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Choose Your Weapons: Cast Iron

Choose Your Weapons is a new weekly feature I am going to start doing. Each posting will take an in depth look at specific tools used in the kitchen. My goal will be to share with you tips on choosing the right products, caring for them and how to actually use them in your cooking.

Choose Your Weapons: Cast Iron

by zirbirt

When I thought about writing a weekly feature about cooking tools. My first thought was, I need to post on the stuff I use the most. Of course, that meant my cast iron griddle. I use that thing all the time, but really it isn't the griddle nature of it that makes it so indispensable, its the cast iron nature of it. So, lets talk a little bit about cast iron cookware.

If you have been reading some of my postings, you have probably seen me make use of my cast iron griddle.

This is a Lodge brand Cast Iron reversible griddle. There are two version of it, that are very similar, one is about $25 the other is about $45. The biggest difference between the two is that the more expensive one has higher ridges on the grill side, and higher walls on both side. I have the lesser of the two, simply because I didn't need the higher walls.

[Cheaper one] [Pro One]

This thing lives on my left two burners and is always ready when I need it. I use it pretty much any time I am going to cook something "dry".. Dry meaning I am not going to fill the pan with oil. So for pancakes, grilled cheese, grilled anything. I often flip between the flat side and the grilled side depending on what results I am looking for. This is probably one of the most used devices in my kitchen.

You can use a normal pan for anything I do with this, and achieve decent results. So, it is not required in any way, but you might be interested in understanding what the difference is.

WHY CAST IRON

To understand the main reason to use a cast iron skillet or griddle, you need to think about how a pan works. Most of us cook on pans that are quite a big larger than the burners on our stove. The burner produces heat that is transferred through the pan onto the cook surface. (common sense, I know). In the case of Gas stoves, we have a very small burner area, when compared to an electric stove. In an electric stove you have a larger burner area, but its heat is less consistent.

Most good pans have a thick bottom. The reason for this is, as they heat, the heat gets distributed more evenly to the bottom of the pan. This gives you less hot and cold spots on the surface of whatever you're cooking.

Cast iron draws and holds heat a lot better than a normal pan. This means, you end up with a very even heated cooking surface. The main reason to use cast iron is to get an all over even cook on the surface of your food.

How To Pick your pans

When buying a cast iron pan, I don't really concern myself with whether it is pre-seasoned or not (we will get into seasoning next). I mostly focus on the size of the pan, and the quality of it. A good cast iron pan is heavy, and should be. If I pick it up and it isn't heavy, I move on. I like Lodge brand pans, as they seem to be good quality at a good price.

Many times you will find pans with a silicone handle or some other heat resistant handle. There is nothing wrong with this as long as 2 rules are considered. First, I wouldn't pay more for that feature. Even with a silicone handle you will still need to use a towel or oven mit when using the handle while the pan is hot. Second, make sure the handle is still part of the cast.. meaning the whole pan is one unit and the handle is not screwed on.

For size, I like a nice 12" skillet for general use. This is great for making anything you want and if you don't have a griddle like I described above, will quickly become your go-to pan for anything grilled.

You can get other sizes, but I would only get those on an as needed basis.

For a 12" pan, you will likely pay around $20. If the pan is much more than that, I would reconsider. There is not that much technology involved in cast iron, and often overpriced pans are nothing more than a brand name. Here is a basic Lodge 12" pan.

Seasoning Your Pan

Ok, the first rule of cast iron is do not wash it with soap and water... but since we are about to season it, it is ok. You do this on a brand new pan, or if your pan is so dirty, you need to give it a real clean (like if you made a nice apple cobbler in it and regular cleaning wont work.)

To begin we clean the pan with soap and water and a sponge. Then Using a towel dry it completely. Do not let the pan sit out to air dry. Cast iron will rust very quickly, so you want to towel off as much water as you can.

Now take some vegetable oil (about 1 Tbs) and put it in the middle of the pan. Then use a paper towel to rub the oil all over the pan, inside, outside, bottom, and handle.

Place the pan upside down in the oven.. on about a middle rack. ( you may want to stick a cookie sheet or something under it to catch any possible dripping oil.

Bake in the oven for about an hour at about 325 degrees. Then turn off the oven and leave it alone till it and the oven are both cool.

That's it, your pan is now seasoned.

Caring for and Cleaning Your Pan

As I mentioned above, You do not want to wash a cast iron pan with water. Cast iron will rust very easily, but also that "seasoning" we did will make it a very easy nonstick cooking surface. So you don't want to wash that off.

Many times when we cook on cast iron, food will stick to the bottom. Often melted cheese, burned on sauce or steak char or some other something will be stuck to the bottom of our pan. If the pan has no oil in it, add 1 Tbs of oil. Then Sprinkle Kosher salt all over the inside of the pan.

I use a normal grill brush and a paper towel, folded.. to scrub the pan with the salt and get it clean. I usually then put it over the sink and brush everything out of it with a dry towel or paper towel.

If the pan has really stuck on stuff, I use the grill brush directly, then add a little oil and rub it down after. If the sticky mess is so bad I cannot clean it like this, then I clean with soap and water and re-season it (which is an absolute last resort).

Cooking With Your Pan

Unless I am doing normal sandwich grilling, I usually start by putting a thin layer of oil on the inside of the pan. I do this by putting a little oil in the pan then rubbing it all over the inside with a paper towel.

As I mentioned before, cast iron retains and distributes heat very well. This means, you do not need a very high burner temperature to get a very hot pan. Instead, we want to slowly heat the pan over medium heat. If you heat it over high heat, it will quickly get way over the desired temperature and burn your food and likely fill your kitchen with smoke.

So, we want to use a medium heat and allow the pan several minutes to warm up before using.

Also, remember the handle is HOT. Even if it has a silicone gripper on it, it will still likely be hot. You want to have a folded towel or an oven mit handy. Any time you need to touch the handle, remember to use the towel or oven mit.

Conclusion

The great thing about a cast iron pan, is that it is very versatile. Thanks to the high walls, the even cooking temperature and the relatively non-stick nature of it, you can cook a lot of stuff in it. Grilled Cheese are amazing in cast iron, so are pancakes... but you can also make baked good like pizza, cobblers and of course corn bread.

If your considering getting a single cast iron pan, I suggest the 12" one. I will be releasing some recipes in the near future that will require this pan. Stuff like cobbler, corn bread and skillet dinners.

Thanks for reading this. I hope you enjoyed it!



zirbirt
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