Cast iron skillet we found buried on our property. This is after being seasoned with flaxseed oil. Surface underneath seasoning is not entirely smooth since we did not use an electrolysis bath, but it is as nonstick as our new, flat surfaced skillets.
Cast iron. Those words often evoke an image of a woman in a long dress and apron, standing over a wood burning stove. Or of someone being hit over the head with an iron skillet in a slapstick comedy routine. No matter which image comes to mind, they both demonstrate the versatility and durability of cast iron. Cast iron has been around for literally ages, and when taken care of, can have a long, productive life.
A couple of years ago I decided to get serious about getting rid of our non-stick skillets due to the dangers from the fumes given off by the pans. Although I have some nice stainless steel skillets, they are a pain to clean sometimes when things stick to them. While the idea of the mostly non-stick surface of cast iron was appealing, I wasn’t completely sold on the thought of going to cast iron because of prior experiences with it. We had packed away our few pieces of cast iron years ago, because we never could get a seasoning on it that we liked. The skillet always had a bit of stickiness to the touch, and it attracted every piece of dog and cat hair in the house. Cooking with a furry skillet – yuck. So many people have extolled the virtues of cast iron that I decided to try it again. But there was a difference this time around. This time the internet existed and I could get online to do a bit of research. Turns out that there is a much better way to get that nonstick feel to your cast iron without the stickiness that we had encountered when seasoning with vegetable shortening and vegetable oil.
Enter flaxseed oil. I found a website explaining about the properties of flaxseed oil and the science behind seasoning cast iron. After doing my own research on the properties of flaxseed oil, I discovered that linseed oil is the non-edible version of flaxseed oil and that it is a drying oil. Our ancestors used linseed oil to make waterproof coatings on cloth (think oil cloth and the canvas of a prairie schooner wagon). If our ancestors knew that they could make a waterproof coating on fabric hundreds of years ago using linseed oil, then this idea of using edible flaxseed oil to season cast iron sounded plausible. So I tried it. And it worked! Not only did it work, but my pan wasn’t sticky to the touch. No more need to shave my cast iron skillet before I used it, since it was no longer attracting all the floating animal hair in the house.
Seasoning Cast Iron
The seasoning process is a bit long, but it is well worth it. If you live where it is hot in summer like we do, it’s better to season cast iron in winter to avoid heating up the house so much. Here’s what it takes:
1. Heat your cast iron over a burner to get it warm so that the pores of the iron open up
20-year-old cast iron pans with surface rust, before seasoning.
and any moisture on the iron dries.
2. Wipe a thin coating of flaxseed oil onto the entire surface of the cast iron, inside and out, including the handle.
3. Wipe OFF the flaxseed oil. Even though you think the oil is not there, it is. You want very thin layers to build up, so it will look dry, not greasy, every time you wipe off the oil.
4. Put your cast iron in the oven and turn it on to bake at 500 degrees (or as high as it will go).
5. Bake for an hour.
6. Turn off the oven. Do not open the oven door. Leave the cast iron to cool inside the
Cast iron cactus pan after flaxseed seasoning. Surface is dark black, shiny, and smooth.
oven for at LEAST 2 hours.
7. Repeat this process at least 6 times. More times doesn’t hurt.
To get more information on this process, check out the site that gives more detail – the Chemistry of Cast Iron Seasoning
Taking Care of Cast Iron
There’s a lot of websites out there that can give you different ways of taking care of cast iron. The one thing that is very important is
Grill side of reversible grill/griddle pan after seasoning.
not to shock your cast iron – like taking it from the stove and sticking it under a faucet running cold water. The temperature shock can crack it like glass. But otherwise, most ways to care for cast iron are a matter of preference.
To avoid the temperature shock of pouring cold milk or water into a hot skillet when making gravy, I pour the liquid slowly onto a lump of the flour and fat mixture instead of onto the skillet surface itself. Otherwise I try to warm the liquid up a little first at least to room temperature.
As for cleaning cast iron, I don’t use soap. Soap is a degreaser. And even though the right process of adhering the oil to the cast iron should prevent the soap from removing the seasoning, I avoid washing cast iron with soap just in case.
Before you get grossed out by the thought of not using soap – remember soap does not kill germs. Soap is a merely an aid that helps get between water and the food particles to get the food off the pan easier. The heat of cooking helps kills any germs on the pan, so soap is not a necessity. And when the seasoning is done properly, the chances of needing the help of soap to get the food off the pan is greatly decreased.
Some people say to never use any metal utensils or metal scrubbers on cast iron. Others say it makes it better to use metal on the iron. Personally, I use some metal utensils with my cast iron and I also use a non-soapy stainless steel scrubbing pad. So far, it’s worked just fine for me.
It is much easier to clean any pan if you clean it soon after you use it. But even when I do let something sit and dry onto the surface of my cast iron, it isn’t that difficult to get off. If it seems like it’s going to take a little bit of extra scrubbing to clean dried-on food, put some water in the pan, heat it up to boiling on the stove for a few minutes and then scrub. Depending on what you cooked in your pain, sometimes all you have to do is wipe out the pan with a towel. And just to make sure for any cast iron newbies – DO NOT put cast iron in the dishwasher.
