My love of references is going to be the end of me some day. Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips, where Jon rambles about some specific topic until someone drags him away from the keyboard, and unfortunately for you assholes, I don’t write these until the rest of the house is asleep. Today, we’re talking Cast Iron Cookware. What is it, what is it good for, and if my significant other has a precious cast iron pot, how much soap should I use to clean it?
You see how half the room just flinched viscerally, or laughed knowingly when I said that? By the end of this post, you’ll be able to chuckle along to cookware-based jokes just as well as all of them. Let’s dive in.
I’ve Had Many Cast Photos, but Few Cast Iron Ones
What exactly IS cast iron? It’s actually not raw Iron, but rather an iron-carbon alloy, that’s… look, I’ve done a lot of things in my life: I’m an Eagle Scout and a playwright; I’ve been a Baker, professional pet-owner imitator, and an unlicensed contractor. I’ve even engaged in some very light blacksmithing and took a couple classes as a jeweler. But I am NOT an industrial scale blacksmith, so a lot of what’s going on in the following sentences eludes me. So, if I fuck this up a little, forgive me.
Cast Iron is an iron-carbon alloy, with high carbon content. It’s made by processing Pig Iron, itself an intermediate product of Iron smelting. To make that more intelligible: You know wrought iron? That black metal in like, fences, fancy gates, and railings? You make that by pounding the shit out of cast iron, which you make by screwing around with pig iron, which is the really crappy kind of iron you get when you first melt it out of rocks and pour it out to dry. You can break that crap with a firm punch. There’s a video of a Chinese man shattering bars of it on his head for a world record.
It's kinda like this. Only less adorable.
You take that crappy metal, and process it to get rid of impurities, and you get cast iron. You pour the molten metal into molds, “casting” it, and boom, you got a skillet.
So what made this metal particularly popular for cooking? Heat, baby. Cast Iron holds onto heat like the rarely seen cousin of the firefighter, the fire-wrestler. This ability is not as impressive now, as better refining techniques and broader material bases opened new avenues, but it still holds up: Aluminum, for instance, actually retains heat better than cast iron, ounce for ounce. But aluminum is also less dense, and gets beaten thinner. A standard cast iron pan is about 4 mm thick, while an aluminum one is 2, and it ends up weighing about 1/3rd what the cast iron pan does.
But cast iron was easier to make. Much easier. Or simpler, at least. Cast Iron production is at least 2,500 years old. And while we don’t know exactly when it was first made into cooking supplies, I’m going to guess it was within at most 2-3 centuries after that. So when people call it “old-school”, understand that they’re talking “Old TESTAMENT” Old School.
"Every Metallica album after Master of Puppets was SHITTT!!!"
What’s Black, Hard, And Feeds At Least Three?
Nowadays, you’re most likely to see cast iron used in a Dutch oven for outdoor cooking, or in a skillet. This is because of another fact: you remember I said heat retention was a big deal for cast iron? Well, turns out water’s much better at heat retention than any of the metals I listed. So a cast iron pot has fewer benefits over any other kind of pot (Though it still has some, as we’ll get into) than it does as a skillet.
I’ve mentioned it a couple times, so let’s discuss why heat retention is important at all in cooking: at the core of it, cooking is the process of conveying heat to food at the proper rate and in the proper manner. (Arguably, since there are heat-less culinary prep techniques that may or may not be “cooking”.) Because of this, a cooking implement’s heat retention helps equalize the rate. A cast iron pan won’t cool down as quickly when food is added to it. Because it took so long to get hot, it gets hot more ‘evenly’, reducing the number of hot spots. It’s the diesel engine of cooking: it takes a while to get started but goes forever once it’s up and running. It’s also moderately dangerous to stand behind, has unforeseen medical consequences, and is something your grandfather waxes nostalgic over, just like Jimmy Stewart movies and Segregation.
Let us not forget Disney's JIM CROW and his buddies.
Fun Fact: all these crows are voices by African Americans.
Except the boss. He's a white guy doing a "black guy" voice.
I lied about the fun.
