As I said before, I am sorry I don’t have more skillets to give away because I wish I could give skillets to everyone who wanted them. As it turns out, Poopiebitch won the drawing for the skillets, and Lisa of Cravin’ Veggies won the bread pan. But as a consolation prize for everyone else, I decided to write up a tutorial on seasoning cast iron. Why? Because cast iron is very cheap and completely awesome and I want those of you who need skillets but are low on funds to consider it.
You can buy new cast iron pots and pans just about anywhere. Fortinbras wanted to pass on a tip for you: he suggests buying them in a camping store, where you can find the same pieces you’ll find in the fancy, expensive cooking stores for much cheaper. I bought a large Martha Stewart raw cast iron skillet at K-Mart for ten or fifteen dollars. “Raw” means the skillet is un-enameled and completely unseasoned. (Martha Stewart also sells reasonably-priced enameled cast iron pots.) Lodge is the most popular modern-day maker of cast iron in the United States and often what you will find in camping stores. Lodge also sells “pre-seasoned” cast iron. I have a pre-seasoned Lodge dutch oven. Buying pre-seasoned cast iron saves you the step of cleaning the pot or pan and gives you a head start on seasoning, but it also costs more money and in my opinion isn’t worth it. Lodge pieces are nice as far as modern cast iron goes and the pre-seasoned stuff isn’t bad, it’s just misleading because you still have to season it, and if you’re seasoning anyway, you might as well save your money and do it all yourself.
My favorite way to buy cast iron is to find the vintage stuff. Griswold is the most collectible and therefore the most expensive. Griswold stopped producing cast iron in 1957, so any Griswold pan is at least that old. My large skillet is a Griswold No. 9 from the 1930s. I LOVE it. Remember my omelette from a few nights ago?
The only oil I used in that pan is a very light spritzing of olive oil from my mister and that omelette didn’t stick one bit. People aren’t lying when they say properly seasoned cast iron is “practically non-stick”. I lucked out when I found that skillet; I think I only paid $50 or $60 for it and it barely needed to be cleaned; I just seasoned with one coat of shortening and began using it heavily and it’s now perfect. Griswold pans often go for more than a hundred dollars. But the point of this tutorial is helping you find cheap pans. So forget Griswold, unless you find it in a thrift store or yard sale where the owner doesn’t know what they are giving away (and in that case, grab it). There are reasons the quality of a Griswold pan is higher than others, but those reasons are very negligible.
The reason to buy vintage over modern is nearly all cast iron made before the 1950s is alleged to be of a higher quality than what they sell today. The main reason is the surface of modern cast iron is not entirely smooth; it is slightly bumpy. Run your fingers over the surface of a Lodge piece and you’ll see what I mean. The surface of my Griswold, on the other hand, is very smooth – often referred to as “glass-like”. The other reason to buy vintage is I just like old stuff. I prefer owning stuff that has a history. But that’s just me. If it’s easier for you or cheaper for you or if you simply prefer to find modern cast iron, go for it. You won’t have to work as hard to clean it at any rate. If you do buy vintage, don’t worry about superficial rust. In fact, you can often find amazing deals on rusty cast iron because the seller doesn’t realize how easy it is to remove and clean. The only thing you need to worry about when buying old cast iron is cracks or warping. The piece should sit level, and also not be cracked. Cracked cast iron pretty much can’t be repaired, at least not cost-effectively.
When I gave away my Calphalon skillets, the only real sacrifice I was making was the small skillet, which I sometimes used for toasting seeds and the like. I wanted to keep the set together, though, and also welcomed the opportunity to buy a small cast iron skillet. So yesterday I went to my favorite antique mall, where I got the Griswold, and found two No. 3 skillets. I couldn’t decide which I wanted. One was a Wagner, which is another really good brand, but it was rusty, and one was unmarked with a logo, but because it has what’s called a heat ring, is probably the older piece, and was also in slightly better condition. As they were only $7 each, I just got them both!
Now I’m going to show you how to clean and season these pans, but I want to make it known that I am NOT an expert at this. I’ve seasoned my cast iron wok, and I lightly re-seasoned my Griswold skillet, and I continued-seasoning my pre-seasoned Lodge dutch oven, and I didn’t run into any problems with any of them, so I think my method works, but I don’t have years of experience or anything.
A lot of people recommend seasoning cast iron with bacon fat or lard. And I have no doubt they are both excellent ways to season, and definitely the most time-honored. This would be how all vintage cast iron was originally seasoned. But obviously I don’t use animal products so neither is an option for me. Also, don’t think it’s out of the ordinary to not use animal fats because many people recommend using things like palm oil. If you research cast iron seasoning on the internet, you’ll find all kinds of conflicting advice. People advising vegetable oil; people saying vegetable oil makes cast iron sticky. People saying use 250 degree Fahrenheit ovens; people saying use 550 degrees – and anything in between. I’m not a scientist so I can’t tell you scientifically which methods are best. What you essentially want to do is oil the cast iron and then heat it up hot enough and long enough that the oil carbonizes, permanently adhering to the iron and creating the “non-stick” patina. I have found that using Earth Balance shortening and a 500-degree oven has worked perfectly. If you can’t get or don’t want to use Earth Balance, I would try palm oil, which the primary oil in EB shortening. You can pretty much season with any oil, but your results may be different than mine.
