I have a couple memories of my childhood at home with my parents. I remember my mother cleaning her cast iron skillets with running hot water and a metal scouring pad. No soap came near her precious skillets. Once all the grease and food particles were removed it was time to dry the skillet.
Gas ranges were the norm in the late 1950’s and on into my teen years of the 1970’s. An electric range was unheard of. Not even the extremely wealthy had electric ranges until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
My mother would turn the gas burner on high. The blue flames would be reaching out from the stove top and I was constantly in fear of them reaching out and catching our house on fire. My mother would give the cleaned skillet a few shakes to dislodge standing water then place it atop the burner. The hissing and popping noise of the water being heated to steam and evaporating right before my eyes never failed to impress me. Once all the water was gone, usually within a minute, my mother would turn the burner off and loudly admonish everyone in our home “Hot! Don’t touch!” Once the skillet was cool enough to wrap her hands around the handle it was moved to the back of the stove ready for the next meal.
I asked my mother why she didn’t use soap on the skillet like she did with the other dishes being washed. Her reason was the soap removed the “Seasoning” from the pan. Didn’t mean anything to me at the time, seasoning I mean. When I got older and was an ineffectual cook who burned everything I reflected on this time and thought “seasoning” meant salt or pepper.
Seasoned Cast Iron: If you want to know the chemistry of seasoning your cast iron skillet Sheryl Canter has an excellent post on how to REseason an old cast iron piece of cookware.
Long before Teflon was invented the cast iron cookware our grandparents and their grandparents and their….well you get the drift….had a NON STICK cooking surface. The oil used back then was always animal fat. Our forebears had no clue about “Free Radicals” and cancer. I don’t know much about Free Radicals either. Today’s cast iron cookware comes to you already PRE-seasoned so you don’t have to go through all the hard work involved.
In today’s bacteria fearing community with everyone using disinfectants to clean countertops, hand sanitizers, and bleaching everything that stands still my mother’s cleaning method with only hot water would send paroxysms of terror coursing through the neighborhood. Anyone invited to dinner would immediately decline the invitation for fear of getting food poisoning.
The truth of the matter is that cast iron heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit before adding foods kills all bacteria. Heating the skillet before adding cooking oil and foods is what you do. Leaving a cast iron skillet on medium heat for four minutes has a temperature of 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Less than 4 minutes, but more than one, is the optimum heat to sanitize your cast iron. Here is a video showing how to clean a cast iron skillet.
I clean my cast iron as my mother did. Hot water, scrub to get off food particles, wipe with paper towels, then set on a heated burner to fully dry the pan of all moisture, and lastly turn off the heat and allow the pan to cool. I only use soap when I have a particularly fatty roast that leaves a slick residue on the pan after cleaning.
THE ADVANTAGES of cooking with cast iron:
- Through the normal cooking process small amounts of iron get cooked in your food. The iron is a nutrient we all need for healthy living.
- Less heat is needed to cook your food. Other styles of cookware require more heat. Higher flames or higher electric heat burner things for prolonged cooking time to get the required results are necessary. With cast iron, once the cookware reaches optimum temperature (usually within 5 minutes) the heat can be reduced by half to maintain optimum cooking temperature.
- The cast iron retains the heat, which makes for even cooking of your foods.
- Properly seasoned cast iron cookware is non stick.
- No Teflon bits getting in your food.
- The bottoms of the cookware are flat making for even cooking all around the cooking surface. No hot spots from rounded bottom cookware.
- Cast iron doesn’t warp when the heat is too high.
THE DISADVANTAGES of cooking with cast iron:
- It is HEAVY!
- You need to use protective gear while stirring or handling the food being cooked. Pot holders, folded up cloth hand towels, silicone specialty devices made to fit the handles of the cookware.
- Cast iron rusts if not dried properly.
- Care of the cookware is a little more involved than just washing it and allowing it to dry in a dish rack or wiping it out and storing it in your cupboard.
- Transferring cooked food from cast iron cookware is a TWO HANDED job with no cool place to put your hands.
- Acidic foods, tomato sauces, are not recommended for cast iron. The acids will cause the cookware to rust and it will remove the seasoning.
The biggest thing I’ve found since cooking with cast iron is the food has more flavor. I have a large Calphalon skillet that I absolutely love to cook with. My main complaint is the cooking area has variant heat temperatures. Hot in the center but much cooler on the outer edges that are further from the heat source. When cooking pork chops in the Calphalon I have to tend to them more. Moving them away from the center hot spot to keep the meat from burning in one area while the outer surface of the meats don’t get the charring I like. I have to arrange the meats in the pan to get an even char before being able to turn them over and continue the cooking process.
My kitchen collection of skillets run the entire gamut of cookware. I have Teflon coated steel, anodized steel Calphalon, enamel and Teflon coated cookware, and a small (but growing) collection of cast iron.
Adding to my cast iron collection I now have an enamel coated dutch oven that I used last night to make spaghetti sauce. It was truly fantastic. I’ll share that tomorrow.
So in short. Cleaning cast iron is nothing to fear. Soap or no soap, which ever you can live with. After cleaning and fully drying cast iron give it a quick swipe with vegetable oil and you are done.
If you have found a badly rusted piece of cast iron cookware at a yard sale or thrift store you can restore it and make it part of your cooking arsenal. Here is a video showing what to do with badly rusted cast iron cookware. This video is informative, however the family’s dogs are quite distracting.
Hope this helps to answer any questions you may have about using cast iron in your cooking.