In this age of gastronomic toys, cast-iron cookware still rules. This affordable option has two qualities that make it peerless: It can withstand high heat, making it perfect for searing and frying; and its heavy weight traps and maintains temperatures, which is ideal for braising. Properly cured and maintained, cast iron also can develop a wonderful nonstick surface, but you must follow a few simple rules.
• A scouring pad or wire brush
• Natural dish soap
New cast-iron cookware comes with a coating, either shellac or wax, that you must remove before curing. A scouring pad or wire brush and warm water with a little dishwashing soap will get the job done. Once the coating is removed, you should never again let soap touch the iron. Let’s repeat that. Do not use soap on seasoned cast iron. The cure (seasoning) is based on grease, and soap’s job is to remove grease. So if you wash your iron with soap, you’ll destroy the very effect you are aiming for.
• Vegetable oil
Cover the pan’s surface, inside and out, with a liberal coating of vegetable oil. Put the pan in a cool oven. Turn the oven to 300. The pan should remain in the oven during preheat, then an additional 30 minutes. For extra insurance (against burns, too), let the pan cool inside the oven once you’ve turned it off.
Care and feeding for your skillet
Clean gently. Properly treated, your pan will never be bright and shiny. Over-scrubbing ruins the cooking surface. Gently remove food particles with a scouring pad, then rinse with water. Soaking it could remove its protective surface. Always dry immediately. Never clean cast iron in the dishwasher.
Keep it dry. Cast iron’s nonstick surface can be damaged by frequent exposure to water. Even making soup a few times can remove the coating. The best practice is to cook with dry ingredients or fry between liquid cooking. If you lose your coating, re-season the pot following the directions at left.
Cool down slowly. Never hasten the cooling process by exposing a hot pan to cool water. It can damage or crack the surface.
Watch it improve with age. Chefs and foodies often brag about their decades-old or inherited cast-iron pans. Thrift shops and garage sales are often good sources for similar vintage finds. If it’s a little rusty, just scour well and re-season.
For more information, visit Mother Earth News and search “cast iron.”