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.