Cast Iron Pans Can Save Your Life …

January 20, 2011 § 5 Comments

… and other reasons why you must have them in your kitchen.

It’s a bold statement, but a true one. Cast iron pans can save your life.

My 10-in. cast iron skillet sits on my stove top nearly at all times. Contractor turned into creep? Burglar breaking in? I know where to reach and how to swing that 5.25-pound flat-sided piece of smackdown. Advantage: Dainty Dot.

Self-defense is, of course, not their only use. Properly seasoned (I’ll get to that later), they are “the original non-stick pans” that don’t make you wonder about your health if you take a gouge out of the bottom. And, cleaning is a breeze. Really. Their heft, non-stick surface and easy cleaning make them must-have tools in the kitchen. Here’s a sampling of how we use them in our kitchen:

  • pan-sear fish without it sticking to the pan
  • sauteeing, gentle steaming, frying etc on the stove top
  • roasting veggies in the oven
  • baking cornbread and croutons in the oven
  • toasting nuts
  • weighing down things, e.g. putting one or two cast irons on top of a pile of salted eggplant to coax out water
  • turn it upside down over a flame to create a griddle surface! (admittedly, I’ve never done that – yet)

One friend used her cast iron skillet to create a rodent crime scene, but let’s not go there …

Maintaining Cast Iron: Get Over It, It’s Not That Difficult Dude

So, we know cast iron pans are the Clydesdales of the kitchen. What, you don’t want to “go to all that work” of maintaining them? Let’s say for a minute that you have taken the wuss’s way out and have purchased a “pre-seasoned” cast iron pan. You’ve cooked with it for the first time. Now it’s time for clean-up. Here’s what you do:

  1. With a bit of water, use a detergent-free scrubby or brush to clean off any debris in the pan. NO DETERGENT. The cast iron’s essentially non-stick surface allows all the excess oils and bits to dislodge easily.
  2. Put the cast iron pan on a burner. Turn it to high. And watch the pan. The water left in the pan will evaporate. When all the water is gone – every last drop – turn the burner off.
  3. Now, add a couple of drops of vegetable oil to the pan. Using a paper towel, spread that oil over the inner surface of the pan nice and good.
  4. You’re done.

A couple of things. No detergent: That’s because the detergent will begin to break down the oils that are used to season the pan. You’ll wreck your non-stick surface that you (or the factory) have worked so hard to create. Let all water in the pan evaporate: Otherwise, your cast iron pan will rust. Bleck. Use vegetable oil, as opposed to olive oil, which might be tempting if you keep a bottle of it ready by your stove. I believe veg oil has a higher smoke point. Whatever it is, the olive oil will smoke way more easily on this VERY HOT pan. And it’ll smell god-awful.

Think of the pan as your pet. You’re not going to NOT feed Fluffy because you didn’t feel like it, right? Because Fluffy is NOT going to let you get away with that. Neither is your pan. If you don’t care for it properly, it’s not going to work for you properly. It won’t poop on your pillow like Fluffy would, but your cast iron will revolt and leave rust spots either in itself or on the bottom of your sink. So, take the two minutes it asks for to make the pan clean and happy.

Starting With a Virgin Pan

If you buy a regular-old non-seasoned cast iron pan, you’ll need to give it a seasoning treatment before you start cooking with it. But it’s simple, and usually the instructions come with the cast iron. Rub a thin coat of vegetable oil over the pan’s entire surface – inside and out. Put it on a rack in a 325F-350F oven. Put a baking sheet on a rack under it to catch any drips. Leave it in there an hour or so. Take it out. Let it cool. Bingo.

Rust. Crap.

IF an intruder has come into your home and used your handy cast iron skillet to cook a meal and then washed it out with detergent or left it to rust in the sink (because I know you would never do that), the pan’s life isn’t over. You can rescue it with some steel wool, some elbow grease, and a few cuss words. If the pan is in HORRIBLE shape, you may want to rub it down with oil and pop it in the oven to bake on its own for an hour. Otherwise, a good rust-scrubbing and routine seasoning should do the trick.

Our Own Cast Iron

What I love about cast iron is that brand doesn’t really matter. Lodge is the It brand for cast iron. And I’m sure it’s awesome. But my set of three cast iron pans (10-in, 8-in, 6-in) were purchased as a gift for me by my mother back in 1991 from Caldor for $17. Not $170. Just $17. And I’ve used them pretty much every day since. Caldor doesn’t even exist today, dude! But the pans live on.

We also “found” a set of cast iron in an old rented apartment a few years back—those were OLD and very well-seasoned. And an old girlfriend bought me an 8-in. Lodge. I never use it. The handle – at just 4.5 inches long – is too short to get good leverage on holding the pan easily. My Caldor 8-incher has a 5.5-in. handle. Much better.

All told, we have two 10-inchers that are in constant use, four 8-inchers (anyone want that Lodge pan?) and one 6-incher that is ideal for toasting nuts on the stove top. And a 5-quart cast iron Dutch oven.

What NOT to Cook In Cast Iron

Eggs. Definitely. Your pan will smell like eggs for days. Not sure why the smell – and taste, even – lingers. It just oozes into the pan’s pours. Plus, scrambled eggs are the only things I’ve seen stick to cast iron. Stay. Away.

Tomato sauces or soups. The acids in the sauce will begin to eat away at the pan’s seasoned surface. It’s not horrible, it can be fixed. But save yourself the trouble and use another implement.

That’s why you keep those way-more-expensive All-Clads around, after all.

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