DIY in the Kitchen: Taking Care of Your Cast-Iron

Setting up your first kitchen is hard. Back home, the drawers were magically full of things like parchment paper and vegetable peelers, and you had piles of pots, pans, and pasta strainers. Olive oil was always on the shelf, and the fridge was always stocked with fresh produce.

But now, you’ve flown the nest, and you’re looking at the blank canvas that is the tiny galley kitchen in your very first apartment. Where do you start?

First, you take a deep breath. You don’t have to set up a gourmet-grade kitchen in your first foray into adulthood, but you also don’t have to eat microwaveable Lean Cuisines off paper plates for the next six months. There’s a middle ground, and I’ve got one kitchenware staple that’s sure to steer your culinary efforts in the right direction.

The cast-iron skillet.

It sounds fancy. It sounds like something you’d find in your parents’ kitchen. It sounds expensive, but step away from the Williams-Sonoma catalogue. None of us have $170 to shell out on a pan, no matter how pretty it is. We’re on a budget, here!

You can do cast-iron on the cheap, and I’ll show you how. But first, you might be wondering why a twentysomething who’s barely got the time to nourish herself should invest in this piece of hardware.

  1. No more scraping your eggs off the pan: Properly treated cast-iron resisting sticking, as long as you cook with a bit of oil!
  2. It’s a two-for-one bargain: You can use your cast-iron in the oven and on the stove. This incredibly versatile piece of cookware will cook just about anything, from a birthday cake to the tasty sauce for the chicken you also cooked in your cast-iron. For a quick dinner, toss in some sausage, chopped onions, minced garlic, and serve on a bed of spinach. Yum!
  3. Goodbye, soap: The cardinal rule of cast-iron clean-up is never use soap, saving you money and time in the post-dinner dishwashing. All you need is hot water!
  4. It’s just better for your food and for you: There are health benefits to cooking in cast-iron, because of that whole iron thing. Instead of seasoning your breakfast with chemically treated cookware, you’ll be absorbing trace amounts of iron, which is good for your immune system.
  5. You’ll impress your friends: Cast-iron cooks evenly at a wide range of temperatures, and so you can do all sorts of tricky cookery at home. Also, cast-iron skillets look way more badass than your average pan.
  6. It will outlive you: Cast-iron is basically indestructible, and even if it looks totally unsalvageable, remember that the rustiest of skillets can come back for another round.

If you take care of your cast-iron, it’ll take care of you. How could you argue with that? So if you’re ready to embrace the cast-iron lifestyle, I’ve got you covered.

First, you’ve got to get your hands on some cast-iron, and it’s easier than you’d think.

I’m the proud owner of two cast-iron skillets that I picked up from a thrift store for $6 each. When I first spotted my skillets, they weren’t much to look at, speckled with rust and graying with disuse. But looks can be deceiving, when it comes to cast-iron. Scope out thrift stores, tag sales, or your family attic for cast-iron. It’s pretty easy to spot: it’s made out of iron, so look for the heavy, black pan.

Now that you’ve got a cast-iron skillet, what should you do?

You’ll need to pick up a few easy-to-find things to reseason your cast-iron. A Google search will yield a hundred different techniques for seasoning cast-iron, some with a laundry list of steps and ingredients. But we’re going to keep it simple.

You just need two things: some steel wool and some oil. 

Everyone has an opinion about the best oil to use when seasoning cast-iron cookware. Some people say that vegetable oil will do the trick, and others advocate breaking out the lard. Sheryl Canter breaks down the scientific argument for flaxseed oil, and I’ve got to admit, I’m itching to try that one soon. But we’re going to keep it simple (and vegan-friendly!), so it’s time to invest in some coconut oil.

You may not have coconut oil on your kitchen shelves just yet, but it’s totally worth the trip to the market. There are literally hundreds of uses for coconut oil – from cooking to cosmetics – and one jar will take you far. It’s a useful butter substitute, and when I’m not seasoning my cast-iron, I like to use it for cooking popcorn on the stove.

Before you can begin seasoning your cast-iron, you’ve got to clean it.

This is the only time you should use soap on your cast-iron, so go to town and clean it right up! After drying your cast-iron thoroughly, use your steel wool to remove any accumulated rust on the inside of the skillet, smoothing the rough spots as you go. Rinse off the dust and the rust with water, and dry thoroughly. 

Time to season!

Melt some coconut oil on the stove or in the microwave – enough to cover your entire pan in a thin layer of oil. Once you’ve coated your cast-iron, you’re ready to pop it in the oven!

Lay down some aluminum foil in the bottom of your oven, and preheat to 350 degrees. Once your oven is all ready to go, put the skillet upside-down on the rack.

Your cast-iron should bake for an hour. After you remove it from the oven, let your skillet cool down. Remember that the handle will be hot, so make sure to use oven mitts whenever handling your cast-iron. The iron should have an even sheen to it.

And now you’re ready to cook away! 

You can season your cast-iron as often as you like, and you should make it a regular habit to preserve the non-stick properties of the skillet. It’s not a perfect science, so you may have to reseason your cast-iron a couple times to get that black glossy finish. When cooking with your cast-iron, make sure to add a bit of oil – I use olive oil primarily – and preheat the surface before throwing in your dinner. This helps maintain the cast-iron’s super powers. To clean your cast-iron, try to immediately rinse off the skillet in hot water and wipe it clean. Just remember – no soap!

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