To head off any panic at my mention of “medical consequences”, don’t worry: studies have shown that cast iron cookware simply leaches dietary iron into food cooked in it. It’s actually a GOOD thing for most people, unless you have a relatively rare blood issue. (Turns out, yes, there can be TOO much “iron in your veins”, and no, for once, I’m not referencing that scene in the second X-Men Movie) In fact, there’s a new product being sold to help the anemic and those in developing nations that’s a simple fish made of cast iron. You drop it into whatever you’re cooking, and boom, instant uptick in iron intake. Different foods have different results, obviously. (simmering acidic tomato sauce for an hour, for instance, more than QUINTUPLES the iron in it, while baking bread in it only adds 25%.)
Another big perk of cast iron for cooking is what’s called “seasoning”. And no, I don’t just mean like, salt and pepper. I understand your confusion. No, this is more like “a seasoned veteran”. See, cast iron is somewhat porous, and reactive. And one of the things this lets it do is, to call it by the scientific name: *ahem* “polymerize fats and oils”. Basically, if you rub a cast iron skillet with oil, and cook it for a while, the oil fuses with the metal, making a kind of protective shield. This process makes properly seasoned cast iron skillets essentially non-stick, as they’ve already coated themselves in oil at almost the molecular level. It’s also what causes an insane amount of conflicts and hurt feelings in unwitting friends and significant others. Why? Glad you asked.
Have A Care for Your Pan
The detergents in soap will fuck up that coating, and potentially soak into the porous metal.
What? I said I was glad you asked, not that the answer was complicated.
But yes, oh so often have I heard a cousin, a friend, or fellow outdoorsman share the same story, in the same tone: “So we made dinner the other night, me and PARTNER, and she volunteered to do the dishes since I cooked. I walked in to see if she needed help, and there she was, cast-iron skillet full of bubbles”; and it’s almost always the same tone, believe me. It’s a laughing kind of regret, a head-shaking sense of “I was upset in the moment, but now that I’m calm, it’s just kind of silly” tone. I’m sure there are similar topics in many fields. I bet the first time a woman asks her significant other to get tampons and he comes back with pads, there’s the same sense of amused irritation. A frustrated sense of “well, you tried”, and the knowledge that now YOU have to fix their flawed efforts.
Oh no, how did this picture of a Ford Edsel end up here?
Also, Jesus, me, is EVERY JOKE today going to be a reference no one under 30 gives a shit about?
But yes, due to the nature of cast iron, some chefs don’t “wash” the metal at all: they simply wipe it down, rub it with more oil, and hang it. Others will gently rinse it, scrubbing with a soft brush or thin plastic wedge at any debris. Some will briefly simmer water in it, dump it, wipe it, and move on. Depending on the pan, you CAN use gentle soap and light scrubbing, but unless you’ve been directly assured by a company representative, I’d avoid it.
If you do use soap, it’s not the end of the world, of course. It just takes a couple of hours to fix. And yes, “hours” is the correct timeline. That’s why those counsins, friends, and fictional outdoorsmen got upset when they saw the person cleaning it. That and, depending on the pan, you may have just broken a years or even decades-long streak of continuous seasoning. It’s not a hard process, though, just a slightly lengthy one. You just thoroughly rinse the pan, to ensure no soap got left behind, coat it in a very thin layer of oil, and put in a 400 degree oven for 1 hour. Shut off the oven, and wait until the pan is cool enough to move. Boom, re-seasoned.
A Cast Iron Conclusion
Wait, what? What is this, a sixth-grade five paragraph essay? I don’t need conclusions to these things! Cast iron is great because it’s old school non-stick tech, it’s been a cooking tool for at least two millennia, and it gives a stellar damn crust on things cooked in it. End of discussion. Don’t use soap, and if things look weird, Google them. Stop talking to me.
MONDAY: JON MAKES GYROS, BECAUSE FUNCTIONING MAN-SIZED GYROCOPTORS ARE APPARENTLY ILLEGAL.
NEXT THURSDAY: JON REVIEWS ANOTHER NETFLIX SHOW ABOUT COOKING, WITH A GUY HE’S GONNA FANBOY ABOUT A LITTLE.