Cast Iron

I love my cast iron pan.

There sure are a lot of tools made for the kitchen, and I have my share, but if I had to keep just a few, the cast iron pan would be one of them.

Cast iron offers a rare combination of being both cheap and good. You can get a Lodge 10″ frying pan for about $20, which is a fraction of what you can spend on high-end clad pan. But it’s also an excellent cookware material because it has a high thermal conductivity – certainly the best thermal conductivity for a common material. Most of the better conductors are precious metals (gold, copper) or require processing to create (aluminum), and iron has better thermal mass than all of them. This combination of thermal conductivity and thermal mass means you get strong, even heat.

There are some drawbacks. Iron rusts, so you have to take care of it. It is also porous and rough, so food sticks to it like crazy until seasoned. And iron is fairly reactive, so you don’t want to cook acidic foods in it.

Seasoning. I kind of snuck that in there. Seasoning is the biggest hurdle to people trying cast iron cookware. It seems like a gross bit of black magic or voodoo, but it’s really not that big of a deal.

Over time, oils from the food and cooking process bake themselves into the surface of the cast iron, smoothing out the roughness, clogging the pores, creating a natural slick, non-stick surface. Once you get over the idea that the surface of the pan is coated in fat (which changes so it won’t become rancid) and you don’t want to scrub it off, it’s a great cooking surface. Normally, you don’t wait for the pan to season while cooking, but instead you season it when it’s new. And Lodge sells pre-seasoned pans, which means you don’t have to do anything other than take care of it.

Why not just use Teflon? Just because Teflon (which is DuPont’s brand name for polytetrafluoroethylene – aka PTFE) works as a non-stick cooking surface, it’s not necessarily a good thing to be putting on cookware, mainly because it’s not a particularly high-temperature material. PTFE starts to break down at around 464 degrees F (240 C), and at about 680 degrees F (360 C) it starts releasing toxic fumes. These sound like high temperatures, but stove top temperatures tend to be higher than typical oven temperatures. If you put an empty pan on a burner and let it sit for even short times, the pan can easily reach several hundred degrees.

Chemical non-stick coatings require care to avoid damage (no metal utensils, please), and no matter how well you take care for it, over time it will wear and require replacement. Cast iron, properly maintained, will last decades, and have been handed down from generation to generation. No Teflon pan has ever been considered a family heirloom.

So, given the hazards of chemical non-stick surfaces, if a properly-seasoned cast iron pan works nearly as well, why bother with the Teflon?

I’m a big fan of Lodge cast iron cookware. They are not the only cast iron manufacturer, but they’ve been doing it for a long time and make excellent pans. Their pre-seasoning is better than any seasoning I’ve been able to get by hand, as well.

Last weekend, my wife somehow managed to burn the seasoning on my Lodge cast iron frying pan. I’ve had that pan for several years, and it was seasoned beautifully (the seasoning improves with use), but it was a mess and I planned to replace the pan instead of trying to rescue it (this is one of the advantages of being cheap). Unfortunately, my go-to store for Lodge cookware was amazingly out of stock. So I had to re-season it.

If you Google how to season a cast iron pan, you’ll find a bunch of different answers. Everyone has their own idea of how to do it, based on how they were first told to do it. As far as I can tell, the most important thing is that you spread oil on the pan and heat it up. What kind of oil, how much heat, and for how long are all up for debate.

I use shortening on the theory that it is more stable than liquid oils, and will be less likely to go bad. I go with high heat because the pan is going to get hot when it’s being used, so it may as well get used to it. And I apply the seasoning in multiple passes just to be sure. So here’s my process:

Scrub the pan with a nylon-bristled brush under water. At this point, a little soap is not a bad thing, provided you rinse it off really well. Dry the pan and put it on medium heat on the stove. When it heats up, add some shortening and spread with a paper towel. You want a thin layer of the oil – you don’t want it to pool anywhere. Then put the pan on your grill turned up on high for 20 minutes. Let the pan cool until it’s just hot, not blistering hot, then apply more oil and put it back on the grill, repeating a few times.

Grill? Yeah. My grill gets way hotter than my oven. So I use it when I need to get things as hot as possible. Don’t worry, you won’t hurt it. Iron’s melting point is 2800 degrees F, and if your grill could do that, you have bigger problems than a damaged pan.

Once you get the pan seasoned, care is easy. After you’re done cooking, wipe any excess food out of the pan with a paper towel, and after it cools down (cold water on a hot pan can damage it), rinse it with water and scrub lightly with a nylon-bristled brush. Do not use soap, which can dissolve the seasoning. If the pan is especially dirty and the water doesn’t get it out, there’s a more aggressive approach that I learned from Martha Stewart:

Put the pan on medium heat on the stove, pour a few tablespoons of oil in the pan and a half cup of Kosher salt. Use a paper towel folded up at the end of a pair of tongs to scrub the pan. The salt and oil will make a sludge which you can just dump in the trash. Rinse the pan and you should be good. You can repeat the salt treatment if necessary.

Always dry your pan before storage. The seasoning provides some protection from rust, but it will rust if given a chance.

The only warning as far as far as food allergies or intolerances go is that the iron is very porus, and the seasoning can hang on to food, so if you find yourself unable to eat something that you’ve been cooking in your pan, replace the pan. When I was diagnosed, I had a pan I had used to cook flour tortillas for years, and I couldn’t figure out why I was still getting sick after I stopped (knowingly) eatting wheat. I figured out it was the pan and got better when I replaced it. I was sad to see it go – I had bought that pan before they were available pre-seasoned, and it was the slickest, blackest pan I’ve ever seen. It was my favorite kitchen thing, but it was making me feel miserable, and (as I’ve said) they are cheap.

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