Anthony Valterra

The Care and Feeding of Your Skillet

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Note: This is part two in a three-part series devoted to cast iron skillets. Part one is here.

By Anthony Valterra

Generally, there are a few rules for cast iron skillet care and a few myths that can be dispelled. First of all, there is cleaning the pan. A well-seasoned pan, that is being used properly, should not be difficult to clean up. Hot water and a metal spatula are usually all you need. If you are cooking something that has a lot of sugar or starch (say potatoes), then you may need to break out the non-soap steel wool. But once again, you won't be "scrubbing;" you will be scraping gently. Soap is usually considered a bit of a no-no, and we don't use it. But everyone I've read says a small amount is 'no big deal.' If you are going to use soap, as I said in my previous skillet post, I would recommend something with few chemicals and/or perfumes. If you want an alternative to soap, you can try salt and a bit of oil. 

Once clean, depending on whether you want to save paper or save energy, you can go one of two directions. If you want to conserve energy, you can wipe the pan dry with a paper towel or a clean cloth. If you want to conserve paper, you can dry the pan by shaking off as much water as you can and then setting it on the stove on low heat to evaporate the remaining water. If the pan only requires some hot water to get clean, there is often a good amount of oil remaining from the cooking. If so, just wipe that into the pan, and once the pan is dry, put it away. If it took more scraping, or if you used soap or the pan looks or feels dry, then just rub a bit of oil onto the surface before you put it away.

Pans store best hung. As always, the reason is purely practical. The worst thing you can do to a skillet is to let it sit with water on it. Unless you are extremely careful, it is very easy to have a wet pan sitting on top of another pan. But not everyone has the ability to set up a pan-hanging rack like this one.

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This image courtesy Pixabay. All others by Anthony Valterra.

We are still working out how and where we would put something like that in the kitchen. So, for now, we are stacking our pans and being careful about drying them. This is what we have. At least they are not resting on each other. 

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Moisture really is the enemy of iron pans, so there are a few things you should avoid doing. Baking in a pan is one common way of using them. If you are making pan pizza or lasagna, then you could use the pan to bake the dish. But what you don't want to do is store the food in the pan. It may be tempting to just put the leftover pizza (leftover? How big is your pan?) into the refrigerator, still in the pan, but don't do that. The food has moisture in it, and it is sitting on the pan. As an example: here is a lovely shepherd's pie baked in a pan (no blackbirds, I swear). We had plenty of leftovers, but they were taken out of the pan and stored in another container.

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Along the same lines, a common solution for cleaning pans is to let them soak in hot water to loosen food. I would not do this longer than the length of a meal. So, if you finish cooking and before you sit down, you put hot water in your pan, and then after the meal is done you clean the pan, you are probably fine (I have certainly done this). But don't give in to temptation and leave it overnight.

Proper care of your pans will ensure that you need to re-read the first entry in this series of posts less often. But just in case, seasoning your pan can be found here. Next up, we will look at the right ways to use this well-seasoned, well-cared-for pan.

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The Skill That Goes Into a Skillet

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By Anthony Valterra

Right now, it is trendy to reach back for older technologies. There are, likely, a number of reasons for this. First, nostalgia is ever-present in our culture. When I was a young chap in the early 1980s, the decades of the 1950s and 60s were all the rage. We watched "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley." My junior high even referred to our dances as "sock hops." Secondly, I believe there is a growing dis-ease within our society over the constant updates on technology. I am sure that I am not the only one who has vented out loud over some new improved version of an app, program, or website that is less functional, convenient, and/or easy to use. People are beginning to wonder, "Is there really that much value in the latest gadget?" Maybe some of that old technology is perfectly fine, does the job at least as well (if not better), and doesn't try to steal your private information in the bargain.

Cooking is one of the subject areas where some people are embracing older technology. I now grind my own coffee beans. And I use a hand grinder. It takes almost exactly as long as it takes for my water to boil to grind beans for my French press, I use no electricity, and my grind is exactly the way I want it. I think my coffee is now better than what I get at my local coffee shop. I also use cast iron skillets. And that is the subject of today's blog post.

