The Too-Good-To-Be-True Fry Pan
Skillets – or fry pans - are a metaphor that perfectly illustrate the consumptive trends of North American families over the past 40 years: a tireless quest for easy, fast and cheap. It’s the recipe for too-good-to-be-true and as most adults know, when it seems to good to be true, it probably is.
That’s certainly the case with the skillet. Most of us now cook on relatively affordable non-stick pans, that clean easily and quickly because of a Teflon coating. Every few years the Teflon begins to chip away and - being caring concerned parents - we replace the pans. After all, we don’t want our kids to ingest that toxic coating!
Choosing Permaculture in Cookware
After repeating this pattern in our house for a decade, I could no longer quiet my nagging conscious. Every time I took out the skillet, with a little scratch here or there, I questioned the logic of preparing my families meals in a toxic hotbed. As I turned my thoughts towards another replacement, I pictured the fry-pan graveyard amassing in our landfills.
Determined to find a better way, I joined the growing movement of conscientious cookers who are looking to generations past for wholesome inspiration began researching cast iron.
Cast Iron in the Kitchen
Cast iron was the standard for centuries. I’m not sure why in the past 30 years it’s been all but eradicated from the modern kitchen. A good cast iron skillet will last many lifetimes, is 100% non-stick and is a joy to cook on.
There seem to be three PR obstacles that stand between the cast iron skillet and its rightful return to popularity:
1. The Soap Hangup. Cast iron skillets are seasoned with layers of oil to create the perfect non-stick surface. Abrasive cleaning ruins the seasoning. Some aficionados argue that you can use soap – real soap – but not dishwasher detergent, which is an abrasive chemical replica of soap. The critical thing is to preserve the seasoning and prevent rusting. Which takes us to,
2. The Elbow Grease Myth. Cast iron skillets have a bad rep as being more work than their modern counterparts. This is a myth. In return for lifetime of beautiful, non-toxic, non-stick cooking, the pan asks simply that you clean it immediately after use and keep it dry to prevent rusting.
3. The Fear of the Seasoning. There is a common misrepresentation that seasoning is complicated and time consuming. It isn’t. The very best seasoning is built up layers of polymerized fat, which is created through repeated use.
Let’s explore each of these hang ups in more detail, starting with seasoning.
Seasoning Cast Iron Cookware
Seasoning a skillet simply means to create a thin layer of petrified oil/grease on the cast iron. While this can be done all at once in an act of “seasoning the skillet,” most folks knowledgeable in the cast iron cookware suggest that the best seasoning comes from repeated use and consistent care. When working in a new skillet, cook with a little more oil than normal. There is no right or wrong oil to use, though experts seem to agree that the oils that create the hardest, smoothest, seasoning are animal fats, palm oil and sunflower oil. There is a science to all this and a great thread about theories, temperatures and oils on permies.org , but if you’re new to cast iron and feeling intimidated, the bottom line is it’s not as complicated as the science makes it seem!
The Elbow Grease Myth
Cooking with cast iron does not require significant elbow grease. Purists agree that the very best clean up for a well-seasoned cast iron pan is to simply wipe it clean. Water and a gentle scrub with a non-abrasive cloth is a close second. However, the key to keeping cast iron rust free is keeping the pan dry and the key to keep it stick-free is keeping it well seasoned. To that end, when water is used, place the towel-dried skillet back on high heat with a thin layer of oil for about one minute after cleaning to remove all dampness and maintain the seasoning.
For less common care issues, like removing rust or blotches from second hand pans, refer to permaculture enthusiast Paul Wheaton’s comprehensive and easy to read article about cooking with cast iron.
The Soap Hangup
What can I say, you don’t need it! I’m not a science guru so I may not be able to set all reservations to ease, but the long and the short of it is that:
· A well seasoned pan is so non-stick that it’s almost completely clean when you are done cooking,
· The seasoning in the pan preserves any miniscule food bits that remain,
· High heat kills everything.
If this last hangup really gets you, you’re not alone. So much so, in fact, that there is now an entire trade of pre-seasoned cast iron pans. These are marketed as being soap friendly and even dishwasher safe pans for cast iron enthusiast looking for modern cleaning. There are a number of finishes to these skillets and the only one I recommend is enamel (essentially, glass). Other pre-seasoning likely means that your toxin-free pan comes with a lovely layer of toxins!
Are All Cast Iron Skillet's Created Equal
The main determinant of a good cast iron skillet is the shape and texture of the pan. Of the old school skillet makers of repute - Lodge, Wagner and Griswold – Wagner seems to be the most coveted while Lodge appears to be the most common. However, newer Lodge pans (Lodge Logic) are reputed to have a rough cooking surface, which takes significantly longer to season to perfection. The consensus is that the very best pans are handed down from the previous generation after decades of use. These can sometimes be found at thrift stores or on ebay or for very reasonable prices. Of the newer enameled cast iron pans, the crème of the crème is Le Creuset.
An Investment in the Future
Investing in a cast iron skillet, whether old school or modern enameled, is an investment in your family’s health and a contribution to a permaculture based society. The pans aren’t necessarily cheap. But I felt satisfied as I skipped home from the Le Creuset outlet and I said to my kids, referring to both our beautiful pan and to their happy, healthy future, "today I bought a piece of your inheritance".