Photo courtesy of Sur la Table

Just follow these rules

Rebecca Firkser
August 07, 2018

When I first started cooking, the utensil I feared most was not the razor-sharp mandoline, nor the 30-seconds-too-long-and-everything-is-burnt broiler. No, the item that filled me with anxiety was a cast-iron skillet. I know some of you probably just snorted to conceal your laughter at such a preposterous thought. You grew up on cast-iron. It was the only pan you used in the kitchen and you’ve been rubbing that bad boy with oil since you were old enough to clear the table. Well, that wasn’t my life, OK? I grew up in a stainless-steel house, and guess what, they worked great. Sure, an enameled Dutch oven made appearances, but I’m harboring no fond memories of my grandmother or mother lovingly teaching me how to season a iron pan. And I still became a very confident home cook.

Years later, I do use a cast-iron pan, because I recognize the importance of approaching one's fears head-on. Yet I still think of the times I was intimidated by the pan, and I wished I’d had a cast-iron expert around to tell me it’s not as scary as I thought. It may be a little after the fact, but recently that very wish came true.

“First thing I want to say about cast-iron care is that it’s not that hard,” Chris Muscarella, who co-founded Field Company along with his brother Stephen, told me over the phone. “When you talk about of the basics of great cooking, it’s heat, fat, salt, acid, and understanding how to use those elements to really get the desired result. What cast-iron does is help you build your relationship with heat and how it works.”

The Muscarellas' goal was to create cast-iron pans that cook as well as the ones you’d find in their grandmother’s kitchen—nothing else seemed to cook as well as the old stuff—but are a bit more sensitive to a consumer’s needs. Field Company, which is collaborating with Knorr this summer to teach cooking skills, makes skillets that with a smooth, lightly pre-seasoned surface, so you can start cooking with one right after you take it out of the box.

“Cast-iron gets better the more you use it, it becomes naturally nonstick as the seasoning builds up on the pan,” Muscarella said. “The seasoning is basically just very thin layers of oil that melt and form a nonstick layer the more you use the pan.”

Muscarella admitted that seasoning a skillet can seem like a huge undertaking. “A lot of people will go on the internet and read all this crazy stuff about how they have to bake on flax oil, and then there are these holy wars about which oil to use.” According to Muscarella, however, frantically seasoning isn’t necessarily the only way to prepare a cast-iron’s surface. “The truth is you can do all that stuff, but you can also sauté some onions or vegetables and it’ll be fine, while naturally building up that seasoning over time.”

When someone gets a new skillet, Muscarella says not to fear the pan, but rather starting out with foods that are less likely to stick while also helping to build up the nonstick layer, like stir fries, sautéed vegetables, or baked cornbread. He explained that there are certain things, like fried eggs, bacon, and other proteins, that might be a little bit difficult to make without sticking with a new pan, but noted that after three or four months of use you’ll be in good shape.

Though Muscarella’s attitude about seasoning was pleasantly chill, he was clear in pointing out that there is certainly a set of rules to follow for cleaning the a cast-iron skillet. “Iron can rust, so if you take a cast-iron skillet and put it in the dishwasher… or if you leave a bunch of water in it for hours—not awesome. If you use your cast-iron skillet, then give it a quick wash and let it dry, you’ll be in good shape," he said.

The best way to clean a cast iron pan is to scrape off all stuck-on bits of food with a spatula, then to wipe out any excess grease with a towel—you can also scrub stubborn pieces with kosher salt and a towel. Contrary to popular belief, Muscarella explained you can wash the pan with water, mild dish soap, and a sponge, but it should be dried thoroughly by placing it back on the stove over low heat.

Finally, Muscarella explained there’s one more step to make sure your cast-iron lasts as long as possible. Before putting the pan away, wipe it down with a saturated fat like butter, lard, or coconut oil (saturated fats are less likely to go rancid in case you don’t use the pan for a few weeks).

It’s a few extra steps than your average wash-and-dump-in-drying-rack pan routine, sure, but Muscarella believes it’ll ultimately make you a better cook: “This level of care creates a relationship with the product, it can become an extension of yourself.”

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