Cast Iron cookware

When my hubby (then boyfriend) and I first moved out on our own we bought a cheap non-stick cookware pan set.  Within short order they began to peal and scratch and we began to eat the stuff in our food.  That was gross, so I said- never again- I will never get non stick again.  So we bought a cheep stainless steal set.

Two pieces of the four are still OK, but after a broken handle (the plastic part just snapped off while it was full of boiling water), and a lid shattered I bought a couple of restaurant stuff from a restaurant supply store.  Those were expensive and not much better.  It think that they are seen as disposable.  Not a life time investment.

AND I got sucked back into the non-stick world, I thought if I bought a higher quality product it would be OK- NOPE.  Even the really good ones have about a 5 year life.

I have had a 10 inch pan and a dutch oven in cast iron that I liked well enough, but it wasn’t really non-stick despite the claims.  It turns out, I was using them wrong.  After a bunch of internet research and a little experimentation here is my treaty on pots and pans.

For stock pots and sauce pans you should get a good quality stainless steel.  These weight far less than cast iron, and full of liquid they are heavy enough.  You will want at least 2, maybe 3 pieces.  One large 8 Quart stock pot with a lid.  This is for boiling pasta, making soups, and stocks.  The second piece is a 3 or 4 quart sauce pan, this is for heating up sauce, making mac and cheese and instant mashed potatoes.  The third is a small sauce pan, no more than 4 cups, that you can make small batches of stuff like small amounts of ramen, milk, sauces, gravy and caramel for caramel corn.  There is a big difference in weight for cheep and expensive, but I don’t think you need to go tri-ply or anything super fancy.

Next your pans, which should be cast iron.  I think you need three pieces a 8″ skillet, a 10.25″ skillet and a 12″ (5 quart) Chicken fryer with lid.  The fryer becomes your work horse.  It can act as a dutch oven and do stews, soups, roasts, bakes, oven pan cakes, pot pies, corn bread, cobblers, etc. It can be a skillet making large batches of breakfast foods, skillet meals, and one dish meals.  It is large enough that it can contain a skillet meal for 4, and contain splatter for frying.  I don’t really deep fry, but it most closely matches the size and shape that I was looking for so don’t be deterred by the name.  The 8″ skillet is for single servings of eggs, and little bits of stuff like roasting nuts.  The 10″ skillet is for medium loads and when preparing a fancy meal, you might need an extra pan.  You can get a 5 quart double dutch oven (it is a slightly different shape) instead of the 10″ skillet if you want to splurge, but once you have the fryer I don’t think you will need it.  The bottom is a dutch oven and the top is a 10.25″ skillet.  I don’t think you should get anything bigger than 5 quarts in cast iron, they become really heavy, and I think heavy cookware is dangerous cookware when dealing with hot oil and water.

Now, while doing reading I realized I have been cooking on cast iron wrong, and caring for it OK.  Keep a good season on it, cook with the right method and it really is non-stick. You need to get the pan good and hot (like sizzle water drops hot) before you add the oil, and then heat up the oil (you don’t need much) before you add your food.   I originally got sucked back into the non-stick world for two reasons- eggs and pot stickers.  I tried making pot stickers in my cast iron skillet and made a huge mess of it.  But that was because I didn’t know what I was doing.  Now that I pre-heat the pan and use a flat edged metal spatula (more on the spatula later) I don’t have a problem, and I have made a full conversion.

Caring for your seasoning.  Use the general advise, don’t use soap, don’t scrub it more than necessary, and oil it after each use.  What I didn’t know is that you can scrap it with your flat edge spatula and wipe it out (carefully!) while it is still hot.  Then re-oil.  That takes care of most of it.  The straight edge spatula is one without the gentile curve at the front.  By using a metal spatula you can scrap off any food bits, but also maintain your seasoning better.  After 10 years my 10 inch pan had pits in the seasoning, which made it more sticky.    I had to remove some layers of seasoning with steel wool and then scraped it smooth with my spatula while re-seasoning.  I can’t tell you the difference it makes.

Really good cast iron was made before 1950’s or 60’s.  Now days they come pebbly and not very smooth so it is hard to get a good non-stick finish.  What I have done with two of my new pans is to sand down the Lodge pebbly finish until smooth with 220 metal sand paper.   Lodge is the best cast iron on the market today.  I did this by hand, just doing the cooking surface and up the sides a little.  This will remove the factory seasoning and it will take a while, but I did this to my newest pan and it is a much better surface to season and will get a better non-stick coating faster.

Getting a good seasoning requires you to burn grease onto your pans and this means smoke.  So be careful, don’t leave them unattended, disconnect the smoke detectors and open all the windows.  The best way to get a good seasoning is to rub oil or fat on your pans, heat them up in the oven to 300 degrees and then take them out of the oven, put them on a hot burner and burn the heck out of it.  As it stops smoking (smoke will roll off of it) add another thin layer of fat with a paper towel (carefully).  Repeat as long as you can stand. Best option at least 5 times.  Make sure the finish turns black.  I wish I could try it, but I think that doing this outside on a grill would work really well, but I don’t have a grill.  Other places recommend baking them for a hour at 300 degrees, but you only get one layer.  By smoking it on a stove top or grill you get a layer with each application of grease.  Pans are metal and can crack with sudden temperature changes, so cool them slowly.

There you have it, what to buy (to save you money), how to treat it, and how to make a great, durable non-stick surface. The best part, the more you us your cast iron, the better it becomes.



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