Cast-Iron Chronicles Book 2: Zen and the art of skillet-keeping

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Kevin Reber/File

Alright, cast-holes. If you’re reading this, it means you took the great advice I gave you in Book 1 about acquiring yourself a cast-iron skillet, and that means we’re ready to move on to a central pillar of ownership: maintenance. A good skillet doesn’t mean an expensive skillet, but it does mean a clean skillet, and it does mean a cured skillet. Let me explain.

Now, when you see skillets that are as black as early-career Kanye, shiny as Danny Zuko’s hair and smooth as a Frank Ocean track — skillets that are truly the stuff of cast-iron porn (whoa, risky click) — you’re not looking at new skillets. No no, a CIS (we can use abbrevs now) is the only kitchen appliance that actually gets better with age, almost like a fine wine or “The Life of Pablo” (just you wait). The best skillets are oftentimes the oldest ones, so if your grandparents are about to clock out and are willing to toss you theirs, make sure they painfully scribble that into their will. But how do those old boys get so beautiful?

While the surface of a CIS seems perfectly smooth, it’s actually full of microscopic cracks, crooks and cranks that make its complexion actually pretty porous. If you were to heat up a brand new one and toss an egg in there, little bits of eggy would nestle into those cracks, and your breakfast would stick to the skillet like Taylor Swift sticks to being a fucking snake. So, to prevent that early-morning travesty, we need to use some fat, a’course! Wiping oil around your skillet then heating it past that oil’s smoke point will actually bond the lil’ fat particles into the lil’ cracks in the iron. Maintained properly, levels of fat build up on one another, making your pan not only more nonstick with age, but also better seasoned. This is called a CIS’s “cure.” All this makes your food taste better, which is a very good thing indeed.

Now, when it comes to everything you’re about to read, you need to understand degree of participation. You’re joining a cult, and there are reform practices as well as orthodox. Both have legitimate merits, and while I tend to sway somewhat orthodox in this regard, I’m anal about my food and understand that my level of asshattery is too tiring for most. So I’ll do my best to play both sides (this reminds me so much of Jewish day school it’s crazy. Speaking of which, you can make some pretty geshmak latkes in your cast iron).

When you first get a new CIS, you need to get an initial layer of fat down before any cooking takes place. For this very first season, rub a very thin layer of oil around both the inside and outside of the pan, then pop it in a 500 degree oven for an hour. There will be smoke. After the hour, turn the oven off and give the pan another hour or so in the oven to cool completely. Repeat three, or two, or one or no times more, and you’re good to go!

The best fat to use for this, according to food writers who are somehow even more annoying than I, is organic refrigerated flaxseed oil. This stuff does give the skillet a beautiful base, but it’s expensive, smells bad and you can’t really use it to cook. That makes it a unitasker — albeit a good one — but not a great value for a college student.

Here are the best nonflax fats I’ve found, ranked by how annoying you sound when you say you use them specifically to “fat-season your cast iron skillet”:

  1. Avocado Oil
  2. Coconut Oil
  3. Peanut Oil
  4. Canola Oil
  5. Bacon grease, baby

I even made a bar graph to facilitate your learning:

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Austin Isaacsohn / Staff

Nice.

Once you have your base down, cooking will do the rest of the seasoning for you. Each time you use your skillet, pour a little bit of oil into it, and your food will slide right around that pan like a liquored-up grandma on a wedding dance floor!

Cleanup is the most hotly debated topic in skilletry. The greatest divide in the faction regards whether or not to ever use soap and water on a CIS. Water, orthodox believers say, will rust your precious iron. Soap exacerbates this issue and cuts away at all the fat to reveal the tender skin beneath. New-age thinkers claim that water has little to no effect, if used quickly, and today’s dish soaps are conditioned to not attack the fat you’ve built up. They call the no-water cleaning method hackneyed, but it’s the tactic that I’ve stuck with. I have updated it a bit though, so as to accommodate all parties. It’s the best compromise this side of 1787.

After cooking, wait for the pan to cool nearly completely, then take a dryish washcloth and wipe out the leftover crumbies into the sink. Heat the pan again, and rub a little more oil into the bottom.

If, by chance, a little food has stuck to the bottom of the pan, have no fear. Not only is this normal, but it’s easily fixed. After wiping out the crumbies, heat the skillet and pour in a little bit of coarse sea salt. Next, pour in a little oil, and “shave” over the rough spot with a strong plastic spatula.

shaving-3

Sasha Ashall / Blog Staff

Should smooth out perfectly!

I pretty much only use canola oil for that whole bit, because it’s by far the cheapest of the lot. Olive oil tastes great, but I’ve found that all the light fruitiness that makes it so delicious at room temperature also makes it burn and smell nasty at the super high heats needed to season, so I stay away from it for those endeavors. Still cook with it though, obviously.

Well, that’s about the end of my Competence Manifesto. Skillet maintenance is as easy as it is rewarding, and soon enough your cast iron will teach you that self-sufficiency isn’t something to be afraid of, but cherished. We’re only on this Earth for a white hot second, and I think it’s a waste of time to rely on anyone else for your everyday happiness and fulfillment. Cook, clean and think for yourself — the rest will come easy. Channeling Epicurus is a bit much for a cooking article, but an examined life really is a fulfilling one.

Oh, also, don’t forget: Whether seasoning a skillet, doing a worksheet or catching fade with a teacher, you must always do the front and the back.

Austin Isaacsohn covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].. Follow him on Twitter @AustinIsaacsohn.

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