Guest Post: Paul Wheaton on using cast iron skillets
This is a guest post from Paul Wheaton from permies.com which is the home of the permaculture forums. (You may have noticed the links I put up on the right recently + in a couple of weeks there’ll be a podcast interview with me on Paul’s site.) Permaculture and ERE has a lot in common in terms of the underlying principles. They’re both based on a form of systems thinking intended to increase efficiency and reduce waste. The point of ERE, which focuses on the socioeconomic side of life, is to create a lifestyle that minimizes the amount of work required to maintain/grow it. After all, work input is a sign that your system is somehow lacking (similarly waste means that your system is poorly designed to your actual needs). Permaculture, which is somewhat older than ERE, is the same idea but focusing on natural systems. The ideal is an overlap, because they complement each other. I believe something of this note is what will be required to solve the problems of the 21st century as the industrial mass production consumer economy proves unable to grow further in the face of resource shortages, pollution, and population pressures. Creating an efficient natural production/garden takes as much as 5 years to develop the soil and get the design working, so many of you are probably not quite there yet. However, “connecting” to the topsoil, being able to generate a productive food system will likely be as important as generating financial savings over the next couple of decades. I’ve made a first attempt with container gardening myself. Do what you can even if it’s as little as I’ve done. The experience will prove valuable just as investment experience proves valuable in navigating the financial slide. If you can’t do gardening, you can still use the principles in other aspects of your life. Sustainable, resource efficiency, closing the cycles, etc. So here’s an introductory article on how to use and maintain cast iron cookware. Consider it a complement to the pressure cooker (=- fuel and time saver). Okay, this was the longest intro ever to a guest post, I’ll stop now …
The only reason most people don’t use a cast iron skillet is because they don’t know how. Yet it’s easy! It’s cheap! It lasts hundreds of years! The only thing missing to make a cast iron skillet sing for you, is a tiny bit of knowledge! With a tiny bit of knowledge anybody can make a cast iron skillet work better than so-called “non-stick” pans. Once
you have this knowledge, one pan will last the rest of your life. Rather than wearing out, the pan actually gets better the more you use it.
I have been polishing an article on the value of a cast iron skillet for many years. I suppose I’ve convinced a few thousand people to switch from their teflon-esque pans to cast iron.
The sales pitch for cast iron is made pretty easy by the manufacturers of those crappy pans. People who cook a fair bit end up needing a new pan every six to twelve months (panned obsolescence?). And then there is always the concern for the gick that came off: where did it go?
Start with a good cast iron skillet
When starting my cast iron quest, I bought a brand spanking new cast iron skillet at some department store. After seasoning it, I used lots of oil … sometimes food stuck to it, sometimes it didn’t. Clearly there was something I didn’t know. What was I doing when it didn’t stick that was different from when it did? Years of trial and error, combined with the advice of hundreds of people led me to a few simple things so I can have a non-stick experience every time.
The new cast iron stuff is sold to be freaky cheap, not freaky good. I think they like the idea that somebody will buy it because it’s cheap. Their cooking experience fails, and then they toss the pan and buy something else. Kaching! Look at the cooking surface: it’s rough. The old cast iron manufacturers used to machine out the cooking surface, but that process nearly doubles the cost. And if people are focused on “cheap” instead of “good”, then …. well … they get crap. I suggest you go to ebay and buy an old Griswold cast iron skillet. Or maybe a slightly cheaper Wagner cast iron skillet. Griswold and Wagner skillets have a very smooth cooking surface. You should be able to find a skillet for about the same price as a new one, but this used skillet will be far superior.
Seasoning cast iron cookware
“Seasoning” is what makes a cast iron skillet non-stick. It is layers and layers of carbon and polymerized cooking oil/fat. (“polymerized” means the fat molecules have re-arranged to a hard and slippery surface) The more you use it (properly) the more seasoned the pan becomes.
Some people want to season cast iron in an oven. But really, the best way to season cast iron, is to simply use it. Maybe use a little more lard or grease the first few times.
The right spatula will polish the cooking surface
I have looked at dozens (hundreds?) of cast iron pans. It’s always fun when I look at a pan and say “you use a plastic spatula, don’t you?” and the people say “How … how did you know!” “Elementary my dear citizen! You have lumps and bumps all over the cooking surface. That would never happen if you used a proper, stainless steel spatula with a flat edge!”
Oh sure, the metal scratches the seasoning. But in a good way. And with proper use, we are constantly rebuilding the seasoning layer anyway. The flat, sharp, metal edge sort of scrapes off any bumps while they are still teeny tiny. With regular use, little bumps don’t turn into big lumps.
Soap and cast iron
Someone once told me that they told their spouse “If you use soap on the cast iron again, I’m going to kill you”. I’m here to say that spouse-a-cide is not necessary. The seasoning layer is polymerized. Soap will never get it to budge. The concern about soap in cast iron is rooted in making soap! The lye used in making soap will destroy your seasoning layers. Once lye has been soapified into soap, it is perfectly safe for your cast iron seasoning.
Other interesting bits:
Also, check out the links in the right sidebar for a more in depth article (with illustrations).
Originally posted 2011-09-05 09:22:16.