Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How To Season Cast Iron

All of my relatives had at least one cast iron skillet. The skillet was the color of unlit charcoal, with a slick, hard finish. It was either left on top of the stove or stored in the oven.

I never questioned my relatives about their cookware. I knew that the pans, like our food and our men, were "well seasoned"; as for the patina that Mama treasured so much I assumed the pans had been bought that way.

There are many ways to season cast iron, but the main formula seems to be vegetable oil plus heat plus time equals patina. It's basic kitchen chemistry. The multiple oilings, when combined with heat, fill in the microscopic "pits" in the cast iron. Over time, these pits harden, producing a smooth, black surface.

The oil creates a barrier, preventing oxygen from reaching the iron and causing rust. It also forms a virtually non stick surface. The more you use your pan, the more it will blacken. And cooking in cast iron is healthy--it's a sneaky source of dietary iron.

Cast iron has man virtues, but seasoning isn't one of them. It requires time, oil, and a hot oven. Store-bought pans come with instructions, but they skip over the important parts, like, it's not going to happen in a day. Be prepared to spend time with your new pan.

The seasoning is acquired slowly. You will have to "oil and bake" for many hours, when your time and schedule allow you to cook an empty pan. :-) You are serving up nothing; not only that, you will wonder how many centuries it will take before your pan acquires a rich, black patina.

How To Season A Cast-Iron Pan

Step 1: wash the pan in soapy water.
Be sure to use a scouring pad. This will remove the protective coating that inhibits rust. The is the one and ONLY time your skillet will touch soap.

Step 2: dry the pan. (I love easy steps.)

Step 3. Grease your pan.

This is not the time to be sloppy or fainthearted. Finicky souls use a pastry brush; earthy people prefer to grease with their fingers. Me, I use a scrunched up paper towel that's been doused in oil. I have also just poured oil directly into the pan, about 2 teaspoons, then swished it around with a paper napkin.

I take the paper towel and rub it all around the inside of the skillet. Cast iron is somewhat porous, and it will absorb the oil. Get into every crevice. The motto of seasoning cast iron is less is more--thin coats are best.

I don't oil the outside of the pan, but some people do.

Now is a good time to discuss oil. The type is debatable--some cooks use safflower, others prefer Crisco, or even lard. I have talked to people who won't use oil, claiming it leaves a residue. My mother has used olive oil. I've had the best results with peanut oil (it has no flavor and it's stable at high temperatures).

Don't use butter.

Remember to use small amounts or your skillet might develop sticky splotches. Some cooks believe that this gummy stage is the beginning of the curing process, but there's a difference in coats. A slightly tacky, amber sheen means you're making progress, but a sticky sediment means that you've used too much oil.

Step 4: Bake
Put the pan in a 275-degree oven for about five hours, periodically checking to see if you need another coat of oil. Think of it as a slow layering, the way an artist layers colors on a canvas.

Cooks also disagree about temperatures and baking times. I have tried everything. A small amount of smoking occurred at temperatures over 400 degrees however, in about three hours my pans were noticeably darker. Paul Prudhomme cures his new pans with low heat, about 225 degrees, leaving them to bake for hours.

The best pans, of course, come from relatives or garage sales, although you can still find them in antique malls.

After a couple of five-hour sessions, you'll begin to notice a metamorphosis. You'll know when you are making progress: Your pan will acquire a thin hard layer; it resembles shellac--shiny and transparent, the color of caramel flavoring, and faintly tacky.

I hate to tell you, but one or two hours of "curing" won't create a black, non-stick pan. Six hours won't do it, either. It takes about 10 sessions.

During the curing process, the oil hardens to a varnish-like finish. The pan loses its steel-gray color and turns progressively browner until it finally attains the famous black "crust."

I like the way an empty, slow-cooking pan smells--old fashioned and metallic,, the way water smells when it trickles from an iron pump. The aroma reminds me of meals past and present, a whole heritage of women who conjure food for their loved ones. If you don't like the aroma of baked iron, you can close off your kitchen, open a window, or burn a vanilla-bean candle.

Achieving patina takes the patience of a saint and the finesse of a landscape painter. Try to think of it as an adventure.
Step 5:
After the pan cools, wipe it down with the barest coat of oil. Do this every time you use the pan for the first year. A paper towel patted down over the skillet seems to inhibit rust in humid areas.
Of course, you can cheat and buy a new fangled cast iron pan--and you can buy them in adorable shapes

and in designer colors--plus, they don't require seasoning.


This is what happens to a pan after washing it in soapy water.

** Never soak, never scour! A full sink of soapy water will undo years of care.

** Never wash in the dishwasher--it will rust the pan and remove the seasoning.

** Until your pan is well seasoned try not to cook sticky things--sometimes this causes setbacks.

**the acidity in tomatoes can have ghastly consequences in cast iron, unless you are using other ingredients, like in a stew or spaghetti sauce.


Large, coarse salt acts as a gentle abrasive, and helps keep your cast iron "bump" free.

**Clean with a little hot water and a nylon pad, sanding the surface gently.

**After cleaning, dry the pan thoroughly. For the first year, keep it lightly oiled. Store in a dry place. (I keep mine in the oven.) It will tend to collect dust and cat hairs.

**If scrubbing is needed, sprinkle sea or kosher salt into the skillet. Use a Tuffy pad to gently scour.

**For heinous messes, heat the pan, adding a bit of water. Use a Tuffy scrubber, and salt, if necessary. Dry, then set in a warm oven.

Remember that cast-iron cookery is part art, part science, but mostly it is an ancient culinary tool. Pat yourself on the back because you've been patient; you've fretted and coddled and oiled and baked. Remember that you aren't just cooking supper in your cast iron--you are continuing to season it. You are also creating an heirloom, a piece of culinary history to pass down through the generations.

Monday, August 18, 2008

When Dogs Decorate

I've collected ironstone for years, and I'm always reshuffling it.

The clinking attracts a four-legged designer--he runs over to investigate. "What's this?" he says. "She's moving the dishes again--ooh, I don't like it."

"Less is more," he says and knocks down one of the apples.

"Oops, it fell."

And it rolls!

"I"ll take my payment in Milk Bones," says Mister.

Mister trots off to chase a fly, and the human immediately replaces the apple.

By the time Mister returns, he's stunned. She's removed all of the edibles," says Mister. "And added orange flowers. I'm not sure I like this!"

"No, wait, I smell something rottingly divine."

How to tell my mistress that the pottery, not to mention the orange flowers, look wrong, wrong, wrong? How to gently encourage her to group them? Maybe if I run to the bedroom, she'll follow.

One bark means No, don't put it there, and two barks mean, yes, try it there. Three means, Stop! You've gone too far! Four, your scale is off. Five, count your accessories--3s, 5, 7s, 9s. Six, it's time for a break.

It worked! She's catching on.

"If I DO say so myself, it looks much better. Everyone should have a decorating dog."

"Now that I straightened HER out, now it's time to nap.Unless someone wants to hire me, that is."