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Care and Feeding of Cast Iron

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#1 Tom Chilton

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Posted 19 June 2007 - 12:22 PM

Here's some info on cast iron care from Melinda Lee. What do you think? from http://www.melindale.../Cast-Iron.html


We have had so many recent requests - as well as repeated requests over the years - for this information, that it (finally!) occurred to me to post it here for all to find, rather than copying and sending out the pages by "snail mail" to each person who asks. This is the complete scoop for seasoning and maintaining cast iron cookware of all sizes and shapes. It was sent to me years ago by the author who collects cast iron pieces as a hobby. His own words are such a pleasure to read, that they follow here, without editing.

Below the section on seasoning cast iron, is a special addition that explains what to do in the event of needing to restore badly damaged or "ancient" pieces of cast iron. Cast Iron Jack modestly referred to these tips as "Priceless Words of Wisdom" - and they are!


Anyone who's ever cooked anything in a new cast-iron skillet or other utensil has probably figured out real quickly that the iron skillet needed something done to it before it was fit to use. If nothing IS done to it, two things will happen. One, the food will take on a metallic taste, and two, the skillet will surely rust no matter how carefully you dry it after washing. What that skillet needs is called seasoning.

There is really only one successful way to season a cast-iron cooking utensil, and that is to use it, use it, use it. But until the months and years have passed that are needed to properly do the job through use, the iron must be coated with layer of something to protect it from rust and prevent that metallic taste from transferring to the food.

Most manufacturers suggest ways to apply that layer of protection - always a fat of some kind - but most of their instructions seem designed to make the job seem easy and not scare off the buyer, rather than to do the job right. What is really required is a relatively thin layer of pure and simple carbon. Yes, carbonized fat or oil. Carbonized to a hard, smooth surface that seals the utensil from rusting and prevents the iron from exuding that metallic taste, which, by the way, is not harmful just a bit unpleasant. Contrary to some manufacturer's instructions, that layer of carbon just simply cannot be formed at 250 to 350 degrees of heat. The carbonization of that layer of oil takes HIGH heat. Like 500 or 550 degrees.

This is how Cast Iron Jack McGrew treats a brand new cast-iron skillet or other cast-iron cooking utensil:

1. Remove any labels, and if the manufacturer has included some printed instructions on how to season the piece, throw it away quick before you read it. Wash the piece well by hand with regular hand-type dishwashing detergent. Dry it thoroughly. NEVER put cast-iron cookware in the dishwasher.

2. Rub a relatively thin coat of oil all over the piece with the fingertips. Animal fats are not really suitable, as the carbon formed is usually quite soft, not nearly as hard as vegetable oils. One cooking-lady-about-town has always recommended using mineral oil, but since Ol' Jack doesn't fry his eggs in mineral oil, he doesn't use it to season skillets either. Jack himself uses almost any kind of vegetable oil, even bottom-grade olive oil, but generally likes regular Mazola or Wesson oil types the best.

3. Such oils as Wesson oil or Mazola will become tacky as they air dry, and the piece should be allowed to air dry for perhaps two to four days, turned upside down on a newspaper to absorb drips. If an oven with a pilot light is available, its temperature should be about 110 to 120 degrees, and drying in such an oven will speed the process. Once the piece has become tacky to the touch, handling it very carefully so as not to leave fingerprints on the tacky surface, carefully BLOT (don't wipe) any drips that are not tacky. If the piece has shiny areas that are very tacky, the oil was too thick. If it has almost no tacky feel at all, the oil was too thin. In either case, it can be recoated. The application of new oil will dissolve or thin the oil on those shiny spots and it can then be wiped to a thinner coating. If the coating seems too thin, just add another thin layer.

4. All that remains to be done is to burn that oil coating to a layer of carbon. Put the piece upside down in the oven, with a sheet of aluminum foil on the bottom to catch any drips and turn up the heat. Ol' Jack, like a lot of other heavy-duty cooks won't let an electric oven or cooktop through the kitchen door, so his oven is gas. He sets it at 500 degrees and burns that pan for one hour.

5. Yes, you'll want the exhaust fan on, and all the ventilation you can get. It's always nice to do a few pieces at once, as the process does smoke up the kitchen, and who wants to do that every week? Let the cast-iron ware cool slowly in the oven for an hour or two after you turn off the heat, and voila! It's ready to use. If the carbon coating seems a little thin, the process can be repeated immediately.

No account of Cast Iron Jack McGrew's Ultimate Method would be complete without some instructions on washing, cleaning, and caring for the cookware after you've seasoned it, so take Ol' Jack's instructions to heart:

1. Rule #1 is NEVER cook at higher heat than is necessary to do the job.

2. Rule #2 is always try to remember to clean the piece while it's still hot. If it cools before you get around to cleaning it, it can be reheated. Sometimes a quick shot of a pan coating like PAM and 30 seconds on the burner will work wonders. Other times, just blistering hot water from the sink faucet will suffice.

3. Rule #3 is NEVER do any more cleaning than is necessary. If you've just fried a couple of eggs with a squirt of pan spray, at low heat, a quick wipe with a paper towel is probably going to be all that's necessary.

