Cast iron cookware, whether a pan, skillet, Dutch oven or griddle, is a staple of any kitchen. Of all the pots and pans one must have to be a serviceable cook, an iron skillet is indispensable.
Pros and Some Cons
Iron conducts heat wonderfully well and is at its best at high temperatures. An iron pot or skillet can be used both on the stove top and in the oven, and some recipes still call specifically for this type of cookware. Cast iron pots and pans are nearly indestructible and can be passed down as family heirlooms. They are made in a single piece, from molten iron poured into a mold, or cast. Because of this, you’ll never have to worry about the handle cracking off a screaming hot skillet when picked up. Some people have even said that the bit of iron picked up from a piece of iron cookware is good for overall health. Who knew!?
Another benefit of iron cookware is that it retains and evenly distributes heat around the cooking surface. Foods cooked in a cast iron skillet or pot doesn’t require as much oil, especially if the pot is seasoned properly. In addition, the food is not exposed to the perfluorocarbons and other dodgy chemicals found in non-stick pans. Most importantly however, an iron pan can do it all, be it braise, shallow and deep fry, sauté, roast or bake. A master of ALL trades!
The primary drawbacks of these pots and pans are that they tend to be quite heavy, requiring both hands to comfortably carry, even when empty. Cast iron also does not like acids and unfortunately can’t be popped in the dishwasher.
When weighed against the benefits, these drawbacks are relatively negligible.
Seasoning Cast Iron
Seasoning cast iron cookware gives it a non-stick surface, discourages rust, and keeps food from tasting of metal. Seasoning works because the oil that’s used forms a layer over the metal. The name for this action is called polymerization. This is where single molecules line up in chains called polymers. What results is, bluntly, a type of plastic over the surface of the cookware. Fortunately, if the oil is edible, the plastic it forms is also edible.
The right type of oil to use when people wonder how to season a cast iron pan or pot has been a matter of debate for years. I tend to use the oil that I have at hand and which isn’t too expensive, which means either canola oil, corn oil or vegetable oil. There are people who even use olive oil, even though it certainly does impart both a taste and a smell, at least when it’s first used. It’s a good idea to use an oil with a high smoking point, even though an iron pot or pan is often seasoned in a somewhat cool oven. The smoking point is when the oil begins to break down and release noxious or even carcinogenic molecules, so it’s nice to have a cushion when seasoning.
Other people swear by lard or some other type of fat that is a solid at room temperature. Some use safflower oil, because it can tolerate high temperatures and doesn’t have a taste. Others use avocado oil for the same reason.
Nowadays, some cooks are turning to flaxseed oil, which is the oil derived from the flax plant. The flax plant is used to make linen and another, non-edible oil called linseed oil, which painters put on their finished oil paintings to protect them, and give them a bit of a gloss.
Flaxseed oil is interesting because it is notoriously high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in fatty, cold-water fish. These omega-3 fatty acids protect against levels of “bad” cholesterol and heart disease, but they are also amenable to forming long polymer chains that form a lovely, hard surface. By the way, flaxseed oil is expensive and needs to be kept in the refrigerator because it tends to go quickly rancid at room temperature.
How to Season a Cast Iron Pot or Pan
Modern cast iron cookware is partially sealed, polished and ground at the manufacturer’s, but it still needs to be seasoned to do its best work. The best time to season an iron skillet or pot is before it has had anything cooked in it.
First, preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, put a bit of oil on a white paper towel, then rub it over the inside and the outside of the pan. Tear off another bit of clean paper towel and remove as much of the oil as possible. Not all of it can come off, but that’s how it should be. Then, place the pot or pan upside down in the oven. If spills are a worry, place a sheet of aluminum foil beneath it. Let it bake for an hour, then turn the oven off. Wait for the oven to cool, then remove the pot or pan and wipe away any excess oil. For some people, this is enough, but other cooks place as many as six coats on their cookware until it’s glistening. Other folks crank their ovens to as high a temperature as it will go, and though it won’t hurt the pot or pan, I think it’s a bit brutal.
Cast Iron Skillet Care
Though it may be tempting, dishwashing detergent should not be used for cast iron skillet care. It will strip away the seasoning. Just clean it with a dishcloth and hot water. Cookware with baked on gunk can be scrubbed with sea salt. A mix of vinegar and salt can also be boiled in the pot or pan, then rinsed right away.
Well-seasoned iron cookware should last longer than the house. It will provide decades of good eating with only a little bit of care.