Cast-iron and you

(Photo by Tracy Ducasse)

Andreae Prozesky, cast-iron cook.

In honour of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d get a little mom-ish on you and offer up some advice. The wisdom I’m about to bestow upon you actually came from my father, but Father’s Day isn’t for another month, and besides, you look like you need a good talking-to.

It’s about your cookware. How can you expect to feed yourself anything half decent when you’re cooking your dinner in a warped, scratched, non-stick-chemical-coating-coated, plastic-handled, dishwasher-ravaged frying pan?

A good eight- or nine-inch cast-iron pan from the camping section of Canadian Tire shouldn’t run you more than 25 bucks, probably less if you truck out to the Army-Navy store. At the Food Nerd laboratory I’ve only got two pans, both cast-iron, at a total cost of maybe 35 dollars. The big one is from the hardware store, the small one is from the thrift shop, and they’re both lovely objects that make my life easier and my cooking better. And they look damn sexy, too, sitting there all casual on the stove. Rowr.

The cheapest, most accessible pans have shortish handles and fairly steep sides. They’re cast in one piece, so there’s nothing to crack or fall off or unscrew or anything. Because they’re so heavy they distribute heat evenly, which is a blessing to the majority of us who are stuck with crappy electric stoves. You can blast the burner under a cast-iron pan without worrying about your pan developing hot spots (hot spots are the parts on the bottom of a pot or pan where your food sticks every single time, no matter what you do.) Since they’re all metal, you can take cast-iron pans from stovetop to oven, no problem. Be warned: their handles stay hot for freakin’ ever. But the occasional minor burn is a small price to pay for consistently well-turned-out pancakes and frittatas.

Cookware of such fabulousness requires a little extra attention and love. First of all, when you bring your pan home, you have to season it. Not as in “salt and pepper to taste,” but as in “coat your pan in oil and heat it until the oil cooks on and forms a black coating imbued with magical non-stick-ular(tm) properties.”

Here’s how you make the magic happen: give your new pan a good scrub with dish soap and some steel wool. This should be the only time that soap and your pan spend any time together, so make it memorable. Dry the pan well, then brush it with some vegetable oil (or bear grease, or whatever.) Place the pan, upside-down, in a 250F oven with some foil on the rack below to capture any oily drips. Leave the pan in there overnight. In the morning it should be brown-black and kind of shiny.

You can cook on it immediately, but for the first few months you should repeat this process every now and then to make sure that the magical non-stick-ularity is never compromised.

If you happen to have come across an old, neglected cast-iron pan, you can resurrect it by scouring off all the rusty bits (use sandpaper if you have to) and then going about as if it were brand new.

Once this is done, you must promise to never, ever use soap on your pan again.

Ever.

Soap takes great joy in lifting oily residue off your pots and pans and dishes. This is wonderful for plastic containers and wine glasses, but terrible for cast-iron. The cooked-on oil residue is what keeps your eggs from sticking and your pan from rusting. Clean it off and you may as well be using aluminum. Or boiling your omelettes in Ziploc bags. Seriously.

“But this is madness!” you say, “If I can’t use soap, how am I supposed to clean it?”

Well, if the last thing you used your pan for was something mild-flavoured and relatively un-messy, like French toast or a grilled-cheese sandwich, then all you need to do is take a damp cloth and wipe out any crumbs. If what you were cooking requires a more dedicated cleaning, here’s my method: put the pan on the stove and fill it a little less than halfway with water. Bring the water to a boil. The boiling will loosen any food bits stuck on the pan. Pour the water off into the sink and, using cold water and a soapless dishcloth, give it a good rinse. Place it back on the burner to dry off and then, when it’s cool enough, coat the inside of the pan with a little vegetable oil.

If you’ve really managed to stick something on there – say your pan is marked by the greasy outlines of sausages, perhaps, or you’ve burned some cheese or bacon all to hell — pour a layer of salt (regular table salt is fine) into the pan, then drizzle some oil on top. Roll up your sleeves and scrub this mixture into the pan. It’s abrasive enough to scrape off the little morsels of cremated food, and oily enough to be gentle on the pan’s seasoning. (Incidentally, sea salt and olive oil also make a great t-shirt-and-sandals-time scrub for elbows and feet. Yay summer!)

There. I’ve said my bit. Argue if you want, tell me that you like your hot-spotted, dented pans, and that you really couldn’t be bothered to take care of some needy slab of oily metal. Fine. Just don’t complain next time you’re over for breakfast that your pancakes never turn out as awesome as mine do.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Send your questions, comments, and tough-as-nails suggestions to dreae@thescope.ca