heat and add the tablespoon of butter. You want the butter to sizzle and melt completely in about 20 seconds. Faster than that and the pan is too hot, slower than that and the pan isn’t hot enough. As soon as the butter is melted, sprinkle in the tablespoon of flour and whisk constantly for 90 seconds. Make sure there aren’t any dead zones where the butter/flour mixture is allowed to sit still. When the 90 seconds is up, remove the skillet from heat and continue whisking for another minute or two as the skillet cools down. If you’ve done this part right, you will have a creamy light brown paste about the same shade as lightly toasted bread. Congratulations, you’ve just made roux.

As you continue to whisk, add a couple drops of milk to the roux. The milk should NOT sizzle at all; if it does, your skillet is still too hot. Continue to whisk the roux for another minute and try again. Once you are able to add the milk without it sizzling, put the skillet back on the burner, set to low heat, and slowly whisk in the entire cup of milk. (This part can be made a little easier by heating up the milk separately before adding it to the roux, but I’m usually too lazy to bother.) The milk/roux mixture should be hot enough to steam but it should definitely not bubble excessively or foam up. If you get too aggressive with the heat in this step you will scald the milk and end up with gross chunks of cottage cheese in your sauce. Whisk the milk/roux mixture constantly for at least five minutes, until it starts to thicken. You are going for a consistency somewhere between gravy and melted ice cream. And just like that you’ve made bechamel.

If you’ve made it this far without your arm falling off, I applaud you. You are now ready to begin the fun part.

Take a bit of the grated gruyère and sprinkle it into the bechamel, stirring slowly until the cheese has melted completely and disappeared into the sauce. Now sprinkle a bit of mozzarella in, stirring well, then go back to the gruyère, etc. (Note: The asiago does not belong in this step – it is only used in Part 2, below.) Continue alternating cheeses until you get a nice, stretchy, cheesy consistency. Remove from heat, give it a taste, and add salt and pepper as necessary.

Is there anything better than cheese sauce? Nope, there really isn't.

Is there anything better than cheese sauce? Nope, there really isn’t.


Part 2: Everything else

Ditch the whisk and grab a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. Grab handfuls of the cooked pasta and sprinkle it into the cheese sauce, stirring gently as you go and making sure every piece of pasta is evenly coated. Resist the urge to dump the entire batch of pasta into the sauce at once; much of the pasta will be stuck together and needs to be separated before it can be properly sauced. (I’m not sure if ‘sauced’ is a verb or not, but I’m going with it.)

Juuuuust the right amount of sauce.

Juuuuust the right amount of sauce.

Toss together the grated gruyère, mozzarella, and asiago, and dump it liberally on top of the pasta mixture. If three cups of cheese seems like too much to you, it’s probably time to rethink your life choices. Just keep adding cheese until it seems like too much, then add some more. (On an interesting side note, this rule also applies to many other foods such as peanut butter, frosting, and bacon. Not all at the same time though.)

All cheeses grate and small.

All cheeses grate and small.

Put the skillet in the oven, set the timer for 25 minutes, and try not to go insane with hunger while you wait. Start peeking into the oven at the 20 minute mark – once the top is browned and bubbly, your mac and cheese is done. Serve, enjoy, and schedule an appointment with a cardiologist right away.


This is pretty much the best thing that comes out of my oven.

This is pretty much the best thing that comes out of my oven.



tl;dr

Skillet mac and cheese

Ingredients

Part 1

  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1.5 cups grated gruyère
  • 1.5 cups grated mozzarella

Part 2

  • 8oz pasta (cooked al dente)
  • 1 cup grated gruyère
  • 1 cup grated mozzarella
  • 1 cup grated asiago


Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cook pasta and set aside. Preheat skillet to medium heat and add the tablespoon of butter. Add flour and whisk constantly for 90 seconds. Remove from heat and continue whisking until roux is blond. Slowly incorporate milk into roux over low heat and whisk for 5 minutes, until thickened. Whisk in alternating handfuls of gruyère and mozzarella, salt and pepper to taste. Fold cooked pasta into cheese sauce. Toss together gruyère, mozzarella, and asiago and spread evenly over top. Bake for 25 minutes or until top is golden brown.