After you wash your pan, throw it back on a burner to get it completely dried off. Then wipe it with a little bit of flaxseed oil and heat for a few minutes longer. This will help keep off rust and maintain that smooth coating of seasoning you put on it.
Cast Iron Cooking
A great thing about cast iron is that it can be used on the stove top, in the oven, and even over an open fire. It takes a bit to get accustomed to how the iron heats and holds the heat, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a breeze to use.
Until you get the hang of using cast iron, if you’re going to use it on the stove top, set your heat on low to avoid burning things. Once you get accustomed to how the iron pots and pans cook, you can turn up the heat right off the bat.
Heating up the pan a little before you put food in it will help it have a better nonstick/low stick surface.
Sometimes you still have to add in a little fat to cook with, just like with a steel or aluminum pan, depending on what you’re cooking. You can use your no-stick-spray, oil, butter, shortening, or animal fat just like you do in any other type of pan.
You can use water and other liquids in your pans when cooking. Some people recommend avoiding putting tomato/acidic foods in the pans to avoid the acid eating away at the seasoning, but I haven’t found this to be a problem for me when making soups, stews, and sauces that have tomatoes or lemon juice in it. But I wouldn’t leave acidic foods in cast iron for storing leftovers.
Things you can cook in cast iron – pretty much anything. You don’t need a special cast iron recipe book. There are some cast iron cookbooks out there and they are great – especially the ones that give instructions on how to cook over an open fire or using coals. But you can use your cast iron just like you use your stainless steel or aluminum pots and pans.
In my very large, and heavy, skillet, I can fry things or use it as a pizza pan. It works great to make pan-style pizza and goes right into the oven no problem. You can buy the nifty cornbread pans that come in triangle shapes or corn or cactus shapes, but you can also pour cornbread batter right into a skillet or dutch oven. A dutch oven can be used to make soups and stews or even bake bread. I use my dutch oven to render beef tallow. Cast iron is so versatile that you can do just about any type of cooking or baking in it.
Buying Cast Iron
Cast iron is actually something that some people collect. Some of the oldest and well-known makers of cast iron from the 19th century were Griswold and Wagner. There are also a lot of other cast iron makers from those days whose cast iron implements are still in use. You can find antique cast iron implements in antique stores, flea markets, and estate sales, as well as online. Prices for some pieces are a bit on the outrageous side, but for serious collectors, paying out the nose for certain items is worth it. Another great thing about cast iron is that not only is it fun to collect, but you can still use it. So it isn’t just another collection that gathers dust.
There are cast iron griddles and grills. There are pots of varying sizes. There are waffle irons, cake pans, biscuit pans and loaf pans. With just a few acquisitions of a large skillet, a smaller skillet, and a dutch oven, you can cook pretty much anything. Or you can spend the money and get all kinds of cast iron implements that are both neat looking and functional.
Until recently, as far as I knew, Lodge was the only American company still making cast iron pots and pans today. They have been in business since the end of the 19th century. There is a lot of cast iron being made in China. I would beware of this stuff. I have a small Chinese made cast iron skillet that came in one of those holiday gift packages, but the quality of it does not compare to my Lodge cast iron.
I’ve found a new company making cast iron called the American Skillet Company, here in the US. They are a niche company making cast iron pans in the shape of the different states. I don’t have personal knowledge of the quality, but if I were in the market for some novelty shaped skillets, I would be willing to try them for the mere fact that they are made in the USA.
Restoring Cast Iron
There are a number of ways to restore cast iron depending on how much rust and/or crud is on your cast iron piece and how much elbow grease you want to use.
Vinegar is a low-tox way to get rust off but it can sometimes take more elbow grease depending on the level of rust. Some people use oven cleaner spray, lye, products sold to remove rust, and even electrolysis baths. Sometimes it takes a wire brush to scrub the rust off. There are a lot of choices that you will fit to whatever level of rust you have on your cast iron piece and what works for you. But don’t discount a piece of cast iron just because it looks gross. Ugly, bumpy, rusty cast iron can often be fully restored and used – like the skillet pictured above that was buried for an unknown length of time.
The Joy of Cast Iron
I just cannot say enough about how great cast iron is to have. The larger pieces can be a bit heavy. Sometimes I have to use two hands to carry large pieces like my giant skillet or pick them up and have someone else scrape all the food out of the pans. But it’s worth it. It isn’t cheap to buy,like an aluminum pan from the local mass-merchandise store, but if you take care of your cast iron, you can use 150 year old cast iron and still have it passed down to your descendants 150 years in the future. You’re not going to find that kind of durability with an aluminum pot or pan. You also can’t throw your aluminum pots into the oven, so you have to have stovetop pots and pans as well as oven safe cookware in your kitchen. And if you have a storm that knocks out your electricity…you can build a campfire in your back yard or fireplace to cook, bake, and heat water for washing and laundry in your cast iron pots. It is darn near impossible to do that with an aluminum pot. And with cast iron, you won’t be killing any pet birds or small pets with toxic fumes like certain modern-day non-stick pans can give off.