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The Skill That Goes Into a Skillet

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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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