See also


sorry gtg can't write any more, mac and cheese is ready

sorry gtg can’t write any more, mac and cheese is ready


Buttermilk drop biscuits

Everybody loves biscuits. There’s no arguing with this statement. I’m not talking about the flat, sweet, crunchy things that folks on the other side of the Atlantic call biscuits (although those are good too), I’m talking about flaky, buttery, American-style biscuits. If you’ve never had one of these fresh out of the oven, you haven’t lived.

Skip to the short version

THESE are biscuits. End of story.

THESE are biscuits. End of story.

I’ve made a lot of rolled biscuits in the past, the kind where you roll out the dough and cut circles out with a cutter, but lately I’ve taken to drop biscuits. They get their name from the fact that are formed by taking rough scoops of dough and dropping them onto a sheet or pan; no rolling pin necessary. Drop biscuits require less work and therefore less handling, which – for me at least – results in a lighter texture. They are also more versatile than their rolled cousins, and they do rather well with additional ingredients mixed in like cheese or hunks of bacon.


Ingredients

  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup buttermilk …give or take a bit. More on this later.


Directions

” If Satan has a favorite drink, it’s buttermilk “

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F. If you happen to be using a cast iron drop biscuit pan, preheat it with the oven. Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Now we need to incorporate the butter into the dry ingredients, probably the trickiest bit of the whole process. The most straightforward way to go about it is just to plop the butter as-is directly into the flour mixture and go to work with a pastry blender. If you don’t happen to have one of these (and even if you do), this step can be a pain in the arse. You can try chopping up the butter before dumping it into the flour and using table knives or forks to work it in, but it’s a tedious process. Or………


Optional super-cool way of doing things

Put your 1.5 sticks of butter in the freezer and leave them there for several hours, preferably overnight. Put a cheese grater in there as well.

Yes, you read that correctly. Put a cheese grater in the freezer. I’m serious.

Guess what we're going to do next.

Guess what we’re going to do next.

When the butter is frozen solid, carefully remove it from the wrapper, handling it as little as possible. Using your icy-cold cheese grater, quickly grate the butter into the dry ingredients and mix them together. If you have trouble with the butter clumping together, put your dry ingredients in the freezer for 30 minutes first.

I bet you've never seen grated butter before, have you?

I bet you’ve never seen grated butter before, have you?

Regardless of which method you use to get the butter worked into the dry ingredients, you should end up with a coarse, crumbly-looking mixture with pea-sized lumps of butter. If you want to include additional ingredients (e.g., cheese), now is the time to add them. If this is your first time making drop biscuits, I recommend sticking with the basic recipe to get a better feel for things. Either way, it’s now time to add the buttermilk.

It's not an exact science. Just get your dry mix to look more or less like this.

It’s not an exact science. Just get your dry mix to look more or less like this.

Before we go any further, let me just say that buttermilk is NASTY. Don’t ever try it straight up. My friends and family will tell you that I’m grossly exaggerating things, but don’t listen to them. Buttermilk is one of the most horrific things I have ever tasted – my first tentative sip gave me nightmares for a week. It’s like rotten milk mixed with motor oil and rattlesnake venom. If Satan has a favorite drink, it’s buttermilk, I’m sure of it. It’s a mystery to me how such a repulsive ingredient can make such delicious biscuits, so I’m just going to chalk it up to magic and move on with my life.

Earlier, in the ‘ingredients’ section, I mentioned that you should use one cup of buttermilk, give or take a bit. What I mean by this is that the exact amount of liquid you should use cannot be easily determined ahead of time. When it comes to recipes like this one, it’s far more important for the dough to have the right consistency than to use a precise measurement. As my grandmother used to say when teaching me recipes, “Add enough until it’s right.” So, one cup of buttermilk is probably about the right amount, but don’t be alarmed if you need to add a bit more to make the dough firm up correctly.

Use a measuring cup if it makes you feel better, but I don’t even bother with one. Pour some buttermilk into the dry mix and stir it in gently, being careful not to over-work the dough. If you mix the bejesus out of it, your biscuits will turn out chewy and manhandled instead of flaky and light, so use a gentle hand. It will soon be apparent if there is not enough liquid in your dough because it will be powdery in areas and won’t want to hold together. Add another splash of buttermilk – no more than a tablespoon at a time – and turn over the dough a few more times with your mixing spoon. Keep adding liquid as necessary until you get a single, sticky mess of thick dough that stands up all by itself in the center of the bowl.

