It doesn’t take much to get Fritz Appleby, a retired Maine State Park manager, to wax rhapsodic about his love of classic cast iron cookware.
Appleby owns a couple of hundred pieces of the heavy duty, long-lived pots and pans — and that’s after a recent downsizing. He’s got skillets, Dutch ovens, griddles, muffin pans, waffle irons and more, and what’s more, he uses them — even the ones that date back to before the Civil War.
“It’s going to last generations,” he said of cast iron cookware. “If your grandmother handed you some pans she cooked on, and you’re still using them, wow! That’s a lot of history right there. Holding a piece in your hands that’s pre-Civil War, you can’t help but think of some of the campfires it’s seen. It’s pretty neat.”
But getting all those years of use out of cast iron cookware requires that cooks take good care of their pieces. What’s the best way to do that? For some of us, our knowledge of cast iron care begins and ends with the understanding that using soap to clean cast iron has the same effect on your pans that Kryptonite had on Superman: in short, don’t do it. But that’s not the whole story.
Here are tips on how to best maintain cast iron from Appleby and the helpful folks at Rooster Brother in Ellsworth, a cooking supply store that sells a lot of cast iron and knows how to treat it.
— When bringing a new pan home, scour it thoroughly with hot, soapy water and a steel pad. This removes the machine oil from the pan and opens it up for seasoning, according to the Rooster Brother cast iron tip sheet.
— Dry the pan well and put it on your stovetop over low heat. When the pan is hot enough to evaporate a drop of water, put in some oil (peanut oil is recommended by the staff at Rooster Brother) and rub it into the metal with a paper towel. Keep rubbing it intermittently for half an hour, keeping the pan on low heat the whole time. At first, the paper towel will turn black, but keep on changing towels until it becomes clean. After 30 minutes, wipe off excess oil. According to cast iron maker Lodge Cast Iron, any food-safe cooking oil or shortening will work for maintaining cookware, but the company recommends using vegetable or canola oil. Olive oil is not recommended for seasoning because it has a very low smoke point.
— Some people prefer to season newer pans in the oven, covering every inch of the pan with a thin, even layer of melted Crisco or vegetable oil such as peanut. Then put the pan upside down on a shallow, tinfoil-lined baking pan and put it in a 350-degree oven. After an hour, turn the heat off and allow the pan to cool all the way down before taking it out of the oven.
— Your pan is now seasoned. To keep it that way, you will need to always clean it immediately after use, while the pan is still warm, with hot water and a brush. Don’t use soap, Rooster Brother staff say. Dry the pan well and wipe it with a little oil.
— To avoid food sticking on your pan, always heat it until it will evaporate a drop of water, then add your oil. Wait until the oil is hot before cooking.
— Cast iron is hardy, but there are some things to watch out for, according to Appleby. “They can take a lot of abuse, unless you drop them, or they get warped, or cracked. They’re not much good after that,” he said, adding that in addition to not dropping the cookware, users should be careful not to change the temperature too fast. Don’t take them out of a hot oven and put them into icy cold water, for example.
— When cooking, Appleby heats up the pans to medium — not high — and uses plenty of oil or bacon fat before he puts food in them. When he’s done cooking and serving, he puts hot water in the pan and lets it soak. After the meal, he uses a plastic scraper to scrape out food residue from the pan, then he rinses the pan under hot water and wipes it out. “I put it on a burner on low heat and then I wipe it down with oil,” he said. “If you treat it right, it really is the original non-stick cookware. Your food really doesn’t stick.”
— Appleby is not as strict on the “no soap” rule as some. Sometimes, cooked-on food is not easy to remove from a pan. Fish, especially, can require tougher cleaning protocols, and he uses a little dish soap. “Soap and water is not really going to hurt it,” he said. “But I wouldn’t soak it in that for a long time. If you do, it can break down the finish you’ve built up. The seasoning. The pans do get black and glossy over time, and that’s what you want.”
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