4. If a quick wipe with a paper towel won't do the job, hold it under that blistering hot water from the faucet and scrub it briskly with a stiff fiber brush; stiff enough to loosen any bits and pieces off carbonized food sticking to the pan. Remember, what you want that coating to be is carbonized oil, not carbonized groceries.

5. If there are still bits and pieces of carbonized food sticking to the pan, give it a quick swipe with an old, dull copper or stainless steel Chore-Girl. Don't use a new, sharp one; it'll scrape off your nice new seasoning. Avoid wire brushes like the plague. Don't even think about those nice yellow fabric things that have metal particles imbedded in them, and never, never use those space-age plastic scouring pads.

6. If it really becomes necessary to wash the thing in soap and water, go ahead and do it. That age old admonishment to never use soap has been handed down through the generations since "soap" was a home-made commodity consisting of lye and bear grease, and the lye alone was enough to strip the seasoning from a skillet. Modern detergents are about as much wetting agents as anything and have no relationship to what people meant when they said "soap" a hundred years ago. Just wash it in the sink, using your regular hand dishwashing detergent and a stiff bristle brush -- or even that old, dull Chore-Girl - dry it carefully, and when you're done put a few drops of vegetable oil in it and wipe it around with a paper towel until it's dry. Yes, the paper towel will be black. No, it isn't dirt. The black is carbon.

7. Eventually, after enough use and proper cleaning, that surface in your skillet will get to be just like Teflon or Silverstone type surfaces. It will require very, very little oil for most cooking.

*Naturally, I can't leave well enough alone (this is Melinda writing now) so I will add that I do use (the previously maligned) mineral oil for one step of this process. After drying the piece in Step 6, I rub it with mineral oil instead of vegetable oil before putting it away. That's because mineral oil will not become tacky or rancid, but vegetable oil will - and I like the mineral oil result better for that reason.


If you're collecting old cast-iron cookware - or just have a few pieces around the kitchen - you may wonder if it spent the last fifty years getting coated with the same stuff the roof man used when it leaked around the fireplace. What that stuff is, my friend, is carbon, carbonized fat and food particles. It can be removed and a new, "base coat" applied. The result is worth the effort. How to do it? Well, you have several choices.

First, no amount of rubbing and scrubbing with steel wool or a Chore-girl will take it off. It can be scraped off, but it's a primitive and tedious method. Scrapers that utilize single-edge razor blades are the most useful. Sandpaper will cut the carbon, but also the base metal. Best of all, use a lye solution. Get a plastic container (like a new trash can) big enough to submerge the item. Make sure (with water first) that it doesn't leak. Get a can of lye at about any supermarket. It's nearly always right next to the Drain-o on the shelf. Lye is a highly caustic chemical and it is absolutely imperative that you wear rubber gloves and protective goggles and to work in a very well ventilated area. With the cast-iron piece submerged in just enough water to cover it, dissolve some or all of the lye in the water. A good strong working solution is a can of lye to 2 or 3 gallons of water. Put your plastic container somewhere the kids and pets can't get into it and wait it out. How long? Oh, anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, depending on how thick and hard the carbon buildup is, how strong the lye solution and the temperature. The lye works faster when it's warmer. If you're so inclined, you can help it along a little with a scraper from time to time; but stay in a well-ventilated area, wear those rubber gloves and avoid eye contact by keeping those goggles on.

Once that carbon build-up is removed, the next thing you're certain to find is a layer of rust. It too must be removed. The lye won't dissolve it, but you'll find that it's a lot easier to remove before it dries out after the lye-bath soaking. A brand new, sharp stainless steel or copper Chore-girl, used with a lot of elbow grease under running water will take off a lot of rust. There are two or three kitchen cleansers on the market made especially for aluminum and stainless steel -- available in most supermarkets - which do help the Chore-girl considerably. Regular kitchen cleansers, like Comet, Babb-O or Dutch Cleanser are probably better than nothing but don't seem nearly as effective. Barkeepers Friend or Kleen King are better for this purpose.

Without any doubt, the most effective way to remove that rust is with a motor driven wire brush mounted on a workbench. If you have access to one you're in luck. Hand brushing with a wire brush is a slow, tedious and ineffective process; so much so that one would almost stay with the Chore-girl and metal cleanser and forget the wire brushing. With a rotary brush, one can keep going over it and over it and it and it looks better all the time. When enough is enough is up to you, but a final process before giving up on the brushing can be an overnight soaking in a fairly strong solution of Lime-Away. Lime-Away is an acid and about the strongest acid that Ol' Jack would recommend, because any strong acids are very dangerous to use and will, of course, attack the base metal as well as the rust. Once you've done your final wire brushing, wash the piece thoroughly with regular detergent, rinse and dry it well and season it the same as you would a new piece as described in Ol' Cast Iron Jack's famous bulletin "Cast Iron Jack McGraw's Ultimate Method for Seasoning Cast Iron Cookware" (above).

#2 Ben Lobenstein

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Posted 19 June 2007 - 04:30 PM

This looks like it'd be a great wiki article ;)

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