And this is what biscuit dough should look like.

And this is what biscuit dough should look like.

Now comes the fun part. Drop quarter-cup lumps of dough onto a baking sheet (or your preheated drop biscuit pan) and bake for 15 minutes.

They don't have to be pretty. In fact, it's better if they aren't.

They don’t have to be pretty. In fact, it’s better if they aren’t.

When the tops of the biscuits are golden brown and toasty, they are ready to consume. Serve them hot and with plenty of butter, sausage gravy, honey, jam, or whatever your heart desires.

It's all worth it for this one buttery moment.

It’s all worth it for this one buttery moment.




tl;dr

Buttermilk drop biscuits

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1-1.5 cups buttermilk


Directions

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Incorporate butter into dry ingredients with a pastry blender or by grating butter while frozen. Add buttermilk until all dry ingredients have been incorporated. Drop quarter-cup lumps of dough onto a baking sheet or preheated drop biscuit pan and bake for 15 minutes.



See also


A bacon and cheese variant I made recently. They did not suck.

A bacon and cheese variant I made recently. They did not suck.


Standard Recipe Disclaimer
I don’t come up with a lot of my own recipes (unless you count my own personal milk-to-Grape-Nuts ratio), and chances are the recipe posted above belongs to or was inspired by a person other than me. So if you’re wondering whether or not I ripped somebody off, I probably did. Don’t get out the pitchforks and torches just yet though! I want to make absolutely sure I give credit where it’s due, so if you think someone deserves recognition for something that I haven’t already called out FOR CRYING OUT LOUD LET ME KNOW. Thanks, I appreciate it. Here’s a cookie.


Ro*Tel sausage dip

This easy-to-make, satisfying recipe is one of my favorite party foods. It’s delicious, doesn’t mess up your whole kitchen, and requires no real planning ahead. It comes together as quickly as a box of brownies, and it’s far less likely to be duplicated by other party patrons. It’s also hearty enough to act as a makeshift dinner, should you find yourself starving to death amidst a forest of pretzels, chocolate-dipped strawberries, and inexpensive cheese cubes.

Skip to the short version

I was first introduced to this recipe some years ago by my wife. At the time I had assumed that, like her, Ro*Tel sausage dip heralded from Texas. Upon further research, however, I discovered that nobody really knows where the hell it comes from. I know where it’s going though, and that’s in my belly.

This picture makes my blog look like a Penny Saver ad.

This picture makes my blog look like a Penny Saver ad.


Ingredients

Your first task is to collect the items you see before you. I strongly recommend against substituting anything, as the strength of this recipe lies in the synergy of its simple ingredients. To goof around with any of the three main components is to invite disappointment. If you have a hard time locating the Ro*Tel, look wherever your grocery store stocks canned tomatoes.

  • 1 lb Jimmy Dean bulk pork sausage
  • 1 can Ro*Tel (10 oz)
  • 1 brick (8 oz) Philadelphia Cream Cheese
  • 1 bag Tostitos Scoops


Directions

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Before you do anything else, take the cream cheese out of the fridge and set it on the counter to soften – this will make it easier to work with later. On medium-high heat, brown the sausage in a large frying pan. Or, if you have a cast iron skillet, use that instead. Not only does it do a better job of crisping up the sausage, but it can go straight into the oven as well.

Brown that little piggy. Brown him good.

Brown that little piggy. Brown him good.

Break up the larger chunks of sausage as it cooks, making sure it’s done all the way through. If the grease freaks you out, drain it off.

Reduce heat to medium and add the cream cheese and can of Ro*Tel. There’s no need to drain the Ro*Tel, just dump it in there juice and all.

Everyone in the pool!

Everyone in the pool!

Stir carefully until the cream cheese has completely melted and the mixture is evenly blended, then turn off the heat and transfer the whole mess to a casserole dish of some kind. A Pyrex baking dish is a good choice; any size will do as long as it can hold all of the sausage mixture without overflowing.

Bake uncovered for 10 or 15 minutes, until your newly created sausage dip is bubbly and awesome. Break out the Scoops and dig in, but remember not to burn away all the flesh from the roof of your mouth. If you’re going to take this to a shindig at someone else’s house, cover it securely with aluminum foil, wrap it in an old (but clean!) bath towel, and lay it flat in the trunk of your car. It will stay hot for a couple hours this way – no reheating necessary.

