Thanks to a surface that heats up evenly and gives meats and veggies a nice crisp with little oil – not to mention a high iron content that fortifies your food every time you cook with it – cast iron has garnered a loyal following. Despite all its benefits, the material doesn’t take care of itself any more than your dog greets you with a whiskey neat after a hard day. Herewith, a guide.
First things first, if your pan is adequately seasoned and sealed (like our Turk pans), then cooking meat and vegetables with plain olive oil should do you fine. But if your cast iron needs to be seasoned, keep in mind that quickly low-oxidizing vegetable oils will begin to smoke. Some suggest vegetable oil, while others prefer animal fat, claiming vegetable oils leave a sticky surface.
Flaxseed oil is a solid option because of its excellent sealant qualities. It’s also a “drying oil,” meaning it can transform into a tough, protective film. This doesn’t happen through “drying” in the sense of losing moisture through evaporation. (The term is actually a misnomer.) The transformation happens through a chemical process called “polymerization.” No wonder linseed, the non-food-grade equivalent of flaxseed, is used by artists to produce high-quality oil paints that dry hard and glassy on the canvas, as well as by woodworkers to give their work a nice luster.
Now you’re ready to get cooking. Unlike the slippery surface of Teflon, and all the other non-stick chemicals that gas-off when heated, cast iron takes a bit more work to get at the optimal temperature. Two good tricks, according to Brooklyn chef and butcher Tom Mylan of The Meat Hook: “Put the pan on a flame for five minutes to get it nice and hot before cooking. Then add your oil or fat. Once you remove the cooked meat, immediately put the pan under hot running water. The thermal shock kicks off most of the residue.”
An issue I’ve encountered that may, ahem, arise: the pungent smell that fills my apartment after cooking meat on my cast iron. I’ve been told I’m probably just heating the pan too high and not making sure to clean it well between uses. (If you don’t properly rinse the cooking fat and residue from the previous meal, this re-heated stuff can start to burn and smoke. More on that below.) To prevent your kitchen from smelling like old bacon, try Tom’s hot water shock method after every use, and cook your meat and vegetables on medium heat. Another conundrum is wondering if I’ve thoroughly cleaned the pan. Did I scrub too hard? Not enough? Annie Asebrook, who runs the home blog MightyNest, warns against using even a little bit of soap. “It’s not necessary and will eventually compromise the integrity of the pan’s season.”
How To Care for Your Cast Iron Pan
These days, most cast iron pans come seasoned. If this is the case, your routine for using and preserving it should be this:
1) Put the pan on the stove over medium heat for a good three to five minutes until it’s thoroughly heated.
2) Add your cooking oil or lard, and throw on your meat or vegetables.
3) After you cook up your meal and remove the food, stick the pan under a hot water stream. This will rinse the surface of any oils, salt and residue.
4) If there are still remaining pieces of food stuck on, “Toss on about ½ cup of coarse salt and rub with a soft sponge,” says Annie. “The salt removes excess oils and bits of food without compromising the seasoning of the pan.” You can also use a scrubber – a brush with coarse bristles, a steel wool pad, or something less abrasive – to loosen any food residue and then rinse again with the hot water stream.
5) At some point you may want to re-season your cast iron cookware, especially if foods are sticking, the pan is looking dull or maybe a relative left it soaking all night in the sink… Scrub your pan, dry and cover in a thin layer of flaxseed oil. Bake in the oven at 400 °F for an hour and then let sit (with the oven off) until cooled. If you prefer, you can re-coat the surface after each cleaning.
*Avoid soap and don’t put the pans in the dishwasher. Ever.
*Avoid soaking the pan in a sink full of sudsy water (it will rust overnight!)
*Avoid scrubbing very hard on the surface with an abrasive sponge
Fish & Vegetable Skillet Feast
Adapted from Cabin Cookin’ by Rick Black
2 carrots, cooked and sliced
¼ cup diced yellow onion
¼ cup water
2 tbsp dry white wine
½ tsp crushed thyme
¾ lb cooked broccoli
3 stalks chopped celery
1 lb fresh fish fillets, trout if available
Combine the first five ingredients in a well-oiled skillet over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste and bring to a boil. Cover the skillet, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for about five minutes, or until the vegetables are just tender. Stir in the broccoli and celery. Raise the heat to medium and cook until celery is tender. Add fish, cover, and reduce heat to low. Simmer for about 10 minutes, spooning juices over fish occasionally. When it flakes apart easily, it’s ready to serve.