PHOTO: Tracey Hagan
I’m a bit cast iron obsessed, but that wasn’t always the case. When I first learned to cook in the 1980s, I largely ignored my mother’s enormous cast iron skillet. It was huge, heavy, nearly impossible to lift with one hand, and in my estimation, difficult to clean. Instead, I learned to cook using the high-tech material of the time: Teflon. Over time, I found that I was unable to get a perfectly seared crust on a steak, or crispy skin on a filet of fish with a nonstick surface, so I later upgraded to stainless steel. Stainless steel cookware was a revelation—finally, I could sear and sauté like a pro! With my trusty stainless steel frying pan, I finally learned a chef’s trick to achieving that perfectly crispy fish skin: smoking out the pan.
In order to give a stainless steel pan a temporary nonstick coating, you heat the pan until it’s smoking hot, add oil and a large pinch of salt. Once the oil begins to smoke, the oil and salt is rubbed onto the surface of the pan and then discarded. The end result is a slick, smooth surface that allows fish to get that perfect, crispy skin without sticking. Unfortunately, this technique also results in tears, gnashing of teeth, and hours of scrubbing to remove that “temporary” nonstick coating, which was actually oil that had polymerized, or become a bit like plastic. It was this experience that brought me back to my mother’s old workhorse: the bare, cast iron skillet. That hard, polymerized oil coating that I had a devil of a time removing from my stainless steel skillet just happens to be the “seasoning” that cast iron skillet aficionados covet. Not only do you not need to remove this seasoning, it’s part of the charm and function of a good cast iron pan. Like the old adage says: “Everything old is new again.”
I have a large variety of cast iron cookware, from large, enameled French ovens to the smallest bare cast iron skillets and gratin dishes and I simply love using them. Yes, they are heavy, but my initial assumption that they are high-maintenance and difficult to clean was unfounded. In fact, once you have seasoned a bare cast iron skillet, it is easy to clean and nearly impossible to wreck. In most cases, cleaning cast iron with a little warm water and even mild soap will do the trick, followed by a quick reheating on the stove and a light rubbing of vegetable oil.
I’m not a perfect cook. There are times when I have burned things onto the surface of my enameled cast iron pans to the point where I didn’t think I could restore the creamy, white finish. There are other times where I’ve removed food from my bare cast iron skillet and then forgotten the pan in the oven for a week, only to find it with a layer of mold on the surface. I’ve been in a hurry and washed my cast iron skillet and forgot to dry it thoroughly, causing a layer of rust to form on the surface. Things happen in the kitchen, and when they do, cast iron always survives to cook another day. With that, there are certain situations that call for a little extra care when things go wrong and your cast iron needs a little helping hand to become clean again.
Problem 1: Burnt Food on the Surface of Enameled Cast Iron
Scrape as much of the burnt food from the pot using a nylon scraper. Place the pot on the stove, fill halfway with water, and add 2 tablespoons of baking soda. Bring the mixture to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. After removing all of the burned on bits, wash normally. If some stains remain on the pot, sprinkle more baking soda on the bottom of the pot. Mix with a little water to form a paste and scrub with a soft cloth.
Problem 2: Stains on the Surface of Enameled Cast Iron
As above, sprinkle baking soda on the stained surface and make a paste with a little water. Scrub the stain with a soft cloth. Wash and dry as normal. If stains persist, add a solution of 3 tablespoons of household bleach per quart of water and allow it to soak for two to three hours. Wash and dry normally.
Problem 3: Rust on Bare Cast Iron
A light coating of rust is easily removed by scrubbing the surface with a tablespoon of salt and a cut potato. After scrubbing with salt, rinse with water and dry thoroughly with a paper towel. Place the pan on the stove and heat over medium heat for 4 minutes. Coat the inside of the pan with a thin layer of vegetable oil. Use a paper towel to wipe away any excess oil.
If the rust is persistent, soak the pan a solution of one part vinegar to eight parts water for 30 minutes. Scrub the pan with a scouring pad or steel wool to remove any remaining rust. Rinse and dry the pan, and then re-season it by coating it with a thin coating of vegetable oil and allowing it to bake upside down in a 400-degree-F oven for 45 minutes to one hour.
Problem 4: Mold on Bare Cast Iron
Clean the pan in warm water with mild soap using a nylon scrub brush. Dry thoroughly, and then heat the pan on the stovetop over medium heat for four minutes. Coat the inside of the pan with a small amount of vegetable oil and wipe out excess with a paper towel.
With proper care and maintenance, your cast iron cookware will last a lifetime and can be enjoyed by future generations.