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Cast Iron

Posted in Books and gear, General food knowledge, Home cooking and more with tags , , , , on November 18, 2008 by restaurantouring
fire eater

fire eater

This is my cast iron pan, Fire Eater.  Yes, I name my pots and pans.  Don’t judge me!

Anyway, Fire Eater is a 12 inch cast iron pan, made by Lodge.  He came pre-seasoned, which was nice, but seasoning cast iron really isn’t all that difficult.  But I’ll get to that.  First thing’s first:

What is cast iron?

Cast iron and cast iron cookware is made by pouring molten pig iron into molds made of clay or sand.  The molten metal cools and is removed from the mold, and thus a new pot or pan is born.

Cast iron is tough and durable.  It can take a beating, and it can dish out a hell of a beating too, if you’ve ever been attacked by one.  It’s heavy as shit!

Cast iron is a pretty bad conductor when compared to other common pan materials (copper, aluminum, stainless steel), but because it is so heavy and dense, it can dish out a lot of heat over a long period of time.  When cooking with cast iron, be aware that the parts of the pan directly over the flame will be hotter than other parts of the pan, so don’t be surprised if food closer to the middle of the pan burns or browns first.

Cast iron is elemental.  It is, after all, made from iron.  Without proper care, cast iron will rust.  This can be prevented by seasoning the pan and rubbing it with oil or fat to give it some resistance to water and moisture.


The black sheen on a properly seasoned cast iron pan is actually a thin layer of carbon residue from the seasoning process.  With proper seasoning and care, cast iron’s surface is virtually non-stick.  It has the added bonus of being durable and tough enough to withstand scratches from metal utensils and tongs, unlike teflon coated non-stick pans.

Cast iron, if it is unseasoned, is easy to season.  Additionally, cast iron benefits from periodic seasoning.  Seasoning your cast iron pan once a year is perfectly fine.  In fact, it is recommended.

How to season a cast iron pan

To season a cast iron pan, preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.  Gently scrub your cast iron pan with a mild dish detergent, plenty of hot water, and a mild abrasive or green scrubby (Scotchbrite, or something similar).  Dry the pan thoroughly by either wiping it with a towel or by heating it on the stove until the water evaporates.

Apply a thin layer of oil to the pan.  Try to get into every nook and cranny: inside, outside, and all around the pan.  Refined, pure oils work best.  In fact, vegetable shortening is probably the best choice here, despite the trans fats in hydrogenated oils.  This is because the seasoning process essentially “burns” off the hydrogen atoms in the fat rubbed on the cast iron pan, leaving only a thin layer of carbon behind.

Once the pan is properly lubricated, place it upside down in the hot oven and leave it there for an hour.  It would be wise to place a sheet pan underneath the cast iron, on a lower rack, to catch any oil or fat that might drip off the cast iron pans.

After an hour, shut off the heat and allow the cast iron to cool before removing it from the oven.  It is seasoned.

Washing cast iron

Don’t.  If you must, use some kosher salt and a napkin to act as an abrasive.  Strictly speaking, cast iron probably should not be washed.  It should not touch soapy water.  If necessary, use a scrub brush or scrub pad and plenty of hot water, but never soap.

After washing, it should be dried and rubbed with more oil or fat, and heated.  Saturated fats work best, so bacon is your best friend (bacon is my best friend anyway).

If you have a problem with this, do not use cast iron.  If you wish to wash cast iron regularly, do not use cast iron.  If you think this is unsanitary, do not use cast iron.

What is cast iron good for?

Almost everything.  It is great for searing foods because it can hold so much heat and dish out that heat so well.  It’s great for transporting foods too, since it gets hot and stays hot for a long time.  It’s amazing on camping trips, since it is so durable and useful that it can be used right on top of coals or on the fire.  It’s dirt cheap to buy new and worth its weight in gold in the right hands.  Plus, plenty of it can be had at garage sales and yard sales for just a couple bucks.

A cast iron pan, for example, can serve as a pan, a griddle (if you flip it upside down), a fire tamer / heat diffuser if you place other pots or pans on top of it (this works especially well with cheap stockpots when making soup or a stew), a meat mallet (although it does not do this job especially well sometimes), a weight, and more.  You can cook in it, roast in it, and even bake in it.  Yes, bake.  As in cakes and breads.  Yes, cakes!  And breads!

Some dishes just taste better when cooked in a cast iron pan or dutch oven.  There doesn’t seem to be a good explanation of why this is true, but it does seem to be true.  For example, a New England clam chowder just won’t taste the same if it’s not made in a cast iron dutch oven.  Most stews benefit from being cooked in a cast iron dutch oven as well.

Cast iron is also great for deep frying or pan frying because it can stay so hot.  When frying, it’s always a struggle to try to maintain your oil temperature (350 degrees Fahrenheit, for example).  With cast iron, it is less of a problem since any heat that gets sucked up by the cold food you are frying is replaced by heat stored up in the dense cast iron.

Health benefits

Just about everything cooked in cast iron picks up extra iron, which is a good thing, especially if you’re anemic.  Additionally, since the surface is virtually nonstick, you don’t need to use a lot of fat or oil to cook in it.  In some cases, cast iron can be used in lieu of a nonstick skillet.  This is healthful because plenty of nonstick skillets are coated in teflon, which can produce harmful fumes and chemicals when heated up to about 550 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cast iron does no such thing.

What you shouldn’t do with cast iron

As mentioned earlier, you shouldn’t cook too many acidic foods in cast iron pans.  Acid may eat away at the seasoning.  Additionally, soap may also eat away at the seasoning, which would ruin the surface of the pan.

Extreme changes in temperature are also not recommended for cast iron cookware, since the pans could crack or split due to thermal shock.

You shouldn’t let cast iron sit, soaking in water.  Remember that iron rusts.

Remember that cast iron retains heat very, very well.  So be careful around it.  You never know when it might be hot.  Always handle pans with a dry side towel, just in case.  Bigger pans often have a loop cast into the opposite side of the handle.  This is very useful.

Finally, never hit someone with a cast iron pan.  Them shits are heavy and can easily be used as a deadly weapon.  Otherwise, anything goes.