I am aware that there are new technologies emerging in the realm of non-stick pans. I've heard that these new "blue diamond" pans are supposed to be toxin-free, non-stick, and virtually indestructible. I've also heard that they chip and/or scratch easily, and lose their non-stick surface quickly. Well let me introduce you to my little friend, "the cast iron skillet." The cast iron skillet is, truly, nearly indestructible. It used to be common for skillets to be passed down from generation to generation. They can lose their non-stick surface, but re-seasoning them is easy to do. I suppose, if you really tried hard, you could scratch one, but not with any kitchen utensil I know about. So, why have we switched to these new tech pans?

Well, cast iron does require a bit of thought and effort. But in return, you get a device that will not wear out and will not add toxins to your food or your home. In order to use cast irons, there are a few things you need to do:

  1. You need to season your pan (which I will cover).
  2. You need to learn how to care for your pan (covered in an upcoming post).
  3. You need to learn how to cook with your pan (covered in an upcoming post).

Seasoning Your Pan

Seasoning a pan is not difficult, but it will take some time. I would set aside an afternoon. You can get plenty of other things done at the same time, but you will want to be around to monitor the process. 

How do you know if your pan needs seasoning? The simple answer is that it looks dirty. If you are using your pan correctly (which will be covered in an upcoming post) and food is consistently sticking to your pan, or if it will not wash up easily after use, then it probably needs seasoning. If you can see rust, or discoloring, or the surface is uneven, you probably need to season. Rust is the enemy. You really want to get that off. If it does not scrape or wash off, here is an odd trick that really works; cut a potato in half, sprinkle the rust with baking soda and use the cut potato to rub the rust off. 

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A dirty skillet that needs re-seasoned.

But if you have no experience with a cast iron skillet, you may not know what to look for. So, this is what a well-seasoned cast iron skillet looks like. The surface of the pan should look like a black mirror. It will not be reflective enough for you to actually see yourself in it, but it does reflect light. The surface will be smooth and even. When you wipe it with a paper towel, the paper towel should show little or no residue.

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A well-seasoned pan

Step 1: Wash the pan

One thing seasoning does is use a lot of heat to clean your pan, but let's do our best to give the process a head start. You can start by using a metal spatula and water, as hot as you can take it, to melt and scrape any food or rust off of your pan. If you have food or gunk that is really baked on, put a bit of water in the pan and simmer it for about a minute to loosen it up. To get the pan really clean, I recommend steel wool without any soap embedded in it (like SOS pads have). You don't have to be religious about not using soap on your pan, especially if you are about to season it. But those steel wool pads are handy to have around after your seasoning, so why not buy a box? And if you are going to use soap, I recommend avoiding soaps with perfumes or chemicals.

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Plain steel wool - no soap

Once the pan is clean, heat up your oven to around 375 degrees. Make sure the pan is bone dry. You can even heat it up on the stove, on a low temperature, to make sure you drive off all the moisture. Using a paper towel, wipe the surface of the pan with oil. If you have done a good job cleaning it, the paper towel should come off clean. If it is not perfect, like I said, the process will clean it. Put your pan into the oven face down and let it bake for an hour. After an hour, turn off the oven and let it cool down naturally. Remove it from the oven (carefully - it might still be hot) and wipe it with oil again. Is the paper towel coming off showing nothing but the oil (no black gunk)? Congratulations, you're done! If it is still blackened by wiping the surface of the pan with oil, clean it, and bake it again. Repeat this process until the pan wipes without leaving residue.

