Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cast Iron: Or, Building Forearms Like Popeye's While You Cook

Well. Back in April I got a tomatillo salsa recipe from a friend of mine, which I posted here. The recipe contained this line:
Roast above ingredients in a cast iron pan, oil-free, turning occasionally.
Earlier this week I made up a double batch of that recipe, making appropriate substitutions in the chile peppers to use up what we had on hand. The recipe turned out really, really yummy, so feel free to steal the recipe and try it out. Be warned, however; that recipe doesn't make much. My double-batch made no more than a pint of salsa. You may want to double, quadruple, or octople it to get a decent amount.

(Side note: my spell checkers don't like the word "octople". They give as alternates: ectopic, ectoplasm, octopus, octopuses, octopus's, outplay, and topless. Somehow most of these aren't particularly appealing when writing in the context of salsa recipes; and I find it hard to imagine how someone trying to write the word "topless" in their browser window would have it come out "octople". Apropos of nothing, actually....)


Well, we didn't have that cast iron skillet, so we just used what we had on hand--an old Calphalon anodized aluminum griddle. Now, we like Calphalon--it's good, solid cookware, with some real thickness there that helps the heat spread evenly. And the anodized aluminum non-stick surface is much more durable than those teflon or silverstone coatings. We found that with these other coatings, we had to replace our cookware every two years or so. With our Calphalon, we've had it pretty much since we got married eight years ago.

But even anodized aluminum wears out over time. Our big frying pan, and our griddle, both had gotten to the point that pretty much everything sticks to them now. I've gotten pretty good at using deglazing as a cleaning method, but even so, it was getting to be too much work. When you have to scrub your non-stick surface for five minutes to get off the stuff that the dishwasher couldn't, then your non-stick surface, um... isn't.

So we went shopping today for some new cookware. We took the whole family.

You know, that's probably not so good an idea. The problem is that, whenever we go shopping as a family--even if we're trying to be responsible in following our strict shopping list--one of us will see something really cool and say, "Ooh! Oooh! Look at that! That's really cool. Isn't it cool? I think it is. Do you think we could use this? I think we could. Do you think we need it? I think we could need it. Or we could wind up needing it at some point. Or it would just be cool. You know?"

And the really depressing thing, is that some of the time the "one of us" who says things like this happens to be, um... to be, erm:


So I helped to pick out the cookware today.

Now, one of the really important factors that we consider when we select new pans is something I call the whaaaang factor. We originally liked Calphalon precisely because it scores high on the whaaaang factor scale. (Well, I originally liked Calphalon for its whaaaang factor; I suspect Tonya liked it for other, more practical/feminine reasons.)

Simply defined, the whaaaang factor is the sound the implement makes after it collides with the head of a burglar. A good, solid, well-made pan will give off a deep, resonant, satisfying whaaaang; less substantial cookware will give off a tinny ping sound. A pan with good whaaaang factor has some heft to it; it feels firm, solid, strong. It takes a good, solid grip to handle such a pan.

It feels good in the hand. On the head, not so much.

Well. As we walked the aisles in Target today looking for a skillet and a frying pan to replace the worn-out implements we had, we came across a couple of cast iron implements. I picked them up.

I fell in love. They were strong. They were masculine. They just exuded that aura that says: I make manly food. They were the ultimate in whaaaang factor. After holding those, I simply couldn't get excited about all that wimpy aluminum stuff.

So I began constructing a line of logical reasoning to convince my wife: "That's really cool. Isn't it cool? I think it is. Do you think we could use this? I think we could...."

Long story short (although it's really too late for that now, isn't it?): We now get to figure out the mysteries of the Care and Feeding of Cast Iron.

These are my babies. Aren't they beautiful?

Well, as I understand it (not having owned cast iron before): These pans are to be considered provisionally non-stick. That is, they are non-stick if you use them right; otherwise, be prepared for disaster. The idea, in a well-seasoned pan, is that a layer of oil is worked into the surface of the pan from all the previous times that you've been cooking. You typically heat up the pan before you put food in it each time; this renders that oil out, coating and lubricating the surface.

This also means that you're never supposed to wash the pans with dish detergent, if you can avoid it--and when you can't (like when you've just gotten them home from the store and you need to wash them because you don't know where they've been), you use a mild, diluted detergent. If you use the detergent, you'll remove that "seasoned" oil, and the pan will lose its non-stickiness. Rather than washing the pan, you rinse it, scrape it, and/or scrub it. But when it looks clean you dry it immediately (to keep it from rusting) and put it away. You never put it in a dishwasher.

So, it looks like we're going to have to do a whole lot more clean-up work with these pans than with our previous, which we could just rinse out and stick in the dishwasher.

Ah, but sometimes coolness has its price....

We haven't had the chance to try them out yet, but I'll let you know when I do. Cast Iron has a reputation as something that allows you to cook food hotter and more evenly than aluminum, since it's thicker and has a much higher specific heat capacity. I'll let you know how that works out.


Arby said...

Caring for cast iron is an art. There are some who swear that you NEVER use soap and water on a cast iron pan. I do. All the time. I have about 20 of them, I use them regularly, and I've never scrubbed them so hard that I've scrubbed off all of the seasoning. If there is food cooked onto the pan that you cannot wipe or scrape off, wash the pan in hot soapy water and scrub it until it is clean. When you are done, put a coating of oil on the pan and pop it back into the oven for ten minutes at 350 degrees. Presto - instant reseasoning! Enjoy them! If you ever have any questions about cast iron, feel free to stop by and ask them.