Enjoy!

Warning: It's 3,697 degrees hotter than you think it is. Consume slowly.

Warning: It’s 3,697 degrees hotter than you think it is. Consume slowly.




tl;dr

Ro*Tel sausage dip

Ingredients

  • 1 lb Jimmy Dean bulk pork sausage
  • 1 can Ro*Tel (10 oz)
  • 1 brick (8 oz) Philadelphia Cream Cheese
  • 1 bag Tostitos Scoops


Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Brown sausage, add undrained can of Ro*Tel and cream cheese. Stir until cream ceese is evenly mixed in. Transfer to baking dish, bake for 15 minutes or until bubbly. Serve hot with Scoops.



See also


Standard Recipe Disclaimer
I don’t come up with a lot of my own recipes (unless you count my own personal milk-to-Grape-Nuts ratio), and chances are the recipe posted above belongs to or was inspired by a person other than me. So if you’re wondering whether or not I ripped somebody off, I probably did. Don’t get out the pitchforks and torches just yet though! I want to make absolutely sure I give credit where it’s due, so if you think someone deserves recognition for something that I haven’t already called out FOR CRYING OUT LOUD LET ME KNOW. Thanks, I appreciate it. Here’s a cookie.


No-knead Dutch oven bread

I love bread. There, I said it. Bread is one of those foods I just can’t get enough of, especially when it’s fresh out of the oven. For some reason, people like to pretend as though bread is no big deal, a behavior reinforced by phrases like “Man does not live by bread alone.” The truth of the matter is that all humans love the stuff way more than they’re willing to admit.

Skip to the short version

” Cut a slice of piping hot bread as fast as you possibly can “

Another strange thing about bread is that everyone thinks it’s hard to make. Yes of course it can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. This recipe in particular uses four ingredients, takes maybe 10 minutes of hands-on time, requires zero know how, and costs about a dollar. Believe it or not, bread is one of the very first things I learned how to cook as a kid, preceded only by grilled cheese and pasta. Don’t get me wrong, I am hardly a master baker, nor do I truly understand the science behind what happens when you mix things together and stick them in the oven. What I am good at is finding a recipe or two I like and making them over and over until they come out right. This particular recipe is an improvement over an old one I used to use. It’s sourced from The Merlin Menu, and it has never let me down.

Before we go any further, let’s get this Dutch oven thing out of the way. About half of you reading this post are still giggling just from seeing the title, while the other half of you don’t understand what’s so funny. The phrase “Dutch oven” has a double meaning, you see. The original, more traditional meaning refers to a versatile type of cooking pot. The more recent and far more hilarious definition involves flatulence, bed sheets, and often a very angry spouse. If you’re interested in the details, I’ll let you read about it for yourself. Trust me though, it is pretty funny.

The less amusing version of a Dutch oven.

The less amusing version of a Dutch oven.

Back on topic… One of the keys to making good bread is keeping the dough from drying out while it bakes. Professional baking ovens have steam injectors that help create wonderfully moist bread with why-doesn’t-it-turn-out-like-this-at-home crust. Since most of us don’t have professional baking ovens, we’re going to cheat. A Dutch oven (Go ahead, get your giggles out of the way. I’ll wait.) creates its own steam when you bake in it, resulting in amazing bread and humorous recipe write-ups alike. Any type of Dutch oven will do (except the funny kind), but make sure yours can handle temperatures of 450 degrees F. Some Dutch ovens have plastic knobs that will need to be replaced before you try this recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 package dry yeast (preferably Fleischmann’s original)
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water (100-110 degrees F)
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour


Other stuff you’ll need

  • a Dutch oven
  • a mixer (or a mixing bowl and wooden spoon)
  • plastic wrap
  • parchment paper
  • opposable thumbs
  • consciousness


Directions

If you have a mixer, attach the dough hook and turn it to the lowest speed. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water (I prefer to mix the yeast with a spoon in a smaller, separate container to make sure it’s fully dissolved) and pour it into the mixer. Slowly add two cups of flour, then the salt, then the final cup of flour. When the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl, it’s done.

This dough is ready for greatness.

This dough is ready for greatness.