I hear some of you remarking, "You say 'oil,' but you don't say what kind." That is a tricky subject and one that people feel pretty strongly about. Here are some guidelines. Any oil (except olive oil) that is liquid at room temperature is in danger of adding PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) to your diet. Some people think PUFAs are liquid death; others think that in a proper ratio with saturated fats they are fine. Traditionally, skillets were seasoned with lard, tallow or other animal fats. These work well, but if you are not using your skillet regularly (multiple times a week), they can go rancid. Some oils add flavor to the pan, which can transfer to your food (avocado, sesame, coconut, flax). Some people dislike that, and some people are looking for that. Finally, some people need their pan not to smoke at a very high temperature. They are planning to use their pan to do things like sear steaks before cooking them. In that case they need to use oils with very high smoking points (avocado, safflower, refined olive oil). If you've been following this blog you know that we render our own fat, so it will be no surprise that we use tallow. We cook with our skillet almost every day, so there is no real concern with the fat going rancid.

Can you mess up the process? You bet. I managed to make cardinal error number one seasoning the pan for this post. I did not make sure the pan was bone dry before wiping it down with oil and putting it in the oven. When you do that the oil clumps up, and your pan looks like it is wearing a camouflage pattern.

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Terrific - I messed it up

The fix is elbow grease. I got to spend a whole lot of time with steel wool in my hand and hot water. I even used salt instead of soap. It took a good 20 minutes of work, but in the end I got the pan seasoned correctly.

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A well-seasoned pan

Seasoning a skillet is one of those processes that anyone can do without understanding what is going on. It's like getting water scale out of the bottom of a teapot. You can know that an acid will likely break up that alkali residue, or you can do what your grandma did and pour some vinegar into the teapot and let it sit before cleaning it. But for those who are curious, here is the layman's science behind seasoning. The iron in the skillet is porous, and the high heat opens those pores wide enough to let the fat seep into the pan. This forms a layer that both protects the metal and creates a non-stick cooking surface. Thus, the effects of flavored oils, high heat oils, and the risk of oils that can easily go rancid. The oil you use to season the pan is still there after the process, even after you wipe it away.

The nice thing about seasoning is that it is not like coating a pan with a non-stick teflon. That is something that can only be done once, and only done in a factory. Seasoning can be done, redone, and done by you in your own home.

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Chewing the Fat... About Fat

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Trigger warning: If you're a vegetarian, or the type of person who likes sausage but doesn’t want to see how it's made, you might want to skip this particular post. Today I'm handing the blog over to ol' dusty buns (AKA Anthony Valterra, the other half here at the Dragon Flower Farm). He's going to talk about how to render fat. 

Here's Anthony:

First of all, why render fat? Well, fat is a substance that the human body is accustomed to absorbing. In fact, if you take in too little fat, it can have numerous deleterious effects on your health. It can lower your hormonal levels, make your skin dry, encourage you to overeat, mess with your body's natural temperature regulator, and cause mental fatigue. Now, that does not mean you have to eat animal fat. But if you are a meat eater anyway, it is certainly one of the easiest ways to make sure you are getting enough fat in your diet.

Rendered fat is fat that has been heated so that it melts the fat and makes it easy to separate the usable liquid fat from the proteins and other “waste” materials (although those materials don’t need to go to waste–more on that later). If you are rendering pork, the rendered fat is called “lard,” and if you are rendering beef, the result is called “tallow.” The process is the same, but just for clarity’s sake, we are going to be talking about making tallow. 

Tallow makes a fantastic frying pan lubricant for cooking just about anything. It also is great for providing a bit of flavor and helping the cooking process in a slow cooker, or "Crock-Pot" (which is a brand name, and we actually use one of those). You can bake with the rendered fat, season your iron skillets with it, and even make candles. It is high in vitamins A, D, K, and E and can be stored in a cool, dry shelf (refrigeration is not necessary although in the summer months when every place in the house is hot, we will toss our tallow into the back of the fridge). 

The first thing you need is a large chunk of cow fat. We buy organic, grass-fed beef in 1/4-cow quantities from a local rancher. When we make that purchase, the rancher throws in the fat for free. But we go through the fat faster than we go through the beef, so we end up buying single bags of fat separately between beef orders.

Pictured below is the last one-fifth of a $28 purchase, the last round of rendering we did from this chunk of fat.