Timothy Power said...

Thanks for the advice! You see, this is the stuff that I never heard growing up, as we didn't have any cast iron cookware--so this is all voodoo to me. I may drop you a message at some point if I need to pick your brain.

Zayna said...

I LOVE my cast iron cookware. Sure, it's heavy and sometimes a pain to care for but I've always found that food cooks better and tastes better.

I nearly went ballistic when I found one of my cast iron pans in the dishwasher and ended up having a "family meeting" about it.

Care for your cast iron and it can serve your family for generations.

Theocentrica said...

I have your pans' twin brothers, and they are indestructible. Good choice.

Chris said...

My mom has had her cast iron pan for as long as I can remember and longer. It may well have been a wedding present 58 years ago. And yet, it has never warped; never "worn thin" (as all of our fancy dan "non-stick" stuff eventually does). Everything old is new again, eventually.

BTW, we got a set of Calphalon for Christmas last year (my gift to her). We love it, but it still seems to have a certain level of "stickiness". Maybe we should season it a la Arby and see what happens.

silvermine said...

Soap and water is fine, just make sure it's super dry when you're done. I only use soap and water when something really bad happened to it, then I dry it by putting it on the stove on medium for 5-10 mins or so, with a little oil in it to season it some more.

Another great way to clean it, especially if it's a little greasy, is with salt. Just throw some salt in and scrub it around wit ha paper towel/cloth/whatever. It grabs the excess oil, and scrapes off any little bits of stuck stuff.

Karen said...

I do the salt trick too, or just scrub it with super hot water. Occasionally it goes into the sudsy sink and gets a good washing. I have one small pan I use exclusively for dh's breakfast eggs, and then the larger size for everything else. I hope to acquire some other cast iron pans in the future. For years and years I put up with inferior frying pans, but I love my cast iron.

When you finish cleaning it, dry it well (don't let it air dry or it will rust) and then I just put a small coating of vegetable shortening or oil on it and store it in the oven until I'm ready to use it next time!

Wendy Power said...

I third the salt trick. I generally rinse with boiling hot water, then put in a generous amount of kosher salt from the box and a couple of glugs of vegetable oil. It makes a good scouring compound. Then I rinse with the hot water again and dry thoroughly.

Watch out - cast iron is counter-indicated for glass top ranges. It scratches and can crack the stovetop. It's one of the things keeping us from replacing ours with a smooth surface stovetop.

B. Durbin said...

If you have a Teflon non-stick pan, replace it when the non-stick starts to wear as the Teflon can get into your food. Bad ju-ju.

I'm glad to hear the cast iron cleaning tips; we don't have pans but we do have bacon presses and they need a good cleaning.

Big Doofus said...

I'm new here. I will be back. I found your blog via "arby" who found my blog via "A Mountain Homeschooler". I found "A Mountain Homeschooler" from some other blog and on and on and on. That's how it works, I guess. So, here I am on your blog.

Before I get into the cast iron thing, let me just say that you could roast your peppers on your grill just as easily. In fact, you'll get a better flavor, in my opinion.

But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't own a cast iron skillet (or two). The advice that you are getting is right on. You can season that pan by throwing it in the oven with some oil on it. You can also clean it with boiling water and kosher salt.

If you don't already, you should watch Good Eats on the Food Network. If you don't have access to the show, go buy or borrow the DVDs sometime. Alton Brown's very first episode was on cooking a steak using his preferred method--a cast iron skillet. Great stuff.

Like I said, I will be back. Feel free to stop by my blog sometime. And if you want to move to Indianapolis, my company is hiring software engineers.

Amy K. said...

My dad's trick to loosen up cooked on gook from cast iron: Put some water in the pan and let it simmer on the stove until it's loosened up, and then just wipe it out.

Timothy Power said...

Good heavens! I truly can never tell when I'm going to get comments. Although I shouldn't be surprised; whenever the Instapundit himself blogs about kitchen appliances, or cookware, or cameras, or other gadgets, he always posts an update later talking about how much extra email he's gotten reviewing the product in question (and/or offering suggestions for alternatives).

Formerly, I've only gotten more than ten comments when I've seriously ticked someone off.


Good advice, all around. Thanks for the tips! And Wendy, I'm afraid we do have a glass-top stove. But it was scratched before we bought the place, so we don't mind too much. We'll be careful not to bang our pans around too hard.

Big Doofus, thanks for dropping by! I'd seen your comments before at Arby's and Chris' sites, and I'm honored that you've decided to blogroll me. As for moving out to Indiana, thanks for the offer. I suspect my wife won't like it, but given that our heavy-handed (and judging from the current budget mess, none-too-competent) State government has just banned Trans-fats in the restaurants, it may be time for us to consider it. ;-)

Uvulapie said...


Don't cook tomato-based sauces in your cast iron - the acid in tomatoes will eat away the cure. I suppose if you've been using the same pan for five or ten years then the cure will be thick enough to weather an acid bath now and then but otherwise, don't cause yourself unwanted heartbreak. Just another tip from Good Eats.