Module 2-4 Iron Skillets

I have gone on and on about the importance of cooking with the right cookware. Using nonstick cookware on high heat is bad! I am aware that there are many out there that cannot afford the expense of a decent set of stainless-steel cookware. They can be expensive. That is where the timeless iron skillet comes in. Some of you may be lucky enough to still have the skillet used by your grandmother or even great-grandmother. If you don’t mind purchasing one used, I recommend taking a trip to Goodwill. They almost always have one. You can also check out garage sales, Craigslist, and stores that sell pre-owned merchandise. Even if it is a little rusted, you can bring it back into like-new condition. The only exception would be if there are any cracks in it which is the only time it needs to be thrown away. Even if it is rusted, sticky, or has lost its seasoning, it can be redeemed, and I will show you how.

If you want to buy yours new or can’t find a used iron skillet, I recommend the Lodge cast iron skillet. Here is a thorough review of this skillet from America’s Test Kitchen. I am a big fan of their website, and I am sure you have heard me refer to them more than once already. I recommend that you have both a 10-in and a 12-in skillet. There are several reasons for this, but the most important is that you need the right size pan for the job. I covered the importance of the correct sized skillet in module 2-3.

You can buy either a skillet that has an enamel finish or a traditional cast iron skillet. I prefer the traditional skillet because if it is seasoned well, it won’t stick. Here is a quick video from (of course) America’s Test Kitchen.

So you have bought a used cast iron skillet and it is rusty and ugly. How do you bring back that wonderful nonstick coating (seasoning) and get rid of the rust?

The following video does a great job of explaining what to do to bring your old, ugly skillet back to a beautiful sheen. However, once your pan is nice and shiney and looking brand new, DON’T use steel wool or Brillo pads on that skillet. Those are not necessary, and they will destroy the seasoning that you worked so hard to develop!

I use about 1/8 cup (more or less) of regular table salt to clean my skillet and a wad of aluminum foil (if I need a scrubbie, and I usually don’t) to scrub away stubborn stuck-on food. You will be amazed at how well it works and it won’t destroy your hard-won, seasoned finish.With that being said, this is a great video on getting that skillet in tip top shape.

Cleaning Cast Iron

There is a lot of controversy on whether or not you can cook acidic foods in a cast iron skillet. When acidic foods are cooked in cast iron for extended periods (30 minutes or longer), it can eat into your hard-won seasoning. This could result in trace amounts of metals from the cast iron being released into your food. Although this is not harmful to your health, it can leave an undesirable metallic taste to your food. If you think you are going to be cooking a lot of acidic food in your cast iron skillet, and you don’t want to keep an eye on extended simmering, you can buy an iron skillet with an enamel finish instead. The coated skillets do not need to be seasoned but you sacrifice the beautiful seasoning that keeps your food from sticking. (In my case, I chose the best of both worlds. I have the traditional iron skillet and a porcelain covered dutch oven). Visit Module 1-3 for a review on dutch ovens and other cookware.

The good news, a well-seasoned skillet discourages those pesky metals from leaching into your food. Until you become competent cooking in cast iron, use recipes that are specifically designed for use in cast iron. They will use little tricks like shorter simmer times and waiting until late in the recipe to add the acidic ingredients.

Unlike stainless-steel pans, cast iron is not very good at heating evenly. If you throw a cold cast iron skillet on a burner, it will form very hot spots where the hot burner is, while the rest of the pan remains cooler. However, once it is hot, it stays hot! So to get around this, put your iron skillet in a preheated 500 degree F oven for about 15 minutes. This creates the perfect surface for superior searing that can’t be beat by any other skillet. Don’t forget to use an oven mitt on the handle. That handle gets REALLY hot!

By the way, not only can you use your cast iron skillet on an electric stove, glass tops work well too. I know because I am not lucky enough to have a gas stove in my home. We have a glass top. However, be very careful. The skillet is very heavy and you don’t want to drop it on your glass top.

How to maintain your iron skillet:

  • Always clean your skillet immediately after use and while it is warm. Don’t soak the pan or leave it in the sink because it WILL rust.
  • Wash the skillet by hand (dishwasher is bad) using hot water and a sponge or a wad of aluminum foil. (Use tongs or wear gloves if the water and/or skillet is extra hot!) Avoid using dish soap, but if you really need to (sigh), use only a drop or two (NO brillo pads).
  • To remove stuck-on food, scrub the pan with a paste of coarse salt (table or kosher salt work fine) and water. Then rinse or wipe with a paper towel. Stubborn food residue may also be loosened by boiling water in the pan.
  • Thoroughly towel dry the skillet or dry it on the stove over low heat. It will rust if not dried completely.
  • Using a paper towel, apply a light coat of vegetable oil (don’t use shortening, butter, or ghee) while the skillet is still warm. Some people also like to oil the outside of the skillet. Buff with a paper towel to remove any excess oil.
  • Remember to always clean your skillet immediately after use and while it is still hot or warm. Don’t soak the pan or leave it in the sink because it may rust. (Yea I know I’ve repeated the rust thing several times. If it rusts, you are going to spend some time removing the rust and reseasoning. (That means don’t soak it and dry it after washing).
Le’s Cook with Cast Iron

A cast iron skillet has some additional uses. I would have never thought of using my skillet the way it demonstrates in the following video. I only recently began experimenting in ways to use my skillet besides cooking. I would really like to hear my readers’ ideas on this.

It works great to prevent food from scorching. I melted chocolate in a regular stainless steel pan and then sat that pan inside of my iron skillet. It did a great job of keeping the chocolate from scorching; maybe not as good as a double boiler, but I don’t have one and there is no more room in my kitchen to store stuff (I swear cooking can turn you into a pack rat). I use that same technique when simmering milk for homemade yogurt to prevent the milk from scorching. I would love to hear of anyone else’s creative ideas.

I promise we are at the end of this article. We will continue learning about cast iron by cooking steak in the next module!

Cast iron can be used for more than just cooking

Now that we have the basics out of the way, let’s learn how to cook the perfect strip steak in an iron skillet: Module 2-4 Cast Iron Steak