Cast iron for dummies

We’ve only been using our cast iron pan for a week but we already managed to destroy some nice fish fillets in it and to get it rusty. And this is after I researched and researched!

Why not just throw it in the bin? This article from the NYT summarises some of the reasons I persevere. For an even shorter summary: because it is supposed to be healthier, food is supposed to taste better if prepared in cast iron, and anything that has multiple uses (stovetop to oven) gets my vote. I also simply like the tactile, organic feeling it gives me.

Some of the things I’ve learned, liberally drawing on other people’s advice:

  • Cast iron rusts extremely fast. This means no soaking overnight to make it easier to remove the fish remnants that you’ve just charred into the bottom of the pan.
  • However, you can remove light rust stains by 1) scrubbing the pot clean, 2) rubbing it with a combination of food grade oil and coarse salt. You can use a paper towel to do the actual rubbing (obviously adjust the oil so that the towelette doesn’t get too drenched, e.g. a tablespoon of oil and the same amount of coarse salt).
  • I followed the advice in this post to season the pan, i.e. to develop a protective and non-stick layer
  • Cleaning should be gentle, the pan should be dried after washing up and lightly oiled before put away

Using cast iron cookware well also requires changing how you cook, and to some degree what you cook. Acidic substances like tomatoes and wine, never mind vinegar, are not the number one choice since they may strip away the protective layer of oil.

For most foods, the temperature should be set lower than with standard pots and pans – low to medium heat should suffice. It should heat up with the stove, instead of exposing it to a sudden change of temperature. Cast iron also does take high heat well which makes it very well suited to frying steaks, for example. It is just not necessary (or suitable) to crank up the heat for a lot of dishes.