Everyone loves cast iron, but not everyone knows how to take care of it (me included!) So I brought Hubby back to discuss how to season a pan, clean it, and prevent and take care of rust.
If you've decided to to the route of cooking with cast iron there are a couple of simple things you need to know about how to take care of it.
Seasoning Cast Iron
The best way to care for cast iron is to use it. That's right, cook with it. Specifically cook foods that have oil or fat in them or in the recipe. As food heats up, the oils and fats help build the seasoning layer on the pans by creating a layer of carbon that will progressively make the cooking surface more and more smooth. Older, well seasoned and cared for pans can have the appearance of being almost glass like. With new cast iron I like to cook bacon and brown meat in them.
New cast iron, while often advertised as pre-seasoned, has a tendency to be rough and have foods stick to it, especially when cooking at higher heat. Lodge pans are famous for being sticky when being used for the first time. They're great because they're inexpensive, but in my experience, they take the most work to get that perfect glassy surface. But, they can get there. Speeding up the seasoning process is as simple as adding oil (or fats) and heating until you get to the smoke point of the oil. Seems simple right? It is, sort of. The devil is in the details because while there are only two variables there are a multitude of options for each.
First, choose your oil. As with any craft there are a number of options that people advocate: vegetable oil, Crisco, bacon grease, olive oil, avocado oil, grape seed oil, etc. There's some thought that an oil with a higher smoke point, like avocado oil, creates a harder, tougher seasoning layer over time. I've tried multiple fats and oils and haven't noticed a significant difference in any of them. I'm sure that's heresy to some cast iron owners, but that's just what I've found. Your mileage may vary. If you're just starting out, I recommend using vegetable oil.
Once you've selected your oil, it's time to actually season your pan and apply some heat! If you're seasoning your pan for the very first time I recommend seasoning the entire pan, both inside and out, by applying your chosen oil with a clean cloth or paper towel and putting it on a baking sheet in a hot (450 F) oven for about an hour. After an hour, pull the pan out of the oven and, very carefully, use paper towels to wipe up any oil that has pooled in the inside of the pan while it is still hot. Oil that was on the outside will pool on the baking sheet, so simply wipe away any oil still on the exterior of the pan. If desired you can repeat the process. Once all the excess oil on the pan is wiped up, set it aside and let it cool to room temperature. With a new pan, I'll do this process twice to get a good seasoning layer on the outside of the pan before moving on to concentrating on seasoning only the interior of the pan.
If you only need or want to season the inside of the pan, simply spread your chosen oil around the inside of the pan and heat on the stove until it begins to smoke. Once it's heated to the point of smoking, turn off the heat and wipe up any excess oil with a paper towel. Let cool and repeat as desired. Depending on the pan I may only do this once or twice, or as many as seven or eight times. You'll notice after each time you do this that the cooking surface gets a little smoother to the touch.
Cleaning Cast Iron
Cleaning cast iron is also fairly simple. Just remember: no soap, and, for the love of God, don't ever put it in the dishwasher. Soap breaks down seasoning layers on a pan over time and can leave a residue in the pores of the iron. Dishwashers do the same thing but with much greater efficiency.
To clean up after using my cast iron, I drain any oil, wait for it to cool, scrape any food particles still attached to the pan, wipe with a clean cloth or paper towel, then spread a very small drop of oil (vegetable, olive, avocado, etc) on the cooking surface.
If food is really stuck on, I like to use a chain mail square to scrape with. The rings of the chain mail are tough enough to scrape anything clean, but won't hurt the seasoning coat on the pan because they have no edges. This being a zero-waste kind of place, they're also way more environmentally friendly than your typical sponge. As an added bonus they work well on almost any surface: glass, plastic, even wood cutting boards.
Plastic scrapers can also work well, but I recommend avoiding metal scrapers to clean because they can scratch the seasoning layer. If scraping food leaves lots of small particles that are too much to wipe out with a cloth or paper towel, you can use water to rinse out a pan. If you do, just make sure to completely dry the pan. If I feel the need to rinse out a pot or pan with water, I like to throw it back on the stove or in a hot oven to make sure all the water evaporates. If it doesn't you might have to deal with another issue: rust.
Rust On Cast Iron
Rust is one of the issues people tend to worry about when it comes to cast iron. Is it a big deal? No. Rust tends to show up on the exterior walls of cast iron when it has been wet and left to sit. This is why it is important to make sure water evaporates if you do get water on it. In most cases, rust wipes right off with a cloth. In more extreme cases a bit of steel wool will clean it right up. Once all the rust has been removed, rub a very small amount of oil all over the interior and exterior of the pan and heat it on a stove or oven. This ensures another seasoning layer to protect the pan.
Even if a pan looks completely rusted it's probably salvageable. While we were living in Hawaii, I was able to clean up a dutch oven for a friend that had left it sitting outside for more than a year. That particular effort required some extreme measures, but it goes to show that cast iron pans can be in a pretty sorry state and still be brought back into working order. Thankfully, as long as you use your cast iron on a fairly regular basis, you won't have to worry about having to take drastic measures to save it.
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