Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cast Iron

Ok, so this one's not about woodworking tools, though some may have a cameo later on.

But when you get right down to it, I'm mostly writing about getting results with tools that are inexpensive (and sometimes cheap, too!).  Have you looked at the price on high-end cast iron cookware recently?  All that fancy enameled stuff?  Yikes!  And most of it's still made in China, as far as I can tell.  That doesn't bother me for tools -- I'm not planning to chew on those -- but I'm not a fan of it for cookware.  China doesn't have the best track record for keeping things like lead out of products that really shouldn't have it.

So what does that leave?

Well, you can always buy old Griswold or Wagner stuff on eBay or a flea market.  Sometimes you'll even get a good price.  I picked up a stack of cast iron muffin pans for a few dollars each a couple years ago.  But it's kind of like buying tools;  you may get a great deal, or it may turn that everyone you meet thinks their 8" skillet is worth fifty bucks.

Two, maybe three years ago I wanted a deep cast iron pan.  Not quite a dutch oven, but something deep.  Well, I happened to be in the mall around then, and ran across this.

It's a Lodge Combo Cooker -- frying pan, dutch oven, and skillet, in one box.  And it was on clearance, for about $25.  Not bad.  (As of this writing, the link points to a $40 sale price, and they can be had cheaper on Amazon.)

I brought it home, washed and re-seasoned it, and happily started cooking, only to discover that Lodge has gone WAY downhill, and now leaves everything with a rough, pebbly sort of texture that will let a fried egg stick to it, even when it's floating in butter.  But hey, I'd spent $25 on this thing.  I'm not going to just let it go to waste, am I?

So here's how you make it work.

First, take the whole thing out to your shop.  If you've only got one workbench, cover it with newspaper or something;  you do NOT want to get the gunk you're about to generate on your nice clean woodworking bench.  I used a secondary bench that I use for all sorts of dirty work, so I didn't care how filthy I got it.

Next, find a random orbit sander.  I had one, but if you're a hard-core hand-tool only sort of person, you may need to borrow one.  Or just use this as an opportunity for a Zen contemplation of the futility of life, and the meditation oportunities inherent in hand-sanding cast iron.  Put some 80 grit paper on the sander, or on your sanding block.  In my case, the inside of the deep fry pan felt just about exactly like the sandpaper, so it seemed like a good choice.  If you got a smoother pan than I did, consider yourself lucky.  (I told you the woodworking tools would make an appearance!)

Now, start sanding.  You don't need to make it perfectly smooth:  once you get the pan seasoned, it'll be a lot less likely to stick, and it'll start smoothing itself out.  But for now, it needs some help.  I spent about 15 minutes, mostly on the bottom, and then a run around the sides of each piece.  Around half an hour, total.  I did have to do some hand sanding of the rounded join where the bottom and sides meet, but not much... for some reason, that was already a lot smoother.

Did I wind up with a perfectly smooth pan?  No, of course not.  Those really old pans were mostly machined  with a cutting tool that left those nice smooth surfaces you've seen.  This was pretty much cast, then tossed in a box.  I don't have a machining shop, so I can't match those old pans.  But when I stopped, the bottom and sides were a speckled grey, rather than a matte black.  The inside of the pan felt pretty smooth to the touch... maybe more like 400 grit wet/dry paper than the 80 I'd started with.

At that point, wipe it out as best you can with a rag or a paper towel, because you're back to the kitchen.  Clean it out well, with soap and water.  We may all need more iron in our diets, but not as grit sanded off a pan.  (Trust me, it tasted vile.  This might also be a good moment to point out that a dust mask would be a really good idea while you're sanding.)

Next up, the pan needs to be seasoned.  There are about ten thousand methods, and as far as I can tell, they all work.  Here's my recipe:

1) Coat the pan in whatever oil you have, but NOT corn oil.  No sunflower oil either... they get sticky.  If the bottle says "vegetable oil", keep looking.  I like olive oil, butter, things like that.  Some people swear by grape seed oil.  I'm told lard is fantastic.  In general, a higher smoke point is better, since it reduces the amount by which you fill your house with smoke.  Keep the coating THIN.  If it's dripping, you used too much.  Wipe it on, then wipe it off again.  You want a faint sheen, not a glossy coat.

2) Put the pan in the oven, and set it to 500.  Let the oven heat up all the way, then wait about 20 minutes.

3) Pull the pan out with the thickest pot-holders you have, and let it cool ten minutes or so. 

4) Rub more oil on, and put it back in the oven.

5) Wait 20 minutes, then repeat steps 3 and 4 a half dozen times or so.

Basically, every time you cook it you're adding a layer to the pre-seasoning.  That makes it less likely that things will stick.

6) Cook some eggs.  Seriously.  Fried eggs are the best thing I've ever found for seasoning a pan.  Bacon mostly has sugar in it these days, which means it sticks like crazy and you wind up scraping caramel off your new frying pan if you try to season with it.  But put a little butter or oil in the pan, then fry an egg, and you're well on your way -- a couple dozen eggs and you'll start seeing that shine you want when the pan is empty.

Finally, caring for your pan.  If you've read this far, I hope you already know that washing your pan with soap is a Bad Idea.  Just don't do it, unless you have to.  (More on that in a minute.)  Assuming you're going to use the pan regularly, you don't really need to do much at all.  Wipe it out with a paper towel or something and you're done.  If there are BCBs (Burnt Crunchy Bits) at the bottom, scrape 'em off with a metal spatula.  If they're REALLY bad, pour in some kosher salt and use that to scrub with.  Other than that, don't worry about it.  Every time you use it you're going to heat it up enough to kill any bacteria that try to colonize it, and you're not going to leave any grease in it long enough to go rancid.  If you do wind up leaving it for a long time, wash it a little more carefully before, then put in a very light coat of oil.  Then, when you take it out again, wash it thoroughly to get rid of the oil, and start cooking.  I've left pans a couple of years that way with no problem.

But what if it's really nasty? What if, say, your kitchen ceiling collapses, and fills your nice pan up with a sludge of mixed drywall dust, bathroom sink gunk, and mouse droppings?  (Don't laugh -- it happened to me.  That was a lousy day.)  All is not lost.  Wash your pan out with soap and hot water, then tuck it in the oven for a few minutes to dry.  Take it out, rub it with oil, and you're good to go.  My most-used pans at this point laugh at soap.  Water just beads on them, which makes washing them kind of odd... you really have to scrub to get the water to do anything but roll off.

So there it is.  My overly long commentary on cast iron.  If you've never cooked with cast iron, try it.  Your food will taste better, at least once you get the hang of it, and you'll be saving a lot of money over fancy teflon pans.  (Which may or may not cause cancer, depending on who you trust.  They'll definitely kill your pet bird, though.)