I like to rescue things that are real, old things especially, and use them, pondering all of the old ways and people’s lives who have created, loved and used them. Cast iron pans are almost eternal, passing down secrets, truth, love and living life on your own like a pioneer. There is not much in this life that can carry on real continuity from the past and to the future and my cast iron pans have become central to, well, almost everything I hold dear, taking part in the Great Conversation, to resonate being with love and freedom.
“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” J.R.R. Tolkein The Return of the King
Those cast-ironed hands which came before, living in a time when men and women knew how to make and fix things instead of throwing them away, could not have fathomed the weather of the future: teflon, silicone, depleted uranium, cloned meat, GMO’s, CAFO’s, the internet, Google Glass… Using real things can bring in a sense of belonging to the real, in an increasingly phony and polluted world.
We do have power over our own personal pollution by choosing to remove our support from Big Pharm, Big Farm, Big Mind, Big Shop and Big Gulp: one thought, one dollar and one bite at a time.
For me, old cast iron pans are a step towards that removal (but watch this phony cry if my internet goes down with my food processor and stick blender.)
It all began about 14 years ago when we first bought this place and some friends were visiting. My friend found a rust-petrified cast iron pan in the barn, where the cowboys would sleep in the loft during haying season in the late 1800’s.
I had never owned nor cooked with cast iron before, and certainly did not know how to salvage the orange encrusted beast, but there was life and history beneath the crust. My friend scrubbed the pan and rubbed it with oil.
Back then I only cooked with olive oil and butter, not knowing about the wonders of saturated fats like lard, tallow and coconut oil. The way I learned to season a cast iron pan was to coat it in oil, place it in a 350 degree oven for an hour, let it cool, wipe off the excess and do it again. The problem with seasoning a pan with olive oil, or heaven forbid other vegetable oils, is that the oil will pool and become gunky and sticky. When I awoke to using higher smoking point saturated fats, which do not turn into trans-fats, I found that by using tallow, lard or coconut oil will season a cast iron pan the way it was meant to be, smooth as glass.
An old cast iron pan is far superior to a cast iron pan that you can purchase new today. First of all the “seasoning” that is put on a new pan is just as dangerous as teflon, and should be removed. Also the new pans (most of which are made in China) are very rough and not milled smooth like the old American ones.
Most of my old pans are unmarked, though I have a few Wagoner Ware and Griswold. You can still find some great pans at farm auctions or junk shops, many for about $10, especially if you know how to restore the seasoning.
A fully seasoned pan has a surface like glass, smooth and slick enough to easily fry an egg on.
This is how I cook/fry with my cast iron, and how I clean them, but my pans are now thoroughly seasoned. Try and use pans that are not fully seasoned for making bacon or frying something with lard, tallow, coconut oil or butter. Or use them to render tallow or lard, this will help season them in a hurry.
First rule: when you are finished cooking, scrape the pan while it is still hot. Use a spatula that has a perfectly flat scraping end, and scrape off all the burnt, or cooked on food. If you do this, then you will be able to just wipe down the pan with a paper towel, wiping away all the bits and grease and then giving a quick spray with hot water.
Of course I don’t always do what I am supposed to do, more often than not actually, and the cast iron cops will have a nervous breakdown as to what I do when I have let the cooked on gunk get cold and hard in the pan. I wipe out as much grease as I can, fill the pan with very hot water and let it sit for a while.
This photograph is deceiving, as it looks like there is rust on the pan, but it is just burnt on gunk reflecting underneath the hot water in the pan. After about 5 min, I then scrape it with the flat spatula, and if I have to, I commit a mortal sin. I lightly use a scrubbing sponge on the stubborn parts. Using hot water and my sprayer, rubbing with my hands, usually does the trick though. (Never use any soap.)
A well seasoned pan will bead up when water is on it.
Second Rule: this one I never break, always dry the wet pan immediately, front and back.
Third Rule: Hang cast iron on the wall if you can, so that air can reach the front and back. If you have to put it in a cupboard, don’t stack them, as rust will form.
Forth Rule: Anytime you make bacon or have grease on a paper towel, take it and rub it on all your pans, inside and out.
They will shine like a mirror, and come to think of it, this is the only selfie I have ever taken, or will.
Fifth Rule: Always scrape and wipe all the grease you can and throw it in the trash before you try and clean your pan in the sink, or you will be sorry.
No matter if you have a septic system or are on a city sewage system, grease like tallow and lard especially will harden around your pipes when they get cold.
I know of what I speak, as I have broken this rule, and speak from experience: Potty Emergency, and having the need to call a plumber with a hot steam clean out, twice.
A friend has gently said that my potty emergencies arise from my old pipes. I am not even sure it is the tallow, but arises more from “what I’m full of.”