Cast iron

The noted chef Linton Hopkins, the owner of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, was quoted in a recent food magazine article about chef’s tips. Here was his: “A cast-iron pan is a valuable kitchen ally. It offers an even cooking surface and is a breeze to clean.”

He’s right, of course, but there’s so much more to it. I can say this as a veteran of two ruined cast iron pans. How do you ruin two basically indestructible pans? Operator error, a sad fact of my life in general.

So here are the things I have learned that I hope will help you develop what is without a doubt the best cooking vessel in the world. No exceptions.

My first mistake many years ago was not using the pan enough. When you read the directions on seasoning a new cast iron pan you assume (or let’s just say I assumed) that one quick swipe with some vegetable oil and a quick trip through the oven would be sufficient to get that slick non-stick surface. Oh, no. Not at all. One of the keys to getting that surface is to cook with the same pan over and over and over again. It’s worth the effort, because once you have it truly seasoned that pan will last you a lifetime.

My second mistake was that I assumed if a little oil is good, a lot of oil would be better to season and keep seasoning the pan. That is how I ruined pans one and two. I globbed on the oil and then put it in a 400 degree oven, also a mistake. What that did was congeal the oil, basically turning the interior of my pan into the Gulf oil spill. The oil turned gummy and no amount of scrubbing would fix it. I felt like an utter failure as a Southern woman and almost gave up.

The last mistake I made was listening to people who say, “Never wash a cast iron pan.” It pains me to admit this because my wonderful husband, who will lord this over me for the next 30 years, told me a long time ago that you could, indeed, wash a cast iron pan and he was right. I hope he doesn’t read this.

So, here is my method of seasoning, maintaining the seasoning and washing my cast iron pan.

1. When you first get a new cast iron pan, wipe a very thin layer of vegetable oil on the interior. Put it in a 350 degree oven and turn the oven off. That way the gentle heat helps the cast iron absorb the oil instead of baking it on the surface. That’s what you want – oil absorption.

2. Now then, use that pan over and over. In the beginning, things will stick to it. Make sure you scrape off any bits and pieces of food before you wash it. I tended to do a lot of fried chicken and other foods that involved a couple inches of oil just to make this process easier. At least that was my excuse for having fried chicken three nights a week for a while.

3. When you are done with the cooking process, wash the pan in soapy warm water. Briefly. It’s O.K. Don’t listen to the “never wash the pan” people. They all have dirty, nasty pans. Be sure after you wash the pan to completely dry it. Then, apply another thin coating of oil and put it in a 350 degree oven and turn the oven off. This might be overkill but I do this every time I use my cast iron. Every time and it’s been years. And you could skate across the surface of my pan so I do believe I have some expertise on this topic.

I know this goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. The best cast iron in the world is Lodge. It’s made right here in Tennessee and if you’re going to invest in cast iron that’s going to last a lifetime you might as well get the best.


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6 responses to “Cast iron

  1. AntBee

    You are right LODGE is the best, and I have many of their pans, and so did my mother & grandmother.
    Thanks for the tips!

  2. Leslie Fraser

    Catherine, my dear, the trick is to INHERIT the cast iron skillets from your grandmother! And then sit in the middle of her kitchen floor, with your mother, fighting over who gets which skillet. My grandfather had two small ones, a 4″ and a 6″. The 4″ was for frying one egg, and the 6″ was for frying two eggs. Only butter and eggs EVER went in those two skillets. And ALL the skillets were scrubbed with soap and water. Wanda uses SOS on hers. She can’t stand a gunky skillet– and she uses nothing but iron skillets. I had to season a set when I first got married. And then I inherited a couple from a great aunt who was of the “don’t wash them” belief. I thoroughly coated the skillets, inside and out, with spray oven cleaner, wrapped them in heavy duty foil and put them in a 200* oven for 24 hours. Then scrubbed with SOS. That took the decades of gunk off of them, and now they too are lovely, smooth and black. I’m sure at some point in the not too distant future, Charlotte will be looking for which skillet of mine she will get to take. And for the record– Wanda got the one egg, I kept the two egg.

  3. Leslie Fraser

    By the way– two other tips. If you have a really dirty iron skillet and a self cleaning oven, put the skillet in the oven the next time you clean it. The cleaning process will burn all the icky stuff out of the skillet, and then you just need to wash, dry and oil it again. Also– if you use a skillet to blacken fish, just set that skillet aside as your blackening skillet for the rest of your life. It will always taste like fish and pepper no matter what you do!

  4. Kathy Sobol

    I have a cast iron pot that is not fit to use. I guess I didn’t season or use it enough. My girl friend told me to throw it out! I think I will try the oven cleaner , S.O.S. and reseason it. Hope it works! I do have self cleaning oven but will that take off what looks like rust???? Help???

    • the south in my mouth

      I have never tried the self-cleaning oven method, but as I understand it it will take off everything down to the bare cast iron. You have nothing to lose by trying it. If it works, it will still take a long time for the pan to be “non-stick” because you’re starting to season from scratch rather than building on the factory-applied seasoning on a new cast iron skillet. The real key to seasoning the pan in the beginning is to use it often and use it for frying chicken or something else that requires a good bit of oil. Clean it with soapy water, dry it thoroughly, and wipe a thin coat of oil on the entire interior surface. Then, and I still do this with my well-seasoned skillet, turn on the oven and let it begin to get warm. You don’t want it hot. After a few minutes, maybe around 250 degrees, turn the oven off and put the skillet in. The heat will help the pan absorb the oil. The real key to keeping it seasoned is to use it, use it, use it. And if the self-cleaning thing doesn’t work on your rusty pan, getting a new one isn’t very expensive. I went through two of them before I figured out the method I’m telling you about.

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