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Tips For Cooking With Cast Iron

A few years back I started cooking on cast iron. It's now my preferred method of cooking, but in the beginning I was so frustrated that I nearly threw them in the cupboard for good!

What makes cast iron so great?

Cast iron is great for many reasons. The first people mention is that it'll last hundreds of years if you maintain it properly. That means the cookware you're using now can be passed down to your children, grandchildren, and even GREAT grandchildren. Saves them $30, and they can't complain that you never gave them anything.

Cast iron is also perfect for searing food. Copper and aluminum can't sear the way cast iron can. Since cast iron skillets are made out of one piece of iron, there is no issue with warming it in a 500°F oven in order to get a great sear on a steak. If you like cooking steak, cast iron is definitely the way to go. It can also be used over a campfire, or any other open flame. Just be sure to use a thick oven mitt or towel when you pick up the handle.

Cooking with cast iron is also a healthier alternative to cooking with aluminum, copper, or non-stick cookware. A properly seasoned skillet has no toxicity, where the only "leaching" being done is an essential mineral: iron.

But if you're used to cooking with aluminum or copper cookware, there are some adjustments you're going ot have to make in order to cook with cast iron.

Cooking Tip 1: Pre Season

When you first get your cast iron skillet, you want to make sure it's seasoned properly. Many bought today come pre-seasoned. "Seasoning" a cast iron skillet involves washing it with soap and water (the only time you use soap on cast iron), drying it completely, then covering it in vegetable oil and letting it cook inside an oven. I've read different temperatures and times, ranging from between 300°F to 400°F for as long as 1 to 3 hours (depending who you ask). Some instructions even suggest repeating the process up to three times! With seasoning, buy pre-seasoned, or use your best judgement. Clean it, coat in vegetable oil, then cook it in the oven.

Cooking Tip 2: The Setup

Once you've seasoned it and have been cooking with it for a while, it might look something like this:

Before cooking, with slight food particles.

It's okay if there are small amounts of food particles left over from past meals. Any bacteria will burn up once you cook with it again. I've been using this pan for a few years cooking eggs and chicken breasts nearly daily and have not had any stomach issues. Each time you cook, you want to gently scrape any food off of the surface with something wooden or plastic, never sharp metal (metal will scratch the surface of the cast iron which could scrape off the seasoning and/or cause rust).

If you're wondering why my cast iron looks different than a traditional cast iron skillet, that's because mine is actually the top of a Lodge Combo Cooker . Because of this, there is a lip on the skillet and no spout. I'm also using a special protective handle which I highly recommend. Just remember to take it off if you're putting your skillet into the oven.

A good time to apply some kind of oil to the skillet is before cooking. Some people use coconut oil, some vegetable oil, but I like to use bacon grease (more info on that below).

Cooking Tip 3: Reduce Temperature

This is where I became frustrated in the beginning. When I used to cook eggs in aluminum or copper skillets, I'd use high heat (8/10). Whenever I tried that with cast iron, the eggs would burn and get stuck to skillet causing a big mess. Everything I cooked on cast iron came out burnt. I thought "Is this what cast iron cooking is all about? Burnt food?" I convinced myself that cast iron was just a big, overrated gimmick, with too many "rules" that made cooking too much of a hassle. I gave up on cast iron for a while, until I learned that cast iron requires patience.

Cooking eggs in cast iron.

Where I used to use high heat (8/10) to cook with aluminum, I discovered eggs on my cast iron cook perfectly at med-high heat (6/10). It's important to pre-heat the cast iron for a few minutes before putting the food into the skillet. Cast iron takes longer to heat up, but once it does, the heat is more evenly distributed and consistant than other cookware. Keep the temperature lower than normal (compared to other cookware) and wait for the iron to "release" the cooked food before you try to flip it, and you'll fall in love with cast iron cooking.

Cooking Tip 4: Cleaning Up

The best time to clean cast iron is immediately after cooking while it is still hot. If you allow large food particles to cool on cast iron it becomes difficult to scrape away (but not impossible).

