Cooking with cast iron has a certain rustic feel to it. It isn’t just about the method of cooking, but the meals often cooked in them will be hearty, bush camp stews, no knead breads, grilled meats, bacon and eggs, or even cornbread and damper.
There’s been lots of negative press in the last few years about the perils of using non stick. I changed over to cast iron much earlier, and it was mostly due to being sick and tired of having to change nonstick cookware so often because it was starting to show wear, and it was cheap enough that you thought little about just dumping it and buying a new one.
When I moved to homesteading I became much more aware of my local eco system. We’ve been on our own water and sewerage for 15 years almost, and only connected to town electricity. So we very quickly had to learn about keeping good bacteria in the sewerage tanks to ensure the waste could decompose naturally, and not shove food scraps down the drain instead of the rubbish bin. We also quickly discovered that many things could be re-used or recycled, and so it seemed wasteful to just keep buying and discarding nonstick cookware.
It was natural to want to look into something that had a long life. My other factor in moving to cast iron was that in an emergent situation, you could take the cookware out and cook over a fire, or BBQ or in an oven. If by chance we ran out of gas, and still had electricity, we could still bake something in the oven using cast iron.
The trick to owning and using cast iron is regular maintenance and proper care. I’ve never seen pre-seasoned pans for sale but if that were such a thing, then that could kick start your move to cast iron cookware much quicker. But you can also buy cast iron with enamel coating and these don’t require seasoning. I have a mixture of both.
Possibly the only pitfall in using cast iron is that they are heavy to hold, and the entire thing including the handle gets really hot. There’s greater chance of injury or burn if you’re not careful when using cast iron cookware. Even knowing this risk though, I still prefer to use it.
Buying cast iron or changing from nonstick to cast iron can be expensive, but there’s a few ways around it:
- Ask family and friends for any cast iron they don’t want or are willing to part with. Often times people buy them for camping, use them once, and find it too heavy or too onerous to clean. You may find one in excellent condition and be given it for free or for an incredibly low price.
- Scour your local op shops. I find them every time I go and have purchased lots of different sized ones from op shops. There is nothing wrong with buying repurposed cast iron skillets. A little rust should not deter you because rust can be cleaned and pans re-seasoned.
- Also check gumtree, Facebook marketplace and local garage sales. You’re sure to find someone getting rid of old camping cookware which you could grab for cheap.
- If you have a particular brand you would prefer to invest in, sign up to their newsletter and anywhere their cookware is sold. You’ll often get newsletters with discount codes and notifications of upcoming sales.
- Wait until Black Friday or Boxing Day when companies are preparing for big Christmas sales. You may find you can get anywhere from 15-45% off sets that you can invest in.
- Chose ‘no name’ brands instead of the Le Creuset. They’ll be significantly cheaper and will do the same job.
So now that you’ve been armed with ways of buying cast iron, how do you look after it?
Cast iron needs to be seasoned with oil to seal it, and done so regularly. Washing cast iron with harsh detergents and chemicals will strip away the oil coating, and you really want the oil coating there because then it acts exactly like a nonstick pan!
But, you shouldn’t just lather any oil on there and hope for the best. I use shortening or a cheap vegetable oil with a high smoke point, and when cooking use extra virgin olive oil, bacon fat, lard and butter to keep it going between maintenance. You can buy seasoning sprays but I’ve never needed to and had no issue keeping my cast iron maintained.
There’s two ways you can season your cast iron skillet. I use the oven method at least once a year for when I completely wash my cast iron and start from scratch, so to speak, but for maintenance I use the stove top method. I’ve listed both of these methods below.
Seasoning in an oven
Here’s how to season your cast-iron skillet to give it the perfect, natural, nonstick finish in the oven.
- Gently scrub the cast-iron pan with a light dish soap and water, then rinse and let it dry completely.
- Preheat the oven to 180c. Place some aluminium foil at the bottom of the oven to catch any drips.
- Wipe the pan with a paper towel. Using a pastry brush, ‘paint’ a light layer of your oil. Any excess oil should be pat dry with a clean paper towel. The oil should not be swimming, chunky or gloopy. Just ensure you have a thin layer across all porous parts.
- When the oven comes to temperature, place the pan upside down on the top rack of the oven and bake for 1 hour. Turn off the oven, leaving the pan in the oven to cool completely. This process of baking on a layer of oil builds up the pan’s naturally protective patina, smoothing out the rough texture of the cast iron and creating a nonstick finish without sprayed-on chemicals.
- Repeat as desired; a single round of seasoning is enough to get you started, and the pan will continue to build up its seasoning as you cook with it. For a seasoning bonus, cook bacon or thick pork chops in the pan for its first go-round. The natural fats in these meats will work wonders on its finish.
Seasoning on the stove
It’s best to use this method when you’ve done your first oven season. I cook the first 5-10 meals on the pan as pure fat, usually bacon. After cooking, the bacon fat is left there to cool before the excess gets taken out. Additionally, if I’ve had the BBQ or oven on, I put the pan in to do a cool down with an oil in there. For me, this has been enough to keep maintenance up between seasonings.
Cleaning seasoned cast-iron on the stove is as simple as rinsing it — wipe with a clean washcloth or soft sponge under very hot water, then dry thoroughly. To give the pan extra love, rub the clean pan with a very light layer of vegetable oil or canola oil and place over medium-low heat for a few minutes.
If you do have cooked on bits or oil that is sticky, reheat your cast iron first to heat the oils and pour those oils into a jar to discard. Then with the cookware still slightly warm, wash in warm water.
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