Cast Iron Trials

An ancient heirloom cast iron skillet is one of those kitchen essentials every cook should have. It’s the ultimate in getting a great crust on foods – from steak to potatoes It works to simply saute vegetables and can’t be beat for going from stovetop to in the oven (except for maybe my beloved Le Creuset Enameled Dutch Oven…) But I digress. I knew I needed one of these, and without a great Southern grandmother to bestow one upon me, I headed to the local church fair in search of one. There I found a great cast iron grill pan for about $3 – who could say no?

Well, maybe I should have. First off, it was rusty. Normally – not a problem with my flea market shopping – a little elbow grease tends to go a long way in that department. I scrubbed it within an inch of its life with a copper scouring pad and gave the whole inside a kosher salt scrub as well. The next step was re-seasoning, but all I had in the house was olive oil, and that would quickly go bad in this application. So I let the pan sit. Naturally, it rusted again. So I scrubbed it again. Thus the never-ending cycle… in my defense I had a few other time commitments (law school) and the pan never seemed to make it to the top of the priority list. I didn’t want to see it go to waste – so it ended up with a new owner via Freecycle.

Still on the hunt for a pan to make the perfect home fries, I went back to the cast iron section at our local restaurant supply store. It was heaven – they came pre-seasoned! And devoid of rust! So I bought one and took it home, only to find out that the pre-seasoning is this sort of gluey icky stuff that was not up my alley at all. So, as is my M.O. with these things, I scrubbed it within an inch of its life. Naturally, it needed re-seasoning. The powers that be on the internets recommended one of two things: either Crisco (vegetable shortening) or bacon grease. While I do have a jar of bacon grease in the fridge for special occasions, I’ll be the first to admit I was sort of grossed out by the idea. What if it went rancid? For that matter – what would keep it from going rancid? Plus, a friend of a friend has a cast iron pan that he insists on never washing (read: cleaning) and the only words I can use to describe it are “wicked gross.” So, I went out to the store and bought a can of Crisco.

It went well at first – I coated the pan, wiped off the excess, baked it for an hour at 200° and left it to cool overnight. The pan looked good initially, but things started to get sticky and it had to be stripped and re-seasoned all the time. In fact, it prevented me from wanting to use the pan at all. I again started looking for alternative seasoning method. Some vegan bloggers recommended alternative vegetable oils like flax or avocado, but frankly I didn’t have it in the budget (poor law student, remember?)

Enter: bacon grease. My thoughts would shift between the image of the aforementioned wicked gross cast iron pan and the fact that it must have worked or Southerners would have abandoned it long ago.

Not 100% yet, but definitely getting there.

You know what? It works. Perfectly. I used the method outlined at An Oregon Cottage:
1. Use a plastic scrubber to remove any stuck bits. Some use coarse salt, but that would be wasting something in my frugal world. *smile*
2. Wash the pan with hot water only (no soap). Yes, it’s OK- it is getting clean, I promise. I use the scrubber side of my sponge and haven’t found that it takes the seasoning off, like some sites warn against. Your call.
3. Dry the pan thoroughly on the stove. Heat it for just a minute or so on medium heat (not high and don’t walk away).
4. Remove the pan from the burner and turn it off. Using a rag (or paper towel) grab a smear of bacon grease and rub it all over the inside of the warm pan.
5. Set back on the burner – turned off, but still warm – and let the pan cool there before putting away.

Cast Iron Tips

  • Do NOT turn the heat any more than medium high/7.5 out of 10 on an electric stove. The cast iron doesn’t need it.
  • Be prepared to adjust to a whole different set of cooking times. This is not a pan to flash cook things – be patient, grasshopper.
  • This should be an obvious one, but remember that the handle gets hot too. Or, like me – you’ll only have to forget this once to NEVER forget it again.

Favorite Cast Iron Uses:
Home Fries. Leave the potatoes in there – i.e. DO NOT STIR OR OTHERWISE MESS AROUND WITH THEM – for at least 10 minutes. They won’t burn, I promise. If you don’t turn up the pan too high, that is.
Cornbread. I am still perfecting my cornbread recipe, but this is one of the easiest things to make that absolutely cries out for a cast iron skillet.
Roasted Veggies. I love roasted green beans or asparagus with garlic and pimentón straight out of the oven – I eat them like candy. Which sometimes results in finger burns. Totally worth it.
Roast Chicken. Cover the pan with your veggies of choice – potatoes, sweet potatoes, rutabagas, onions, garlic, carrots etc. Then butterfly/spatchcock (don’t you just love that word?) the chicken on top. Add some olive oil, salt and pepper over everything. Roast accordingly – I usually do 425° for about half an hour and then 350° until the internal temperature reads 165°. Inhale.

I’m still new to the cast iron game and still looking for tried and true recipes. What’s your favorite?

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