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.

Cast iron, part 1: Getting started

The most awesome thing in my kitchen right now, except perhaps for a leftover jar of Nutella, is my set of cast iron cookware. I absolutely love it. Cast iron cooks like a dream, it (can be) super easy to clean, and it will literally last a lifetime. I have no particular opposition to modern non-stick surfaces, but there’s something very simple and honest about cast iron – minimizing one’s daily intake of Teflon is a nice side benefit.

” You can whack people on the head with it “

Another key advantage of cast iron is its ability to make food wonderfully browned and crispy. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation for why this is, but I’m quite happy considering it to be magic. Cast iron also does a remarkably good job of distributing heat across its surface, allowing a bit more margin of error for burner-temperature-challenged individuals.

Every kitchen needs a set of these babies.

Every kitchen needs a set of these babies.

Now that I’ve convinced you to take the plunge (I have, haven’t I?), it’s time to start shopping for your first piece of cast iron cookware. I highly recommend starting out with a Lodge 8″ or 10″ skillet, not because they’re the best you can buy, but because they’re fairly well made, cheap, and good for making mistakes in as you learn. Also, if you happen to find yourself in a 1920’s cops-and-robbers film, you can whack people on the head with it. Brand new pre-seasoned Lodge skillets are around $15 and can be found just about anywhere. At this early stage of your cast iron career, I would not recommend buying anything antique or used or weird. Just stick with the basics. You will also need a metal spatula. Metal. Not plastic or wood or silicon or narwhal tusk. METAL. Trust me on this one. If you don’t already have a metal spatula, buy this one.

Ok, now we’re ready to talk about seasoning. In this context, “seasoning” does not mean salt or pepper or anything vaguely related – it’s the glossy nonstick finish that develops on a piece of cast iron cookware the more it is used. Some people might think that this kind of seasoning is supposed to add flavor, but that is not the case. It more literally refers to being seasoned, as in experienced, and that simply means the cookware behaves more reasonably when you’re cooking with it. There is an absolutely superb cast iron seasoning guide on; I highly recommend you give it a read-through if you’re curious about the finer details of the process. Here’s the 30 second version: Wipe down your cast iron with a very thin layer of oil and stick it in the oven at 400 degrees for an hour. It’ll smoke a bit so make sure you have your vent fan on. In addition to that (or instead of), simply use your cast iron for every day cooking and it’ll season itself. Just remember that you always need to cook with a small amount of actual oil or fat and not a freaky imitation of dubious origin.

You now have everything you need to start cooking with cast iron. For the time being, go with easy stuff like sausages or grilled cheese sandwiches. Stay away from anything acidic (e.g., tomato sauce) or liquid-y (e.g., pancakes, eggs). When it comes time for cleanup, simply scrape the pan with your spatula and wipe thoroughly with a paper towel. It should be spotlessly clean at this point and ready to be put away, but if not go ahead and hit it with a tiny bit of soap and water.

Next: Cast iron part 2: Cooking and cleaning