The benefits of cast iron pans
â€¨The original multitasker, a deep cast iron skillet with a lid can be everything from a frying pan to a cake pan to the oven a pie is baked in. Other metals may be lighter or cheaper, even prettier, but for cooking, longevity and overall value, nothing beats good old cast iron. And unlike nonstick pans, whose use has been shown to kill pet birds, cast iron is nontoxic.
Dawn Woodward, founder of Evelyn's Crackers in Toronto, calls cast iron “the little black dress of cookware.” The artisanal baker and businesswoman is clearly a serious fan. “Everything looks good in it going from stove to table," she says. "I use it in the oven, on the stove and on the barbecue. It has replaced all my copper cookware and is a great pinch hitter for when the wok is being used for something else.”
A perfect sear every time
Nothing beats cast iron for a perfect fried egg or seared steak. Once the pan has been seasoned and is well maintained, meats will emerge crisp and browned to perfection. Cast iron is right up there with copper for heat conductivity, distribution and retention. They’re perfect for frittatas or a cowboy-style skillet upside-down cake and the pan looks lovely on the table.
How to find the best cast iron frying pan
Like a perfectly lived-in pair of jeans, nothing beats well used for cast iron pans. Brand new, they can be grey as opposed to the lovely black they will become with use and time. And while modern cast iron may have dubious origins and require research to determine the mix of metals used in its production, with a nice old pan you can be fairly confident that it’s contaminant-free and most likely made in North America or England. The older the better, really.
New cast iron isn’t cheap. But beautiful used pieces often end up in thrift and secondhand shops and can be a real steal. A new large skillet will most likely run you about $60 to $100; more if it's one of the pretty-coloured enamelled ones. Luckily, that same pan secondhand will most likely be in the neighbourhood of $15.
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How to season a cast iron frying pan
A well-seasoned cast iron frying pan is as nonstick as any of the modern coatings currently on the market. But it does require some care. Before you cook with your new cast iron pan it must undergo a process called seasoning. Here’s how to do it.
1. Preheat the oven to 300F.
2. Wash the pan with dish soap and hot water. If you picked up a secondhand find, you may need to scrub hard to remove baked-on gunk and rust. A tough scouring pad will do. Rinse super well. Iron is porous, so the flavour of the soap can get into the pan. Rinse and give it the smell test.
3. Pop it in the oven upside down to dry the pan completely.
4. Once dry, give it a wipe with a dry tea towel to be sure. Then, using a non-lint cloth or paper towel, apply a good coating of cooking oil or fat (bacon fat, corn oil, lard or shortening) all over, from handle to bottom and all around the inside.
5. Pop it back into the oven upside down, and bake for about an hour.
6. Take the pan out, give it a second coating of oil or fat and bake for another hour.
7. After the hour is up, turn the oven off and let the pan cool.
Maintaining the seasoning on cast iron pans
A well-seasoned, well-maintained cast iron pan will live forever. It moves with exceptional ease from stovetop to oven and there are no riveted or bolted-on parts to get loose or come off. It’s all one piece.
It’s a great idea to repeat the oiling on the inside of the pan after every washing by wiping out the inside with a drop of oil on a rag or paper towel, and make sure to dry well, preferably over a stove element or in the oven, to prevent rust. In fact, some cooks never wash their pans -- they insist on just oiling them. We don’t recommend that, since you’re most likely going to be cooking meats and everything else in them. And because cast iron is porous, it will pick up stronger aromas, so a good scrub in soapy water is essential for not transferring flavours.
Whether you’re just striking out on your own as a cook or a seasoned gourmet, every kitchen needs at least one cast iron piece. It’s essential, healthy, cost-effective, durable, versatile and rustically elegant.
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