Tightly cover the mixing bowl with plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature for six to eight hours. If you want to have this bread with dinner at 5pm, you’d better get the dough mixed by about 9am.

Don't go too much over eight hours or the dough will sometimes deflate a bit.

Don’t go too much over eight hours or the dough will sometimes deflate a bit.

After rising, the dough will be very loose and bubbly. It’ll be pretty darned sticky as well, but don’t worry about that. Lay down a sheet of parchment paper and dust it with one or two tablespoons of flour, then “pour” the dough into the center of the paper. Just turn the bowl upside-down and use a rubber scraper to separate the dough from the bowl along one side – it will pull itself out the rest of the way. Dust the top of the dough with more flour to keep your fingers from sticking to it and start pulling and tucking under the edges to form a rough ball.

Yep, it's a ball alright.

Yep, it’s a ball alright.

It doesn’t have to be perfect; none of us here are Martha Stewart. As you might have guessed from the subtle and cleverly written title of this recipe, you are not required to knead the dough at all. Once you have achieved something vaguely ball-like, cover it with a dish towel and allow it to rise for another hour.

Preheat your oven with the Dutch oven inside it to 450 degrees F. Once it’s fully preheated, remove the Dutch oven (carefully) and, using the parchment paper like a hammock, place the dough ball inside it, paper and all. Take a sharp knife and make three slits on the top of the dough – this either allows steam to escape or makes a fashion statement, I’m not sure which.

Dutch oven bread, apparently sponsored by Adidas.

Dutch oven bread, apparently sponsored by Adidas.

Put the lid back on the Dutch oven, put the whole thing back in the full size oven, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and bake for another 15 minutes, or until you have achieved a mouth-watering golden brown color.

It's ok to admit that this makes you hungry.

It’s ok to admit that this makes you hungry.

At this point, every other baking recipe I have ever seen says “allow to cool”. What a monumentally stupid suggestion that is. Why on Earth would I do that? That’s like saying “Allow your tires to go flat before driving your car.” I just don’t get it.

Because this is MY food blog, I’m going to tell you to cut a slice of piping hot bread as fast as you possibly can, slap a giant wad of butter on it, and send it down the hatch. Now cut another slice, add another wad of butter and this time a drizzle of honey as well, and send that one down the hatch after the first one. Dee-flippin-licious.

You are now officially allowed to proclaim that you a baker, and that you love bread. Enjoy.

Fresh bread, real butter, and lavender honey. Beat that.

Fresh bread, real butter, and lavender honey. Beat that.



tl;dr

No-knead Dutch oven bread

Ingredients

  • 1 package dry yeast
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water (100-110 degrees F)
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour


Other stuff you’ll need

  • a Dutch oven
  • a mixer (or a mixing bowl and wooden spoon)
  • plastic wrap
  • parchment paper


Directions

Dissolve yeast in warm water. Slowly add 2 cups of flour, then the salt, then the final cup of flour. Continue mixing until dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and allow to rise for 6 to 8 hours. Lay out a section of parchment paper and dust with flour. Scrape dough onto paper and form into a rough ball. Cover with a dishtowel and allow to rise another hour. Place empty Dutch oven and lid in conventional oven and preheat to 450 degrees F. Place dough ball and parchment paper in Dutch oven, cover, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove lid and bake an additional 15 minutes. Remove bread from oven, allow to cool slightly, slice and serve hot.



Cast iron, part 2: Cooking and cleaning

Alright, so you’ve gone and got yourself a cast iron pan like I asked and maybe even thought about preparing a meal or two in it. At this point you’ve probably said to yourself, “Gosh, that cast iron thingy looks so cool sitting in my kitchen!” Yes, it sure does, but the time has come to actually start cooking with the darned thing.

A hot pan is a happy pan.

A hot pan is a happy pan.

