Rascal and I were taking a walk one recent blustery Saturday morning, when my friend Kevin called to us from the driveway of a house where there was an estate sale.
“Hey, come take a look at something I’m thinking of buying,” he said.
So we trotted up driveway and made our way to the back of the garage, where there was a gorgeous wood church pew in the shadows. It was in terrific condition, and the top of the bench lifted to reveal ample storage in the seat. The price was right, so I urged him to buy it. Rascal agreed.
Then we spied the real treasure on a table catty-corner from the pew: a number of pieces of old cast-iron cookware. There were a couple of Dutch ovens, deep skillets, a saucepan, and even a large casserole dish, all deep red with rust. It had been many years since these pots had taken a turn on the stove.
“Wow,” we said.
“That one could be a Christmas present,” I said, pointing to a deep skillet. Of course, I wasn’t suggesting Kevin put a bow on a rusted-out pan and hand it out. But I knew he could restore the pan to culinary glory, and that effort would be the real gift.
Kevin has a particular appreciation for cast iron and often reaches for his well-seasoned skillet (a hand-me-down from his mom) to whip up cornbread. He ended up buying the whole lot of estate-sale cookware, with plans to restore all of it. His wife assumed he was going to dole the stuff out to family and friends. But he was so beguiled by the stuff that he decided to start a collection.
Cooks prize cast iron because it heats slowly, but evenly and retains heat better than just about any other material. It’s great for high-heat cooking, to sear a steak or scallops, for instance. A deep skillet is ideal for frying chicken. A well-seasoned pot has a lovely, stick-resistant patina (made of carbon, really). These days, manufacturers like Lodge sell preseasoned pots, but traditionally, pots have been seasoned by years of cooking. (Note: You could opt for enameled cast-iron cookware, which offers the benefits of cast iron but is rust-resistant and doesn’t require seasoning, thanks to the enamel coating. But it costs a lot more. Lodge’s 5-quart cast-iron Dutch oven is $50 vs. $168 for their enameled cast-iron version.) Kevin’s cache of cast-iron cookware would need serious cleaning and reseasoning.
How to season the pots was a conundrum, since Kevin discovered that there are nearly as many ways to season cast-iron cookware as there are cooks, and everyone swears their way is the One True Method. The Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion, for instance, suggests heating a pan on the stove over high heat until it’s hot enough for a drop of water to sizzle. Then coat the pan with vegetable oil, rubbing vigorously and blotting up any extra oil; for a new pot, repeat the process several times until the surface blackens. Some cooks swear by animal fat (i.e., lard) for seasoning; others say you should never use animal fat. Some sources say you must bake the oiled pot in a high oven; others advocate a low oven. After some research, Kevin settled on a method that works well, and he gladly shared with me and another friend…as long as we came over and did the work. A hands-on lesson, so to speak. Here’s what we did, beginning with two very rusted pans.
Cleaning Cast-Iron with Kevin
1. Thoroughly wet the pan.
2. Scrub with a steel-wool pad. This will remove much of the rust. Use a stiff-bristled steel-wool brush to remove stubborn rust spots, especially in crevices. Rinse every so often so you can check your progress. If the rust is really intractable, you may need to resort to an electric sander. Whatever tool you use, take care to remove the rust without scrubbing away the dark patina.
3. Dry the pan completely and check it again for any lingering rust. The rust will become apparent as the pan dries.
4. Scrub the pot with hot water, a dish brush, and mild dish soap. Dry the pot thoroughly and do one last check for any lingering signs of rust. Scour the pan as needed to remove remaining rust.
5. Generously coat the clean pot with fat (Kevin uses canola oil, which has a neutral flavor).
6. Bake the pot in a 325- to 450-degree oven (people use a wide range of temperatures) for about an hour.
7. Remove the pot from the oven. Let it cool until it’s safe to handle. Reapply oil and bake again. You can repeat the oiling/baking process several times, if you like.
The results of our efforts were glorious, as you can see below. Of course, I borrowed the deep fryer yesterday to fry up some chicken for our Thanksgiving feast. It did the job beautifully. Hmmm, perhaps I can “forget” to return it?