Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Seasoning Cast Iron

I admit it; I was negligent. I let a house guest use my cast iron pans without telling him how they are supposed to be used, and when he left, my cast iron pans were a complete mess. Most of my pans are close to a hundred years old, and I thought they deserved a little care, so like the child of any scientist, I started reading some research, when I stumbled across some information on lipid polymerization.
Now don't let the big words scare you: this is simply a matter of how fats cross-link.
Buy at Art.com
Cast Iron Skillet
Sheila Terry

No, that's not my pan. I'm too embarrassed to show you my own pans in their "before" state.

Before you read any further, please let me remind you of one thing:

Seasoning is not the same as cooking!

Please, no comments about carcinogens, etc. I know that when you cook, you don't heat oils above their smoke point, because you don't want the result in your diet. However, seasoning is a different matter entirely: you want that hard polymer on your cast iron, so that it stays hard. Don't worry, it won't come off on your food, and even better, you can actually scrub your pots and pans afterwards, even with soap and water!

This scrubber really does the job and you'll be thrilled with the results, if your pans are seasoned properly. It will tear up your hands if you don't wear heavy-duty gloves, though, so be warned. However, it will last forever!

(Note: if you have any of the old-style pull tabs (say, from a long-ago room divider), you can use them to make a facsimile of this. It won't be nearly as good, or last as long, but you will get a feel for how you will like the real thing, and cut down on your learning curve.)

The process of lipid polymerization occurs when a lipid is heated past its smoke point, so that all the stuff that keeps it runny burns off, and you are left with a solid polymer. So it makes sense that you want a polymer on the inside of your cast iron, and it will stick on and not come off, and better yet, stuff won't stick to the polymer, because it's already bonded to the iron.

To keep it simple, I used what I had at home: safflower oil, which had the lowest smoke point of any oil I had on hand. There's nothing magical about safflower oil, and what's really recommended is unrefined flaxseed oil (the type you have to keep refrigerated). I am sure the process will work for almost any oil, if a) it is a pure oil; b) you know what you are doing; and c) keep to the procedure.

And here's what you do:
  1. Clean everything thoroughly. If you have a lot of gunk on your pans, scrape it off, sand it off, burn it off, or strip it off. In my experience, you don't have to get down to bare metal, but it doesn't hurt if that is what you have.
  2. Choose an oil with a smoke point below the highest setting on your oven.  Safflower oil's smoke point is approximately 500 degrees, so I heated my oven to 525 to be safe.
  3. Oil your pans thoroughly. I mean, really thoroughly.
  4. Wipe off all the oil until your pans look completely dry. When I finished wiping them down, I had only the slightest sheen on the backs of my fingers if I ran my hand across the surface and the pan did not feel in the least oily.
  5. Now wipe off all the oil again. Seriously. You want a molecularly thin layer. Anything else will spell disaster.
  6. Put your pans upside down in a cold oven. Put a baking sheet underneath to catch any oil drips. If you have any oil drips your pans weren't wiped sufficiently dry enough.
  7. Heat the oven with the pans inside to above the smoke point of your chosen oil. Open your windows to let the smoke and smell out.
  8. Leave the pans in the oven, above the smoke point, for at least one hour (I did one hour and ten minutes).
  9. Turn off the oven, and let it and the pans cool for a minimum of two hours.
  10. Repeat a minimum of five more times.
Okay, this sounds like a lot of work. And it is. It sounds exacting. And it is. If you put on too thick a layer of oil, the pans will be sticky for a long, long time (I made this mistake once). If you don't have the pan clean enough to start with, gunk will get in your food and you'll have to start over. And it's expensive to run the oven that much. Have you priced good-quality cast-iron pans recently?

I didn't exactly follow everything, because I wanted to test how this would work in less-than-ideal conditions. So my pans were not completely free of gunk, and in some cases I let the oil sit overnight or longer before I wiped it off. Some of my pans had a bit of rust. Again, this was on purpose, to see if someone a bit careless could still get good results.

What I wasn't careless about was wiping the pans completely dry of oil, or the time above the smoke point, or starting in a cold oven and letting them cool in the oven.

The result was fantastic. A few of my pans got the hard polymerization I really wanted, but all of them had excellent nonstick surfaces (more on that in my next post).

If you haven't done this to your cast-iron pans, don't wait. Get it done.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Pasta, Part I

I was reducing a sauce for pasta the other day, and I remembered reading about cooking pasta directly in the sauce. I thought that this was completely logical, so I decided to dump the uncooked pasta in the sauce and see what would happen (after all, I had excess water in the sauce, and I had pasta that needed water, so this seemed to be the perfect solution).
Buy at Art.com
Siena, Tuscany, Italy
Keith Levit
The result of my experiment: delicious!

Here are my observations, for what they are worth:
I had to add water to the sauce--a scant cup.
The pasta took as long to cook as it would to boil water and cook the pasta.
I used tomato sauce
The sauce was smoother and better.
When I tested the pasta I kept thinking it was going to be ruined, but then it suddenly became perfectly al dente.

For the record, I was using 100% whole grain penne pasta.

So the next time you cook a marinara or other tomato-based sauce, if your pasta will fit in the pot, dump it right in. In my case, I had to up the pasta cooking time from eight minutes to fourteen minutes. You'll save washing an extra pot and colander, too!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Clean Equipment Matters

I recently cleaned up after a long-term houseguest, only to discover that my range and stove (and pans) were a mess. I grew up in a scientific family, and my father was a chemist, and one of the early jobs I had as a child was cleaning glassware.

Now, we all know about chemical reactions, and anything less than squeaky-clean equipment will react with food, creating off flavors. So, when faced with a big, greasy mess (which, let's face it, happens to all of us) what do we do? And how do we keep it from happening too often?

First of all, you should clean your equipment regularly. This means not just your range top, but disassembling the range to clean burner pans, elements, and underneath the range top (on most ranges, you can lift up the top, and there will be a latch to hold the top elevated while you clean). This also means cleaning your oven. On self-cleaning ovens, you should run the self-cleaning cycle at least once a month (more if you have a tendency to be messy). I clean my range top, underneath the top, and burner pans weekly.

If you clean regularly, you will need little more than mild soap (I use Dr. Bronner, which is safe enough to brush your teeth with) and water. Some people prefer other cleaners. But what to do if your broiler or burner pan is a mess, with burned-on grease?

I discovered the answer to this last Monday, my regular cleaning day. I had run out of every other cleaner (my houseguest was pretty messy) and I hadn't made it to the store yet. So, in desperation, I pulled out a bottle of Pine-Sol original. And to my astonishment, a little full-strength Pine-Sol on a paper towel cleaned off my broiler pan so easily I could hardly believe my eyes.

Obviously, unless you are accustomed to drinking gallons of retsina, you will want to rinse everything extremely thoroughly to avoid any unpleasant reactions with food later (and it's probably not really safe to consume, anyway). But the Pine-Sol worked even on those parts of the oven that receive a few spills but are not cleaned with the self-cleaning feature. It also cleaned burner pans I thought were beyond repair, and burned-on food underneath the range top.

For weekly cleanings, a paste of baking soda (yes, that is safe to consume) and water should do the trick, or Dr Bronner will work, too. But if you've been neglecting your equipment, Pine-Sol made my greasy mess clean enough for a showroom!