Scrape your food off while the skillet is still hot.

Once the particles have been scraped off, you can either wait for it to cool, or empty it into the trash. Be careful if you decide to empty it right away. Cast iron is heavy, so make sure you get a good grip on the handle. I like to grab the handle so that my palm is facing up before I pick it up. Then when I get to the trash can and turn the skillet upside down, my palm is also facing down. This gives me the most control while emptying the skillet. Whatever you do, you need a plan, because it's hot and you don't want your grip to slip and have the heavy cast iron skillet falling on your foot.

If you waited for the pan to cool down before scraping it off, then you might need to wash it. There are a couple of methods for washing. One method is to add water and then let the water boil in the skillet on the stove. This will help loosen all of the burnt pieces. Then, while the water is still boiling, you can take a wooden or plastic spatula to lightly scrape away all the junk that was stuck on the skillet. Once everything has been loosened, pour the water out into your sink (using a strainer to catch any debris is you don't have a disposal). Continue cleaning using a brush and salt, or a chainmail scrubber . If you use chainmail, be careful not to press too hard or scratch the surface of your cast iron. Once all of the food has been scraped off, dump the water out and put it back on the stove or oven to cook until it is completely dry. Last step is to cover it in oil or bacon grease and set it aside where it won't collect dust or animal hair.

Cooking Tip 5: Mini-Seasoning

If you removed the large food particles while the pan was still hot, then you can do a "mini-seasoning" by covering the skillet with oil and placing it back on the warm burner. The oil will slowly cook while the burner cools down.

Apply grease or oil on a skillet placed on the warm burner as it cools after cooking to maintain a strong seasoning.

These "mini-seasonings" are great for keeping your cast iron it top shape and ready to use for your next meal. It's a little extra work, but if done correctly, your cast iron cookware will last many lifetimes.

Cooking Tip 6: The Right Tools

I've been cooking with cast iron a few years and have come across products that have helped along the way. These are all products that I own.

Pre-Seasoned Combo Cooker

This was the first cast iron cookware I ever bought. The thing that sold me about it is that you're basically getting three pieces of cookware for not much more than the price of one. You're getting a shallow skillet, a deep skillet, and a dutch oven. The deep skillet is great for cooking deep dish pizza, or frying chicken. The versitility of this combo cooker makes it a great introduction into cast iron cooking.

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Plastic Scraper

This plastic scraper really does a fantastic job of scraping away food off of my cast iron cookware. Before I got it, I tried using a plastic spatula, but the spatula wasn't getting the job done. These plastic scrapers come in a pack of two and are definitely worth getting.

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Silicone Handle

A heat resistant silcone handle is the best way to work with cast iron cookware. What makes this better than a towel is that it stays on the handle so it's always where you need it. Just remember to remove it if you plan on putting your cast iron into an oven or over a campfire.

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Silicone Assist Handle

Since cast iron is heavy, sometimes you need to carry it with two hands. This silicone assist handle works along with the regular silicone handle, but slips onto the top handle of the skillet. I don't cook with this on. I keep it nearby and slip it on when I need to pick the skillet up with both hands. Not entirely necessary, but it's nice to have it when you need it.

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Chainmail Scrubber

For those times when I let the skillet cool before cleaning it, I turn to the chainmail cast iron scrubber. I'll use this with hot water (no soap). Then I'll put the skillet on the burner to make sure all of the water is dried off. Remember: water + cast iron = rust.

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Cast Iron Scrub Brush

This is a great scrub brush for lightly stuck on food particles. Combine this with salt to get off stubborn, burnt on food. It cleans in all of the nooks and crannies of cookware without scratching the surface.

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Grease Container with Strainer

Since I prefer cooking with bacon grease rather than vegetable or coconut oil, this is a must. The container comes with a removeable strainer that strains out any meat particles from your bacon grease while you're pouring it into the container. I'll use this every time I cook, and when the grease gets low, I cook up some more bacon and fill it back up. If you're serious about cooking with cast iron, you should considered getting yourself one of these.

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