If you are an avid cook, you probably know the benefits of using cast iron cookware. For the rest of you, I will give you the pros and cons of using this versatile piece of cookware and describe the process of how to care for it so that it can last a lifetime.
Cast iron cookware is created by pouring molten iron into sand molds. The sand crust is blasted away after it cools and solidifies. This is the way it has been done for millennia. The result is a durable and versatile piece of cookware that can be put over coals, over a fire, on top of modern day stoves or go into ovens without switching pans.
Most people shy away from using cast iron for several reasons. First, it is much heavier than modern skillets or pans.
But more importantly, most people think that the maintenance involved in caring for cast iron cookware is extensive and burdensome. That could not be further from the truth and I will describe the simple process of seasoning the porous and rough surface.
If that does not convince you to go cast iron, you can buy it pre-seasoned which needs no maintenance during its first year of use. In fact, the majority of skillets come pre-seasoned by the manufacturer but you will still need to re-season it several times a year to keep it in good working order. But don’t let that scare you off because the process is simple.
Health Benefits of Cooking with Cast Iron
Cooking with cast iron also provides some health benefits particularly if you are deficient in iron because certain foods actually leech iron from the pan or skillet and can actually increase in iron content by as much as 10 -15 times.
Second, modern cookware has nonstick surface which are made from chemicals called perfluorocarbons (PFC) which have been linked to cancer. A well-seasoned cast iron skillet provides a natural nonstick surface eliminating this potential threat. The nonstick nature also means you can cook with less oil when frying or sautéing anything
Still not convinced? Well, here are some advantages and disadvantages to help you decide.
- No need for non-stick cooking spray
- Use on stove for searing then place in oven
- Distribute heat evenly browning meats better
- Keeps dishes warm when served in the pan
- Cheap and durable
- Heavier than modern skillets and pans
- Must be seasoned at least once a year
- Handles are extremely hot
- Preheating before cooking takes longer that stainless steel
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How to Season a Cast Iron Skillet
Cast iron cookware or ovens or durable and nearly indestructible and with proper care and maintenance, you will be handing them down to your children. But because of the porous nature of cast iron, the key to making it last is something called seasoning.
Seasoning cast iron pans sounds complicated but it is very simple. Because iron skillets and pans are rough and porous, the seasoning process helps to fill the surface with a protective layer of vegetable oil which is baked into the skillet. This serves two purposes. It prevents rust and it keeps the nonstick nature of the pan.
The Seasoning Process
First preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. While that is warming up, you need to wash your new cast iron cookware with soap and water. This is the only time you will be using any detergent going forward. More about cleaning cast iron later.
Rinse thoroughly to with hot water to remove all of the soap residue during this initial seasoning cleaning. If you are re-seasoning a well-used piece of iron cookware, use a hard bristled brush to remove all food remnants. Make sure the surface is completely clean of food and soap before proceeding.
Now completely dry the piece of cookware with a clean kitchen towel. Now you are ready to season it.
There are several different types of oils you can use during this process. I use melted vegetable shortening but you can use canola or corn oil if you like. The idea is to cover the entire surface. Brush the oil into all areas of the pan with a basting brush or paper towel.
Now it is time to bake your cookware. Place it upside down on the top rack of your oven on some aluminum foil to prevent dripping. Bake it for about an hour.
After an hour, turn off the oven and leave the pan sitting inside for a few hours until it cools naturally to room temperature.
Your pan is now seasoned and you can begin using it to cook immediately. The more you use it, the better the nonstick surface will become. Depending on how often you use your skillet throughout the year, you may need to repeat this process once or twice.
Speaking of which, how do you clean cast iron?
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How to Clean a Cast Iron Pan
First, do not use detergent when washing cast iron pans. The only time you ever want to use any soap is during the initially seasoning process. If after years of use, you want to strip it and re-season it from scratch, you can use soap and a brush, then start the seasoning process again. However, for normal cleaning in between every day cooking, a little water is all that is required.
Second, never put cast iron in the dishwater for the same reason listed above.
The Cleaning Process
To clean your cookware after a meal, allow it to cool off naturally. All you need is hot water and a stiff brush to remove food remnants. It is important to always use hot water. Cold water can shock the pan causing fissures or potentially warping it.
For stubborn food remnants in the pan, boil some water in the skillet on the stove, then slowly work the brush into the pan to loosen the residue.
Now rinse thoroughly with hot water and wipe it dry. If the oven is still warm, I sit my iron skillets inside to make sure all of the water has evaporated from the surface.
Before storing it, spray is with a coat of cooking oil and it will be ready for use next time. Put it away in a cool dry cabinet free from anything that could cover it. The iron needs to breathe.
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