The Sticky Dilemma
How many skillets do you have in your kitchen? How many do you really need? If you had to get rid of all your skillets, keeping only one, which one would you keep? In my kitchen, there is a cast iron skillet hanging in a prominent place that gets used almost every day, usually several times. It is a vintage Wagner Ware cast iron skillet that has been well-seasoned by decades of use. This is the skillet I would keep if I could have only one skillet.
The Original Non-Stick Cookware
Non-stick cookware is all the rage, but it’s not a new concept. Cast iron cookware has been around for a long, long time and is the original non-stick cookware. When properly cared for, it has an amazing non-stick surface and fantastic heat retention!
High tech cookware has a hard time competing with low tech cast iron when it comes to making down-home comfort food, the way grandma used to cook. It’s also very versatile. You can cook with cast iron on the stove top, in the oven, over an open fire, or even steeped in hot coals! Bring the food directly to the table and you have a piping hot rustic presentation.
In our culture of “instantaneous” and “maintenance-free,” synthetic non-stick cookware often crowds its way into our kitchens, promising to make life easier. I argue that easier is not always better. Modern non-stick cookware has synthetic coatings that make cooking and cleanup easy, but how safe are these coatings? Do I really want my food cooking on a synthetic surface?
Some of the Benefits of Cast Iron
- Gets better over time
- Holds onto heat extremely well
- Very durable
- Non-Stick cooking surface
Selecting Your Cast Iron Cookware
To get started with cast iron cooking, you must first acquire your tools. There are several good options for purchasing cast iron cookware. I recommend either buying used vintage pieces or spending the money for high quality new cast iron cookware. I am not a fan of inexpensive new cast iron, mainly because of the unfinished, rough casting cook surface. While you may be able to build up a non-stick surface on these pans, the rough surface just doesn’t have a quality feel when using it.
New Cast Iron
This is not an extensive list, but here are two great options for high quality new cast iron cookware.
- Field Company makes a great cast iron skillet with a smooth cooking surface https://fieldcompany.com/p/cast-iron-field-skillet/
- Finex has some elegant cast iron cookware pieces https://finexusa.com/
Used Cast Iron
My vintage Wagner Ware cast iron skillet came from a yard sale. It came with a low price, high quality, a smooth cooking surface, and a lot of charm. When buying used cast iron, Here are some guidelines to help you select a great piece.
- The primary brands to look for are Wagner Ware and Griswold.
- Where to look: yard sales, auctions, ebay, craigslist
- Make sure bottom is flat and not warped. Warped bottoms still work well, but your eggs will run to one side.
- No cracks. Tap on it to make sure it has a nice ring to it. If it sounds dull, it may be cracked.
- Smooth cooking surface is desirable.
- Dark black coloring means it is well seasoned. If it is dull and grayish colored, or has surface rust, It will just need a little more work to get it cleaned and seasoned. Don’t be afraid to buy it, though.
•Made in the U.S.
•Any major pitting is a sign that it was extremely rusted and restored. Just make sure the cooking surface is still smooth.
Reconditioning Cast Iron Cookware
If you purchased a vintage cast iron piece, it may need some tender love and care to get it ready to use. If your used pan is in great shape and has a dark black finish on the cooking surface, you can skip the next step and just gently wash it and start cooking. If it has rust, scorching or scratches, they can be removed with steel wool. Then season the pan as described in the next paragraph.
How to Season Your Cast Iron
Cast iron cookware gets its non-stick properties by “seasoning” it, or applying oil and carbonizing it with heat. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Wash and dry the pan with a towel. Place it on a burner set at medium-low to remove any remaining moisture. When it is completely dry, apply a thin layer of oil to the entire pan, including the outside, bottom, and handle.
The best oils to use are grapeseed oil or flax oil, but you can use 100% extra virgin olive oil, safflower oil, vegetable oil, crisco, etc. Wipe off any extra oil. Place the pan in the oven for 1 hour at 400 degrees. I recommend repeating this process one or two times to get a good start to your layers of seasoning. The seasoning will continue to build up over time with repeated use.
Cooking With Cast Iron
Cast iron takes a little longer to heat because it has thick walls. Preheat the pan on medium-low heat for a couple minutes before using. Because of its heavy design, cast iron holds heat extremely well. It will not cool down when adding food to it, making it a great choice for searing meats. Avoid heating the pan quickly on high heat to prevent creating a hot spot in the middle and cold sides.
First, the “Don’ts”:
- Don’t soak in water longer than 15 minutes to avoid rusting.
- Don’t use soap in it. It can have negative effects on your oil seasoning process.
- Don’t put it in the dishwasher!
After use, scrape off any remaining food and wipe it out with a dishcloth or paper towel. If it needs further cleaning, you can use warm water and a scrub pad or chain mail scrubber. Dry the pan completely with a towel and place on stove top to evaporate all moisture.
As soon as it is dry, apply a light layer of oil to the entire pan and wipe off any excess. Any vegetable oil will work fine. This routine oiling will build up over time and become your well-earned non-stick coating that will make your cast iron pan a joy to cook with for years and decades to come!