” It’s the same material battleships and wrecking balls are made out of “

If you want your cast iron to behave in a civilized, non-stick manner, there is a key step you’ll need to remember: Always start with a hot pan. Not only does it ensure a perfectly sanitary cooking surface, but it also makes unruly foods you’re preparing cooperate with you. Like most of the so-called advice I dole out, I have no idea exactly why this works; it just does. Someone once told me I should preheat my pans before cooking, I did, and it made kitchen life a lot easier – now it’s my turn to pass the knowledge on. So what does “hot” mean? Well… that’s tricky to explain, and dialing in that just-so temperature takes a bit of practice. Different dishes will require that you start with a hotter or cooler pan, but generally speaking your cast iron should be hot enough to make a light spray of water droplets “dance” but not so hot that the pan starts to smoke. You can test the temperature of your cooking surface by putting butter on it. (REAL butter, people. From cows.) The pan should be hot enough to make the butter sizzle deliciously but not change color. Dab a small wad of paper towel in the sizzling buttery goodness and have a look at it. If it has a brownish hue to it, your pan is too hot. Dump the burnt butter, wipe the pan, and start over. (Super snazzy tip: Adding a bit of olive oil first will help prevent your butter from burning.)

Butter should sizzle but not burn. Mmmm, butter...

Butter should sizzle but not burn. Mmmm, butter…

Great. Now I’ve gone and made you get your cookware all dirty. Well don’t get your apron in a bunch, because cleaning cast iron ain’t so bad. You’ve probably heard horror stories about how someone or other used soap on their grandmother’s favorite cast iron whatever and it was RUINED FOREVER. Yeah, that’s a myth. It’s cast iron for Pete’s sake. It’s the same material battleships and wrecking balls are made out of. It’s tough. Soap ain’t going to hurt it. The seasoning, on the other hand, does take a little more care.

Here’s what you need to know: The seasoning that develops on a well-used piece of cast iron cookware is actually polymerized oil. (Polymerized is just a fancy word for “baked on”.) This thin coat of mysteriously transformed oil not only prevents the cast iron from rusting, but it also provides awesome nonstickiness – a word I made up just now. Each layer of polymerized oil is like a delicate coat of paint, and many layers add up to become the glossy sheen of seasoning that makes other cast iron cookware owners envious of you. Seasoning comes and goes; it’s no big deal. Cooking adds to it, and washing strips it away. Soap strips it away faster, and steel wool strips it away completely.

Sometimes you just need to scrape.

Sometimes you just need to scrape.

When it comes time to clean a cast iron piece, you should do your best to preserve the seasoning. Your first priority should always be clean cookware, but the seasoning should be a very-close-behind second priority. Don’t worry, it’s actually pretty easy. Because I’m so nice, I’ll even give you a specific set of steps to follow every time you clean:

  1. Wipe with a paper towel
    • No matter how bad it looks, always start with a simple paper towel and see how it goes – it’ll usually work a lot better than you think it will. As your cast iron develops its seasoning, this step will most often be the only one you need to follow.

  2. Scrape with a metal spatula

    • When you encounter a stubborn bit of food that refuses to be wiped away with a mere paper towel, break out your metal spatula. You won’t hurt the seasoning or the cast iron, so scrape away and follow up with another round of Step 1.

  3. Scrub with salt

    • When scraping and wiping aren’t getting the job done, put a couple teaspoons of table salt in your pan and add a dab of vegetable oil to make a thin, grainy paste. Get in there with your fingers (they are clean, aren’t they?) and scrub. Follow up with Step 1.

  4. Simmer some water

    • If you’ve really got a mess on your hands, this technique will usually do the trick. Pour a thin layer of water into the bottom of your cast iron pot/pan (enough to cover the messy parts) and turn on the heat. As the water heats up and begins to simmer, scrape with your metal spatula and watch the gunk magically lift away. Pour out the water, wipe thoroughly dry, and apply a very thin layer of oil to help replace some of the seasoning that was probably just lost.

  5. Soap and sponge

    • Sometimes you just need soap. Avoid this if at all possible, but there are times when there’s just no other choice. Scrub only the parts that really need it, and stop the very moment you’ve got it clean. As with Step 4, dry completely and add a thin layer of oil afterwards.

  6. Steel wool

    • Geez, what did you cook? Napalm? Whatever it was, don’t make it again. This step is an absolute last resort, and one that I have never personally resorted to. Scrub your little heart out and re-season your cookware from scratch. Apologize to your cast iron and tell it this was all your fault.
Scrubbing with a salt-and-oil slurry will get you out of a lot of messy situations.

Scrubbing with a salt-and-oil slurry will get you out of a lot of messy situations.

You are now armed with all the knowledge you need to cook with cast iron, clean it afterwards, and bore the pants off of people at cocktail parties with polymerized oil factoids. Go get ’em.