Let’s have a chat about the new rage in cooking, much talked about, and greatly misunderstood. I speak, of course, about Cast Iron cookware.
Why is it all the rage?
Mostly, because it works. The high density of the cast iron allows great heat absorption, and an even heat dissipation into the food. This allows the maillard reaction, browning, to occur generating the distinctive flavors of well colored food.
Many TV-Chefs and food bloggers are hopping on the cast iron horse, some will much less success than others. Here are a few tips to allow you to be more successful ..
Select a decent pan
As with many things, price is NOT an indication of quality. You are looking for a heavy pan, a well finished interior. If you are new to using cast iron, or you are looking to add an additional skillet to your collection, do not rush out and grab a $200 artisan crafted skillet, a $22, 10 inch skillet from Amazon will serve just fine.
Whilst the high end skillets with their machine honed, slick as a piece of glass interiors are very attractive, and yes I drool at them, but shudder at the price tag.
Seasoning your new cast iron
Like any other tool in you kitchen, cast iron requires maintenance. Lets start with how to season a cast iron skillet, and how to maintain that seasoning.
Seasoning is the process of building up a fat based polymer, that adheres to the skillet and provides that super slick, no stick, surface.
I will do the following with any new cast iron I purchase, even the one’s that are “pre-seasoned”. A well seasoned pan has a very dark cooking surface that has a reflective sheen to it.
Wash a new pan thoroughly with soap and water.
Apply a light coat of neutral oil
Bake in a 500 degree oven for an hour
Let cool and apply another light coat of oil
Either store the pan or repeat the cycle. I tend to repeat this cycle at least three times with a new pan
Cleaning your cast iron
Clean After Use: Clean the skillet immediately after use, while it is still hot or warm. Don’t leave it in the sink because it will rust.
Add hot water: Wash the skillet by hand using hot water and a sponge or stiff brush. Avoid using soap, or soaped steel wool, as these may strip the pan’s seasoning. NEVER THE DISHWASHER!!
Scrub off stuck-on bits: To remove stuck-on food, scrub the pan with a paste of coarse kosher salt and water. Then rinse or wipe with a paper towel. Stubborn food residue may also be loosened by boiling water in the pan. I also have a chain mail scrubber I use.
Dry the skillet: Thoroughly dry the skillet or dry it on the stove over low heat.
Oil it: Using a cloth or paper towel, apply a light coat of neutral / vegetable oil
Put it away: Store the skillet in a dry place.
Cooking with cast iron
Always pre-heat. Never add food to a cold pan then heat. IT WILL STICK
Pre-heat gently. Start over low heat, then move to medium low, to medium, to medium high, etc. This allows you to control the heat of the pan.
I try to never go to full wack on the stove as this will just generate annoying clouds of smoke and tend to burn the seasoning off the pan. Things will sear and brown quite nicely at medium high with a proper pre-heat.
Whilst moving into my new abode, my roommates were rather shocked at the number of cutting implements I own and carry about.
Fancy tools and knives is not the important thing; you need to understand them and know how to maintain them. This is VERY true for knives, I own a large number and a true understanding of how to care for them is what takes their performance to stellar levels.
Some BASIC tips:
HONE YOUR KNIFE.
Honing is NOT sharpening, honing aligns the cutting edge.
To quote Daniel @ Seriouseats:
To understand how a steel works, it helps to think of a blade’s beveled edge as a really pointy mohawk. When a blade is freshly sharpened, it’s like a perfect mohawk, the hair converging to a fine point, with the help of far too much gel. But with use, that pointy edge starts to flop over on itself, making it much less effective, the way that mohawk gets when the gel has worn away over the course of a day.
With knives, this happens on a microscopic level—it’s not something you can see by looking at it with the naked eye. But it is something you can feel. Your knife, which may have previously felt sharp as a razor, starts to bite and catch on the food you’re cutting. You can sense some resistance that wasn’t there before. By running the blade along a honing steel, you can pull that microscopic edge of metal back into an upright position, and regain a good deal of its cutting power in the process. It’s sort of like applying fresh gel to a flopped-over mohawk.
Eventually, though, that super-fine edge of metal will break off and wear away, like a pencil point dulling down. As this happens, the honing steel will become less and less helpful. Your only good option then is to re-sharpen the knife, which rubs away metal on a whetstone to create a brand-new edge, just as a pencil sharpener puts a new point on a pencil.
SHARPEN THEM WHEN NEEDED
To repair nicks and other mars on a blade’s edge, (NICS?, MARS?, SHUDDER!!), you need to sharpen it. How to tell if a knife needs sharpening? It will slide uncontrollably whilst cutting an onion. I’ll either do this with a water stone or as usual when I’m pressed for time, have them professionally sharpened.
THE NEED FOR SHARPNESS
One comment from my roommates, “Ohhhh, THOSE ARE SHARP….”. AH, YEP! THEY ARE..
A sharp blade requires less force to do the work at hand. One thing you DO NOT WANT TO DO IS FORCE A BLADE. Forcing a blade, will cause a loss of control, and a loss of control will result in stitches at the minimum.
A sharp blade will also drive an awareness of where the blade is, the food is, and where your fingers are…
USE A PROPER CUTTING SURFACE
Whilst a glass or stone cutting surface is quite attractive and can be sterilized easily given the solid surface, they are ruinous of the blade edge. Very much like putting a helmet on the aforementioned mohawk. Use a wood, plastic, rudder or bamboo surface.
HAND WASH AND HAND DRY YOUR BLADES
Never, ever place decent blades in a dish washer. Good blades will have a high percentage of carbon and will rust. The washing action can throw blades around and induce nics in the edge, crack the handle and in general begin to deteriorate the overall utensil. Placing blades into their holder with out properly drying can hasten the effect of rust and promote mold growth. Yes, knives can grow mold, and can transfer that mold to foods being cut, with less than desirable effects.
Whence cutting acidic foods, rinse and dry the blade immediately.
ALWAYS CUT ON A STABLE SURFACE
Keep the board level, and make sure the food is not going to shift as you cut. Place a wet paper towel under the board to avoid the board slipping as you work. Instability will lead to stitches.
STORE YOUR KNIVES PROPERLY.
Just dropping them into a drawer will ensure that the edges get dulled, and can lead to cuts whilst searching for the proper tool. As an aside many knife sets will include “steak knives”, for the most part these are useless in the kitchen, they are too small for most jobs, and are not of the best quality for holding edges. Also most knife sets include some form of wood storage block. Wood storage blocks will hold moisture against the blade, harbor germs, and take counter space. I either use a magnetic knife rack, a proper knife bag, or blade guards and place them in a drawer.