A while back my mother decided to give me several cast iron skillets- one of each size: small, medium and large. After reading the manual to my stove, which has a ceramic cook top, and finding that cast iron was safe to use (with care), I use them as often as possible. If I am making a tomato-based dish, I always use cast iron.
With a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, you don't need any fancy cooking skills or the title of “chef” to sear, sauté, fry or even bake. Cooks have relied on the versatility of cast iron for hundreds of years because the design provides excellent heat distribution and retention, contributing to improved texture, flavor and the proper cooking of food.
The following are tips from mom (and Whole Foods) for conditioning and maintaining cast iron and making use of these versatile additions to your kitchen repertoire.
If you are dealing with new pans, thoroughly clean them in hot, soapy water (if properly used and maintained, this should be the last time you will use soap). Rinse and dry completely with an old towel or paper towels (cast iron stains). If you are re-seasoning a used pan that was inherited as mine were, a more thorough scrubbing with steel wool or an abrasive cleaner may be needed.
Using a paper towel, apply a thin coat of cooking oil on all surfaces, inside and out, including any lids.
Preheat your oven to 350°F. Place aluminum foil or a large baking sheet on the bottom rack to catch any drips.
Place the pan, and the lid if it has one, upside down on the upper rack and bake for at least one hour. Make sure your kitchen is well ventilated before starting; this process can release smoke and odors. Turn off the heat and allow the pan to cool in the oven for several hours or overnight.
After the initial seasoning, the pan is ready to use for cooking but it is not yet fully seasoned. Full seasoning is actually an ongoing process that continues for the life of the pan. Regular use for several months will produce a black, shiny patina that will withstand nearly any cooking challenge. The following tips will keep your cast iron pan in great shape:
1) For the first few weeks (or months if not used very often), try to cook high fat foods or dishes with high oil content in order to accelerate the seasoning process.
2) During the "breaking-in" period, avoid cooking acidic dishes containing tomato or bean; the acid will damage the protective coating. Frequent cooking of acidic foods — even in a fully seasoned pan — will eventually degrade the protective coating and necessitate a re-seasoning.
3) Heat cast iron gradually — never place a cold pan on a hot burner.
4) Wash immediately after each use and preferably while the pan is still warm:
- Hot water and a sponge or dishcloth is all you should need.
- Do not use soap of any kind, highly abrasive scrubbers or steel wool because they will break down the protective non-stick layer.
- If necessary, use a nylon or plastic scrubber for the occasional food stain. If food sticks to the pan stubbornly or repeatedly, it means the pan is not properly seasoned.
- You can also use a tablespoon of kosher salt or other coarse salt in a small amount of olive oil to scrub the pan, then polish with an old towel or paper towel. This should be done while the pan is warm. Rinse in cold water.
- Never put cast iron cookware in the dishwasher. Doing so will remove the seasoning and rust the pan.
- After washing, dry thoroughly, apply a very thin coat of oil (coconut, olive or all-natural vegetable shortening are the best choices) and wipe dry with a paper towel.
* Store cookware in a cool dry place. Cast iron requires air circulation so do not store with the lids on.
* Do not store food in cast iron; always transfer cooked food to an appropriate storage container.
This may seem like a lot of work, but the payoff is a well seasoned and well maintained cast iron pan. You will never make better fried chicken or blackened fish. You also eliminate any health concerns with using pans with nonstick surfaces.
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