Saturday, August 27, 2011

How to care for an iron skillet

Iron skillets, being old-timey relics, attract folk wisdom to them like they're magnetic. There are recipes on their curing, and lengthy rituals for seasoning a new skillet abound in the lore.

One thing those who cook in iron will agree upon is that you can't rush experience. The process of making a new skillet non-stick is not unlike breaking in a new sous chef. Start out by practicing, then give it progressively more challenging tasks until it's frying your eggs every morning like a champ. Treat it like it's special, enabling it to do its job in its inimitable way, because it is an original. Is treating a cast iron skillet differently from all your other cookware too much to ask for a non-stick surface that doesn't come to you care of the chemical labs of DuPont? I don't think so.

I learned to care for cast iron from my first mother-in-law, an excellent home cook who grew up in a large, rural family during the Depression. Many of her standards had clearly not varied from the days when she prepared them on a wood stove. She scrambled eggs in a cast iron skillet in the morning, and baked cornbread in the same skillet every night. When I set up my own kitchen, I got a small skillet, which I still use every day. I have a larger one, too, for bigger jobs.

I put my other pots and Pyrex through the dishwasher. Large items that don't fit, I wash in the sink with hot soap and water. For cast iron, I follow a different method, and clean the skillet the same way I watched my mother-in-law clean hers. After rinsing and squeezing any remaining dish soap from the sponge, I wash the skillet gently, not using the scrubby side of the sponge if I can help it, because this removes the non-stick finish that I build up by seasoning my skillet after every use. When it's clean, I set it on the stove and dry it over a high heat. When all of the water has evaporated and the skillet begins to smoke, I turn off the heat and pour in about a teaspoon of high-heat oil such as sunflower oil, and rub it in all over the bottom and sides of the inside of the skillet with a paper towel. After the skillet cools, I put it away.

When I buy a brand new skillet, I do the same thing: wash it gently without soap, heat it to smoking, and oil it. At first, the coating this makes is very thin and not as non-stick as it will become over time, with use. Literally, using the skillet to cook seasons it, and this cleaning method seasons it more evenly and thoroughly. When your iron skillet looks like mine, black and shiny with use, it will release omelets, sear steaks, and allow you to sauté and shallow-fry anything with ease.
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