Fat

As you can see, the fat comes in a large mass. It can’t be rendered in this state as the liquid fat needs to be able to pass easily through the fiber and protein holding it together. In a perfect world, if I had a meat grinder, I'd first grind the fat and then render it. But I am still looking for a good cast iron hand-cranked grinder, so until then, I just dice the fat into small cubes.

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Our Crock-Pot holds five gallons, and I typically render about 3 or 4 cups of fat in a batch. I suppose you could render more, but the process of getting the fat out of the Crock-Pot is tricky enough with this amount. More would be a bit too much of a process for me.

Here is the Crock-Pot full and ready to go. I don’t put anything into the Crock-Pot with the fat. I’ve seen some sources that recommend a bit of water, but I have not found that to be necessary.

Crockfat

I start the Crock-Pot on high and set the timer for about two hours, but in reality, I check the pot about every 30 minutes and give the fat a quick stir with a silicone spoon that can handle high heat. This will be the first of a number of warnings that fat can get really hot and is very slippery! Those are two of its wonderful qualities. You can cook with very high heat with tallow or lard and it will smoke very little, and it creates a great non-stick surface. However, those qualities can make it exceptionally dangerous to work with. So be very careful that you have heat barriers and that you handle everything like you would a slick water eel.

Rendering

Once the fat has given up some of its liquid, and you can see it in the bottom of the Crock-Pot, you can turn the heat to low. Now you can check on it about every hour. You are waiting for it to separate into two distinct parts. First the clear liquid–that is the tallow; second, the brown, crinkly remains–that is what we are going to call “the crackling.” Once the crackling is uniformly shrunken and brown, you have probably pulled as much tallow out of it as you can. Turn off the Crock-Pot and unplug it. Now comes the tricky part.

Funnel

You’ll need a jar that you can seal, and I highly recommend a heat-safe funnel. To be very safe, I recommend that you put the jar with the funnel into the sink and have the Crock-Pot next to the edge of the sink. Everything is very hot and very slippery. The Crock-Pot, tallow, the crackling, and the jar itself will be hot and coated in fat. Using a heat-safe ladle, ladle the crackling out of the Crock-Pot and into a heat-safe container, leaving the liquid tallow behind. I use a second spoon to squeeze the crackling to get as much tallow out of the crackling as I can. 

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Once you have emptied as much of the crackling out of the slow cooker as you can safely manage, you can start ladling the remaining liquid into the jar. I can get the vast majority of crackling out of the Crock-Pot, so it is fairly easy for me to get just liquid into the jar with no tiny floater of crackling. But in the end, you will likely need to use a cheesecloth over the funnel so that you can get the last of the liquid separated and into the jar.

Cheesecloth

Be super careful. Have I mentioned how hot and slippery fat can get? If you knock over the jar, don’t try to grab it. Just let it be, and take the loss. No use getting burnt over spilt tallow. Don’t splash cold water on the jar–it will likely break from the temperature change. Carefully put the lid on the jar (not real tight as the fat is cooling and will cause a suction) and use oven mitts or other protection. Everything will be very slippery–the jars, the slow cooker, your utensils, the funnel, likely the counter that everything is sitting on. Be careful.

Once it cools, it looks like the tallow you can buy in jars at the store. Here's ours, in repurposed sauerkraut jars.

Done

This is what we got from about $6 worth of fat: one 25-ounce jar full and another half full. Call it 37 ounces. On the open market (or Amazon in this case), beef tallow for consumption goes for about 58 cents per ounce, so for $6, we made about $21.46 worth of tallow. Not bad. And what about those cracklings?

Cracklin

Weirdly enough, they make a decent snack food. They look much more appetizing when they are dried out–sort of like pork rinds. For me they are not like potato chips where if you eat one you have to eat the whole bag. A handful of cracklings with some salt, and I’m pretty good for a long time. But they are, essentially, fat, which is very filling, so that is not really surprising.

