Wednesday 25 January 2012

Cast-Iron Fry Pans

Like most of you, we are always on the look-out for health threats in our daily lives.
Our goal is to make day to day choices that reduce our exposure to the toxins that pervade our home.
Just for the record, we are not looking to extend our life expectancy, we would simply like to feel healthy and vibrant throughout our days.
Long have we known about the risks associated with non-stick cookware coatings.
Long had we tried to finally kick the teflon habit.
Only last year did we manage to make a final purge of coated cookware.
Today is about the frying pan.  Frequently used and easily ruined.
We'll visit the bakeware topic another time.

Now, Erin at Feather+Anchor uses an enamel coated steel pan.  I haven't tried one but she says it works great.
It must surely be the easiest style to care for so I am going to try one sometime.
For the time being though, we use cast iron pans.

Before I continue, there is the potential for lead to be found in some cast-iron cookware.  Check the source to be sure.  You don't want to trade one health risk for another.

Cast-iron cookware is great to cook with.  It takes longer to heat up but once it does it delivers a steady heat that doesn't dissipate easily.  It won't warp like a cheap steel pan, and it has loads of character to boot.
The main reason it lacks popularity is the maintenance that it requires to keep a non-stick coating.
If you cook nothing but pancakes and grilled-cheese sandwiches then you'll never even have to wash the pan let alone worry about seasoning it  But, if you are like us, then these pans get used heavily for all sorts of foods in all sorts of conditions.  That means that we ruin the seasoning on a pretty regular basis.

For those who do not know how these pans work, here's a quick run-down.
The pan itself does not have non-stick properties.  Only when it is properly seasoned will it release the food.
The seasoning is the coating.  The coating is made of fat or oil that has burned into a hardened material that adheres to the cast-iron. So, you have to create the non-stick coating yourself.

Like I said, we (or perhaps it is only me) ruin the seasoning quite often.
The holiday season saw lots of cooking in the woodstove (yes, that's in the woodstove) and the pans were literally raked over the coals.
For example, I seared a centreloin pork roast that was rubbed with honey and spices.  The goal was to lock in the flavour and moisture by sealing up the roast.  This super high heat sear works great.  Unfortunately, the high heat super heated the honey right into the pan.  The only way to remove the hardened honey was to cook the pan in the woodstove at another time.  This turned the hardened food into ashes....along with the seasoning on the pan.  So, I just put the pan outside so that I could season it sometime.
Well, that day finally came.  Today I found enough time to work on the pan.
Of course, by this point, rust had also developed and so the repair was a little intensive.
I am going to show you what I did.

This is for when you ruin your pan.  

This could also be for if you find one somewhere and want to put it into service.
One of our best pans was found in our yard, leftover from the previous owner.

Start by removing whatever is loose on the pan.  That is rust and burnt stuff.

You can use whatever you have on hand.  If you are off-the-grid, then you could use sand and water to scour away excess debris.  Steel wool works ok but the rust tends to tear it up a bit and so it gets messy quick.  I opted for power tools.  I used a wire brush mounted on a drill.  This combination is useful for countless tasks and is cheap.
Do your best to get it as smooth as you can.
I carried it further and used an angle grinder with a worn out aluminum-oxide disk on it.
Now that's smooth!

Don't get carried away with smoothness of the pans.  I suspect that the coating will perform better if the surface has some texture.  That way the food is in contact with less surface.
I just can't stop myself.
Once the metal is cleaned off, wash the pan in hot water to clean off the dust.

The seasoning can be done in the oven or on the stove.  However, there will be lots of smoke from the burning oil, so if you don't want that in the house then I recommend the barbeque.
So that you don't waste the fuel, I also recommend cooking some food at the same time.  Just leave the lid up so the food doesn't taste burnt.

You'll also need some oil and a rag that you don't want to keep.

Get the pan really hot and wipe oil on the pan every few minutes or so.  The oil will burn into the pan and begin to accumulate into a coating.  It takes some time so be patient.  If you put too much oil in, then you'll have unsightly markings in the pan, although it wouldn't impair performance much.
Watch for dust and hair as this will be included into the seasoning.  Which, by the way, is also called the patina.  You should pay attention to the process as you may burn your coating off if the pan is left unattended for too long.
Focus on the cooking surface, but you should coat the whole pan all over to protect from corrosion and to give it a black shine with unimpeachable style.

To care for the pan it is best to wipe it clean rather than wash it.  Normal cooking temperatures eliminate bacteria, and soap will only damage the seasoning.  If it needs to be scrubbed because something did stick to the pan then you'll have to re-season.  Ususally you can get most food off without taking all of the patina with it.  As a day to day practice, try to lay on another bit of seasoning when the pan is hot and you're thinking about it.  It is something that takes practice to get good at, but the results can be astounding.
Then of course, it looks great too!

Ahh yes!  Did you want to see how dinner turned out?

1 comment:

  1. Great primer on cast iron maintenance! Maybe I'll find a pan to refurbish for the cottage.