Thursday, March 4, 2010
How to clean, reseason and care for cast-iron skillets
My cast-iron skillet is one of my most useful--and most used--kitchen implements. In fact, I only ever use two skillets--my cast-iron one, and a ginormous 14-inch All-Clad Copper-Core Professional. (Breathy sigh of admiration.) My cast-iron skillet is a hand-me-down, as the best ones are, but you can find new ones very easily. In fact, it's also very easy to find one at the Salvation Army or a yard sale, since most people aren't sure what to do with them. A good cast-iron skillet, properly cared for, will last for several generations.
You know it's a good one when it's a glossy black and food just sliiiiides off it. That's the beauty of cast-iron--it's a natural nonstick non-fat surface, so you never have to worry about a) chemical Teflon residue in your food, b) using fats to cook with (unless you want to), or c) your food sticking. It can go from stove to oven and back again, and it heats very evenly and strongly, which is why you should never fry anything in a pan that ISN'T cast-iron.
The downsides of cast-iron: because it heats very evenly and strongly, it will stay hot for a long time. I've pushed it to the back of the stove before, forgotten about it, and then burned myself on it twenty minutes later. And (here's the sticking point for most people) you can never, ever, ever put it in the dishwasher. That will ruin it.
Fortunately, cleaning a cast-iron pan is a snap. If there's extra grease/residue in the bottom, wipe it out with a paper towel or cloth towel. Then wipe it down with a damp sponge. That's it. Make sure you never leave it wet--wipe it down with a dry towel, or put it back on the warm stovetop to dry. Some people will use a very small amount of dish soap while wiping it down, but the whole point of a cast-iron pan is to absorb all the grease and fat from the food you cook in it--that's what creates the nonstick coating. The grease fills in all the ridges of the pan and gradually cooks in, creating that shiny black coating. Soap will remove the grease, and if you're not careful, will make the next thing you cook taste faintly of soap. Over time, all the leftover bacon fat/butter/olive oil/whatever will bake into the pan, creating the nonstick qualities. (In fact, back in the day, many people had a cast-iron skillet they NEVER cleaned, at all. If you use it every day, you don't have to worry about the leftover fats turning rancid, and the best cornbread I've ever had was baked in a never-cleaned, bacon-fat-laden cast-iron pan.)
Occasionally, even I don't clean it properly and a rust spot will form. If you see a rust spot, or your food is sticking to the pan, it needs to be reseasoned. You can use Crisco for this (or lard, if you want to be really authentic). Simply coat the pan, inside and out, with a good quarter-inch layer of Crisco. Spread some foil inside your oven and lay the pan upside-down on top of the skillet. Set the oven to 300 and leave the pan in there for an hour. Turn the oven off after an hour, but leave the pan in there until it's cooled to room temperature. When you pull it out, it will have that primo glossy black coating. Repeat as necessary.