If you have a brand new or a dirty old pan (the non-pre-seasoned new ones come with a waxy covering that needs to be removed), you need to scrub them completely clean. The very fortunate of you who can find a vintage piece that is clean and has a nice, smooth surface, as I was when I found my Griswold, can skip this step. You can use a steel wool pad to remove the rust:
Just start scrubbing away!
I got rid of most of the rust in just a few minutes:
But then I scrubbed some more:
I got off all of the rust – that’s the most important thing – but I didn’t remove all of the old seasoning. I could have, and I’d have ended up with a smoother surface, but I was tired of scrubbing, and eventually after use, the seasoning will even out.
Next, get your oven ready. Place one rack in the upper half of the oven, with the second rack immediately below it. Place a large cookie sheet or piece of foil on the lower rack. This will catch any dripping oil. Heat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
(Yes, my oven needs to be cleaned.)
Heat the pan over medium-low heat and place a small pat of shortening (or a small amount, depending on the pan size, of oil) in it:
Allow it to melt as the pan gets warm. When it’s completely melted, take a paper towel and completely rub all surfaces of the pan, coating them in a THIN layer of oil. I didn’t bother with the handles of my vintage pieces, so I could grip them with my oven mitts (they were seasoned already anyway), but all other surfaces, including the bottom, should be covered:
Place the pan(s) in the oven, upside down, directly over the baking sheet/foil. It doesn’t matter if the oven is not entirely pre-heated yet.
Close the oven door, and optionally open any nearby windows. It may get a little smoky, in fact, you want a bit of smoke; it means the process is proceeding properly. It may also smell a little funky.
Let the pan bake for about an hour, then remove it and let it cool on top the stove for about 10 minutes. It should look darker than it did when you began, though it may still be gray:
Repeat the process, beginning at melting the small pat of shortening in the warm pans …
… and smearing on all surfaces. Note that after use, the paper towel is essentially still white. If after wiping with the shortening, the paper towel becomes dirty, one of two things probably went wrong: 1) you didn’t thoroughly clean the piece or 2) you didn’t bake it hot or long enough.
Repeat the oiling / baking process three or four times, depending on how much time you have and how thoroughly it was originally seasoned. As I said, I only baked my Griswold once, but I did these skillets three times. Here’s the end result:
When they are thoroughly seasoned, they will be completely black and their surface should be relatively smooth. You don’t have to complete all of your baking cycles in one day, though I find it relaxing to dedicate an afternoon to it; it gives me an excuse not to leave the house and I just spent the whole day reading and drinking tea.
It’s best to cook something pretty greasy the first few times you use the pan, I’m told, to help break it in and finish curing it. I sauteed some shallots in each of mine for dinner tonight and they performed marvelously. This post is getting long, so I’ll save cooking in cast iron, and taking care of cast iron, for one or two later posts if you guys are interested. I really do recommend that those of you who feel you can’t afford nice cookware consider cast iron. It’s one of the few instances in life where the best quality you can buy is some of the cheapest! It just takes a little start-up effort and a little consideration when cleaning, but the rewards are huge. Most non-stick cookware is pretty much disposable. It doesn’t last long, can’t be heated very hot, requires special utensils, often contains a known carcinogen, and has to be thrown out the moment the surface is scratched. Invest in cast iron and you’ll have an heirloom you can hand down to generation after generation of your children, and actually contains nutrients instead of carcinogens! That’s right – cooking in cast iron imparts nutritional iron – which vegans can be low on – to your food! It’s practically impossible to destroy cast iron: no matter what you do to it, the worst case scenario is you have to repeat this tutorial. Furthermore, after a few months of use, my cast iron skillet is more non-stick than the one Calphalon non-stick pan I have (most of mine are not non-stick because I don’t like or trust it)!
That wraps up the tutorial, but here are a couple of related photos for you. First, I mentioned I spent the day reading and drinking tea. I make most of my tea in a cast iron tea pot! (Man, I love cast iron!) Here’s my tetsubin, which I got in San Francisco’s Japantown, with one of the Chinese tea cups my mom gave me:
Next up is a pic that might make a lot of other cast iron aficionados shudder. I mentioned above I once bought a Martha Stewart brand cast iron skillet for next to nothing, despite the fact I said I prefer to use old items. The reason I bought this one new was it was cheap and I wasn’t planning to season it or cook in it. It lives in my oven as a steam pan for bread baking. I wanted cast iron because although it will rust, it will not warp, and it stays hot, producing the amount of steam I want. Here is what happens when you allow cast iron to remain in contact with water!
As bad as that pan looks, though, if I wanted to, I could clean it up with no problem.
I’ve mentioned before that I essentially have just one baking rack in my oven, because I keep a huge stone and the afore-pictured steam pan in there. I removed the stone today for my seasoning:
All that stuff is just baked on; the black splotches are pizza sauce. The stone is actually becoming seasoned itself this way. The only maintenance it requires is brushing crumbs out. If you are at all into making pizza or hearth breads, FibraMent baking stones are expensive but worth the investment. Yesterday I baked these two sourdough loaves at the same time on one baking stone:
Alright, more cast iron information coming up if there is interest, and I’ve got to get around to making dinner – using those skillets – now!