Rendering your own fat is a good thing that can save you a great deal of money and provide a very useful cooking ingredient. But remember: everything is slippery, everything is hot…

OK, now I can hear the problem with that phrase!

By the way, here's the Crock-Pot that we use.

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Inspiration Garden: My Father’s… Grandmother’s Garden…?

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Three generations in the garden. From left to right, myself, Zander (my son) and Don (my father).

Note: This is the first in a series on gardens that have inspired us. First up is Anthony Valterra (the other half here at Dragon Flower Farm, in case you didn't know), giving a lovely snapshot of a garden I've admired ever since we met, as it's in the fam. - Lisa

I don’t have any clear memory of a time when my father wasn’t gardening. Even when we were renting small houses on the outskirts of Walla Walla, Washington, we at least had a vegetable patch. Every year I remember watching my dad buy and plant seeds. Of course, our family also canned fruit, made salsa, and had a root cellar. My father was the son of dairy farmers and my mother the daughter of very poor immigrants. It makes sense that they would continue to see the dangers of the world being mitigated by a small garden and some canned foods on a shelf under the house.

But as time passed, both my mother and father moved from gardens that were purely practical to ones that were a combination of practical and decorative. My parent’s divorced, and although my mother continued gardening, for her it became a hobby. But my father, after he retired from teaching, went pro. He now runs Thompson Landscaping in Walla Walla. And he helps his current wife (my stepmother) Cyndi Thompson with her business, My Grandmother’s Garden. The two businesses are located on their property in Walla Walla, and where one begins and the other ends is probably not terribly clear to someone arriving for the first time. The small cabin that is My Grandmother’s Garden moves seamlessly into the landscape and greenhouses that is Thompson Landscapes. Dear old dad has even had a bit of national recognition with a pictorial of his and Cyndi’s home in Sunset Magazine (about 1989). We're hard-pressed to find a copy, but here's a shot my wife recently took of the entrance to My Grandmother's Garden to make up for it.

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'Seamless' is not hyperbolic. 

After I had gone off to college, Dad’s interest in and skill at gardening and garden art kept developing. His skill with layout and plants was always good, but it quickly become noted enough for him to be contracted to landscape local wineries, the local community college, and private homes (often of the people who owned the wineries – lots of money there). But one of the more ironic twists in my father’s gardening journey was his discovery that dried grapevines make a terrific artistic medium. My father taught junior high and coached. All his life he has been an avid sports fan – both professional and college. Being a teacher, and a sports fan - he would sometimes remark on the academic potential of college athletes who seemed (at least in interviews) to not be terribly bright. My dad’s go-to comment was that they were taking “basket weaving” classes.

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Lisa tells me these are not grapes. Shows what I know.

As I said, my father grew up poor, and so he has the attitude of, "Well, why should I buy that? I can make it myself?" One of the first businesses he and Cyndi tackled was flowers for weddings. And one of the common elements of those arrangements is a "flower basket." They grew the flowers, but where to get the baskets? Dad convinced himself (and his clients) that he could weave them out of dried grapevines. And he succeeded. Thus my father found that weaving baskets was not something to be taken lightly, and also (when filled with flowers for a wedding) could be very lucrative.

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A friendly visitor.... wild grasses... and a Honeysuckle Trumpet (not all Dad's plants are natives)

Now in his late 70’s, my father has slowed down. The garden around his home is still immaculate. It is filled with gorgeous flowers, grasses, and trees. He does have some edible plants, but they are mostly planted for their appearance - such as an exquisite dwarf lemon tree - rather than to be eaten. His garden attracts all manner of pollinators and even the occasional wild animal (moose, fox, deer, rabbits have all been seen wandering onto the property). He still has large greenhouses where he grows plants both to sell and for landscaping. But nowadays he spends most of his time designing, and he lets younger hands lift the heavy trees and do the planting.

But if you ever get out to Walla Walla (and trust me, the only reason you would wind up in Walla Walla is if that was your destination) – it is worth a short trip down 3rd street to see My Grandmother’s Garden and Thompson Landscapes.

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