cast iron

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If you're a cast iron owner, you likely understand that it's arguably the most valuable piece you can possibly have in your kitchen. Durability. Even heating. Life-long commitment. There is a current trend of nostalgic pull towards classic American goods that are durable and well-made —and you don't get more old-school than a cast-iron skillet.

Let’s first establish why cast iron reigns supreme amongst it’s cookware alternatives. Aluminum pans are considered unsafe on account of the metal absorption into your food. The presence of aluminum deposits in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients would make anyone weary. Non-stick pans coated in Teflon are a big no. Stainless steel are not ideal for even heating. Copper base on stainless steel helps spread the heat evenly - but they’re not suitable for high heat cooking such as searing steaks. Ceramic coated is dangerous since it leaches lead into food. Lead is toxic.

But we rebuke fear ‘round these parts.

… and we’re privy to ideal alternatives. Enter, the cast iron.

The benefits?

They’re essentially indestructible. Even if seemingly beyond hope. Despite their tendency to rust if not properly loved, they’re the true picture of a redemption story. Despite closing their doors in the 1950’s, many of the old Griswold and Wagner pans are still in use 2-3 generations later. If you come across a visibly dismal pan, don’t hesitate to pick it up. The how-to tools to bring a Lazarus pan from the dead will follow.

Unlike any other cookware, they get better with age. The non-stick property of a cast iron pan improves with age and frequent use. An untreated cast iron is porous but when heated with oil, molecules go through a process called polymerization which transforms them into a resilient, quick release coating. With each use, the cooking surface becomes more smooth and continually improve the seasoning, making it naturally non-stick.

You can cook on high heat and food cooks evenly. Their noticeably hefty weight is part of their magic, allowing them to hold heat longer than most other pans.

Cast iron actually fortifies your food with iron. Research has shown that cast iron use does indeed impact the iron level in food.

Lastly, they’re adaptable. Roast ‘em. Sauté ‘em. Grill ‘em. Broil ‘em. Fry ‘em. Poach ‘em.

SEASONING + CLEANING

I was given a cast iron out of college, and was super intimidated (without knowing any better I thought I’d ruined it, and threw it away). Unaware of the proper (and relatively easy) care, I assumed I was inept. There’s a lot of contradictory advice out there about how to properly care for your new best friend. Here’s what I’ve learned.

The goal of washing a cast iron skillet isn’t just to get it clean. It’s to keep it in shape by priming it for further seasoning.

Start with the gentlest, least-invasive methods. Wipe out grease with a clean paper towel. If you can scrape out any stuck on foods with a spatula and it’s other-wise mess free, stop! Use water to dissolve residue (and a drop of soap if you have to). The less you interfere with the pan, the better. A dry pan is an unhappy pan, and surface oils aren’t necessarily a bad thing!

Leaving a pan with water overnight is a recipe for rust - but a brief rinse or soak with warm water is fine. Use a non-scratch scouring pad (I swear by these for all kitchen scrubbing adventures).

Dry your skillet thoroughly afterwards. Once dry, moisturize the surface with cooking oil or saturated fat. The oil will provide a protective coating to nourish the layers of natural seasoning you’ve built up by cooking with the pan. If you cook with your pan almost every day you can use olive oil, but it’s not ideal for long term storage since it goes rancid in the presence of oxygen. If you’re storing a pan for a week or more, coconut oil, lard, or butter is best.

No matter which fat you use, a thin layer is all you need.

How clean is clean?

The truth is, it’s better your pan be too oil than not oiled enough. From a food safety standpoint, the surface of a cast iron pan during cooking easily reaches upwards of 300 degrees, which will kill any bacteria that didn’t get washed away. Those coats of oil are crucial for preventing rust, and act as a barrier to keep water or anything else from the surface of your pan.

RUST

Even a well-seasoned cast iron pan will rust if it’s exposed to prolonged moisture and air. The process is simple chemistry; in the presence of moisture, iron molecules react with oxygen molecules on a chemical level to form iron oxide, aka rust. It’d take decades for a hunk of metal the size of a cast iron pan to decompose, but iron oxide does weaken the atomic bonds in cast iron, and can eventually cause pitting that damages seasoning.

REDEMPTION

Signs of rust? Don’t panic. The method of cleaning cast iron is something of tradition passed down to generations along with the cookware itself. If your pan has developed rusty patches that don’t wipe away with a lightly oiled paper towel, gently scrub the affected area with a tablespoon of kosher salt as an abrasive. Corroded cast iron can be soaked in equal parts vinegar and water to avoid heavy scrubbing. Ease your way into more abrasive sponges, then Barkeepers Friend, with #00 steel wool as a last resort. Your goal is use the gentlest tools possible so you don’t damage layers of well-earned seasoning.

Once you’ve cleared the patch of rust away, dry the pan with a kitchen towel, then place it on a stove on low heat for 10 minutes to completely dry the surface. Some of the rust may re-appear at this stage; which is totally normal. Pour ¼ teaspoon of coconut oil onto the affected area and use a clean paper towel to wipe it into the metal. Wipe away all excess fat—you shouldn’t see any oil sheen—and return the pan to low heat for 10 minutes to bake the fat in.

MYTH BUSTERS

“Don’t cook tomatoes or other acidic food in cast iron because they’ll taste metallic and ruin the seasoning on the pan.”

Kind of. If you're planning on simmering something for hours, that's when a different vessel, say, enameled cast iron, will serve you better.

“Soap is the enemy.”

When soap was made with harsh chemicals like lye and vinegar, this was true. But most modern soaps, especially eco-friendly varieties are perfectly safe. That being said, soap is by nature a de-greaser, and while it won’t strip away seasoning, it will dry out the surface of your pan by eliminating the oil on your cooking surface. In short, only use it if you have to. And if you do, be sure to oil the pan afterwards.

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You're going to have your cast-iron forever, so you need to choose the right model. And Crane is it. Seattle's Stock and Pantry carries the most beautiful line of black enamel pieces cast in France from Crane. The sleek design captured my heart, and has made it’s way onto my all time kitchen favorites list.

Crane is a British design company specializing in professional cookware. I just about melted into a puddle when I opened the packaging. Crane pots and pans have a high performance, naturally healthy cooking surface, free from Cadmium, Lead, PFOAs & PTFEs making it an environmentally responsible material that, with proper care, will last a lifetime.

The line carries multiple sizes - a casserole, saute pan, frying pan.

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black on black images by Carina Skrobecki