Originally published in the Herald Sun 3/7/2012
I just wiped oil off one of my best friends. I toasted coconut, and we got a little sticky.
The name of my anointed friend? It’s characteristically simple and straightforward, just; “Cast Iron”. It’s big, handled, and has the heft to be a lethal weapon. It’s my Lodge skillet.
On the 1999 premiere of “Good Eats”, Alton Brown perfectly cooked steak in his cast iron. He extolled their many virtues. I decided to procure one.
I grew up ignorant of them. I remember, as a child, briefly seeing one at a friend’s house, in a sink full of cold, dirty, water. It haunts me, like someone who years ago witnessed a murder, and only now realizes the true horror of what they saw. Those things are indestructible, but they can be criminally disrespected.
Non-users may feel there’s a lot of work involved in the care and feeding. True, it’s easy to toss a pan in the dishwasher for five or ten years, and then get a new one. But do you know how I usually clean Cast Iron? I wipe it out with a paper towel. That’s the whole deal. And that is but one facet of the beauty that is my forged-by-fire friend.
Curiously, there is only one factory in the whole country that makes cast iron cookware. Lodge Ironworks, in the Appalachian mountains, has been around since 1896. And they still do it the same way.
I once bought a piece that was not Lodge; therfore, not made to US safety standards. When heated, it replaced the house’s oxygen with greasy fumes that smelled of outsourcing and death.
Don’t mess around. For something that can honestly outlast you (and not by murdering you), pay the extra few dollars.
I got mine off the dusty shelf of a sleepy hardware store, unseasoned. Let me repeat that: un…seasoned.
Ask anybody to describe granny’s skillet, and they’ll speak of something the color of the burnished, unfathomable black of (insert name of hated politician or celebrity here)’s heart.
Brand new, and unseasoned, they are closer to the depressing, gunmetal gray of Mitt Romney’s bachelor weekend in Altoona. Also when new, they’re whatever the complete opposite of non-stick is.
To get it as black as a licorice whip and slick as a cruise ship Lothario, the surface must be seasoned. Over time, the heated metal and fat forms a bond, that as it darkens, will become naturally non-stick.
*Microscopic gaps in the smooth, bonded, surface of cookware will shrink when hot (it all has gaps, even well seasoned, long-time possesions). So preheat before using, every time.
If it’s scrubbed after every use, or chunked into the Maytag, that marriage will wash away.
So how to clean?
The key is to, carefully, wipe it when it’s still a little hot. That’s when you deal with any gunk. When the surface is smooth and dry, you’re done. If that doesn’t work, pour some kosher salt in and gently rub. It’s easier with fat, so if needed, splash a little cooking oil into the warm pan. This method can also be used to reclaim neglected pans with an entirely rusted-over surface (like Aunt Eugenia’s set in the attic, maybe?).
What if it’s really messed up, and the salt ain’t gonna cut it?
This next tactic works, but can be dangerous, so at least wear some gloves, and think about maybe renting a haz-mat suit.
Take the pan, as hot as you trust yourself, and pour in some warm water; you’re deglazing the stuck. If the pan is molten, and the water icy, you’ll crack the metal–irreversibly fatal. So, ginger.
Sometimes it’s gloppy and dirty (like for my Skillet Taters). It’s then time for hot, soapy water. It will lubricate and cleanse. If all else fails, use a very soft scrubby sponge (I really dig the hourglass O-Cel-O). Go slowly and lightly, and stop as soon as you feel surface. Give it the same bomb-squad reverence you would a non-stick piece of All-Clad from Williams-Sonoma.
If you make these, your skillet will see some warm, soapy water later. Just be gentle.
3 cups unpeeled cubed into 3/4 inch approx. You want them similar size and shape. If you have fingerlings, slice into 1/2 coins. Baby potatoes, quarter or halve, just make sure there is cut are on each potato.
1/2 white onion, chopped
1 tbls each butter and oil (You can substitue bacon drippings, and sprinkle the finished dish with crumbled bacon, but I am not coming with you on your next doctor’s appt)
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp favorite seasoning blend (I like Goya Adobo with bitter orange)bacon
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 tbls chopped fresh flat leaf parsey
squeeze of citrus, if you’re out, substitute splash of you favorite vinegar
In a pot of heavily salted water (it should taste like the ocean any time you boil anything), cook potatoes until just barely tender, a paring knife goes in, but with a little resistance.
Drain, and allow them to dry on the outside. This cuts down on popping and spitting later.
Get your skillet hot. Not quite smoking, because of the fats involved, but really hot.
Tumble in spuds and toss in the pan to coat with fat. Season potatoes with everything, except for onion, parsley, and juice.
When the taters are evenly coated arrange them in one layer. Then take your spatula and give them all little smoosh. Not quite a smash, something gentler. You want be able to recognize a slightly battered cube after smooshing it. Then leave them alone.
Reduce heat to medium, cook until the crustiness that has appeared is browned to your liking. Add chopped onions, toss everything around a bit and then put them in a single layer and smoosh. Don’t get too wrapped up in making sure each potato is perfectly golden, you want some amber colored crust, some blond crispiness, and even some black peeking out here and there. They are home fries, not NASA fries.
Cook until they and nice and crispy, maybe another 6-7 minutes. Stir in parsley.
Just before serving, spritz with citrus, and check for salt.
I like mine topped with a poached egg. Petey likes his with scrambled, and a steak.
If you’re forced to wash it, dry it immediately. Oxidation can happen quickly. Store it like a freshly showered body builder–very lightly oiled. It’s not just sexy, it provides a barrier against moisture.
After especially vigorous cleaning, give your faithful companion a spa treatment. Pour in about a quarter cup of cooking oil, wipe it all around, and let it meditate in a 250-300 degree oven for about an hour. Wipe out the excess while warm, and when it’s cool, put it away, so the saucepans can tell it how rested it looks.
One of the most classic things made in it, and an honest test of your cast iron stewardship, is corn bread.
My favorite is Mildred “Mama Dip” Council’s, “Sunday Cornbread”. It’s moist like it should be, and crispy where it oughta.
Clean-up after baking cornbread?
My seasoned, loyal comrade now wipes completely clean with one dry Viva. The first time it happened, I almost wept. The memory still touches me deeply.
Thanks for your time.