Thursday, March 3, 2011
I bought my first cast-iron skillet as a fledgling baker in high school, looking for a proper vessel for making pineapple upside-down cake. It was actually a completely uneducated buy; I was at the late, lamented Lakewood Antiques Show, saw a wonderful, smooth 9" cast-iron skillet for $18, and talked them down to $12 (it was a Sunday, the last day of the show, after all). I didn't know anything about seasoning the pan, and I bought it in part because, frankly, I didn't know that new cast-iron pans were still manufactured. It's turned out to be well worth its $12 price, and sits permanently on top of our stove, stacked with a number of other cast-iron pans that could double as anti-burglary implements, if it ever came to that.
There are several ways you can buy cast-iron: new and unseasoned, new and pre-seasoned by the manufacturer, used and in good shape, and used and in rusty, messy, rough shape. I prefer old Griswold and Wagner pans; if they're well used and well seasoned, they tend to have lost the roughness that comes from their original manufacture, wherein they're cast in sand molds. One of my favorite pans - a 12" skillet that we use for almost every dinner - came from my Grandmama; she'd had it forever but rarely used it because it was so heavy. It's perfectly smooth from years of use by my Grandaddy. Another - an 8-quart Dutch oven - came from my Grandpa, redundant with an even bigger Dutch oven that he uses for gumbo. It's perfect for gumbos, stews, and coq au vin.
My grandparents' Dutch oven and skillet, with a wine bottle for scale
The others I've purchased on eBay or bought new. Although a few of my pans have specific uses - a Griswold skillet won on eBay for $40 (a decent price for a great pan) was purchased as a crepe pan, and while it's perfect for that, it's also used every other day for grilling sandwiches or making fried eggs. The point is, I tend to use cast-iron as my everyday, go-to cookware; other cooks use it mainly for browning, or frying (since it retains heat so well).
a Griswold #9 griddle
You'll pay about $25 for a new, pre-seasoned 12" skillet, $25 to $60 for an old Griswold or Wagner pan (because collectors love these, and they really are great pans), and as little as $10 for an old pan that needs a lot of elbow grease. You can sometimes find them at yard sales for even less.
If you're out to buy a new pan, Lodge's pre-seasoned line, Lodge Logic, is America's Test Kitchen's top pick, and they're available on Amazon and in every neighborhood hardware store near me. The 12-inch skillet is a versatile pan that's great for browning meat and making cornbread.
Cast iron is great for cheap electric stoves like ours because it distributes heat evenly, making up for hot spots on the stove. It's also great for browning and frying - its mass retains heat well, so it's relatively easy to keep oil at a steady 350 degrees. Cast iron cookware is also ideal for stove-to-oven cooking, as in the case of pineapple-upside down cake. A well seasoned pan has a natural non-stick finish, and if a pan, through misuse or lots of acidic foods, loses its seasoning, reseasoning is a relatively easy process. A cast iron pan can easily last a lifetime or longer, as so many regularly used antique pans can attest.
To save an old pan, you're going to have to give it a good cleaning (use soap, just this once, and maybe a little sandpaper or steel wool), and season it, just as you might with a new pan.
"Seasoning" is simply the process of working oil into the pores and minute crevices of the iron, and there are many ways to do it. I generally heat the oven to 450 degrees, and rub a small amount of vegetable oil into the pan. Heat the pan in the hot oven for 30 minutes, then turn off the oven and let it cool. While the pan is still a little warm, work the fat into the pan again, burnishing and rubbing. Repeat two or three times. Get a good seasoning, treat your pan well, and you'll rarely have to do it again.
Don't use soap to clean your seasoned pan. Using very hot water, scrub the pan with a brush to remove all food, and run the hot water over the pan long enough to sanitize it, about 30 to 60 seconds or so. Wipe dry before putting the pan away. Every third use or so, I spray a little oil onto the cooking surface and rub it in with a paper towel.
A pan may get gummy after a lot of use. In the case of a rusty or gummy pan, America's Test Kitchen recommends that you pour in vegetable oil to a depth of 1/4 inch, and heat it over medium-low for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add a quarter-cup of kosher salt. Use a thick wad of paper towels to rub the bottom of the pan, then clean as usual.
Of course, there's a whole other class of cast-iron - the enameled stuff - that includes Le Creuset and beautiful Staub. Since I don't have any experience with those, I'm going to leave that alone for now.
And finally, here are some good articles on cast iron.
The New York Times
What's Cooking America