Have you prepared a meal in a cast iron pan? If you have, you’d know how important they are. This guide is focused on answering the question, ‘what is a cast iron pan?’. As you read through, read carefully, and take note of the important points.
What Is A Cast Iron Pan?
A type of pan constructed of a soft, heavy metal material known as Cast Iron, which is an excellent material for cooking foods. Cast Iron absorbs heat well, retaining the warmth and distributing it evenly across the length and width of the pan.
Cast iron is valued for its heat retention, durability, ability to be used at very high temperatures, and non-stick cooking when properly seasoned. Seasoning is also used to protect the bare cast iron from rust.
The truth is that cast iron actually doesn’t heat evenly at all, and is in fact quite a poor conductor of heat. Once it gets hot, its “high volumetric heat capacity” means it stays hot, making it better at cooking.
The material slowly absorbs the heat and slowly releases it, thus making it a good choice for slow cooking ingredients. Cast Iron may be treated with a coating by the manufacturer, such as porcelain enamel or it may be produced uncoated. Uncoated Cast Iron requires a seasoning with oil before use to create a non-stick surface, while coated Cast Iron most often requires no seasoning.
If you take the time to preheat your skillet for about ten minutes before plopping your steak or eggs into it, then your pan won’t be cooled down by the addition of food, and end up cooking that food more evenly.
Cast iron also emits more heat (which makes sense, since there’s more heat crammed inside the pan), so it cooks more of the food. While steel essentially only cooks the part of the food that’s touching the pan, cast iron radiates heat out at a far higher level, meaning more food gets cooked.
Reasons You Need A Cast Iron Pan
If you’re just starting to cook with them, it will only take a few dishes to discover that this piece of kitchen equipment is unmatched in terms of versatility, durability, and functionality. Their purpose goes way beyond simple cornbread to make delectable appetizers, desserts, main dishes, and much more, so here are our top reasons to unlock the limitless potential of this must-have kitchen tool.
- They’re inexpensive.
You can purchase a good-quality skillet at most local home-goods stores for $15-20. Cast-iron maintains and distributes heat just as well as some of the most expensive pans, making it an easily attainable, cost-effective way to take take the quality of your dishes from good to great without the much-added expense.
- They’re virtually indestructible.
Cast-iron is some seriously heavy-duty kitchen equipment that will last you forever–given that it’s properly cared for. You can even scrape away excess food from its non-stick surface using a metal pan (a usual no-no).
The seasoning in cast iron is chemically bonded to the metal so it’s extremely resilient. Acidic food, however, is the one thing to steer clear of when cooking with cast-iron, as any unseasoned spots on your skillet can potentially leech metallic flavors into your food.
They’re incredibly versatile workhorses in the kitchen.
Cast-iron skillets can be used for sautéing, pan-frying, searing, baking, braising, broiling, roasting, and even more cooking techniques. Pro tip: The more seasoned your cast-iron skillet is, the better flavor it’s going to give to whatever you are cooking–from cornbread to chicken. To learn how to season (and re-season) it, keep reading.
- They heat up and stay hot.
A cast-iron pan is unmatched in its healing properties and capacity–which means it gets extremely hot and stays extremely hot. This is important for many reasons, but especially when searing meats to create a nice char, making great hash, or pan-roasting chicken and vegetables.
- Cleaning them is easy.
The truth is, cast iron skillets are pretty sturdy because they’re made out of, you know, iron. The only thing you really need to worry about is rust, which means you need to minimize the time your cast iron spends wet. Basically, you wash it with slightly more awareness than you would use with literally any other pan.
Cast iron skillets should never be washed with soap (unless you’re about to re-season them). That means you can’t soak the cast iron or put it in the dishwasher, but you can scrub it with a sponge (yes, even a soapy one) to get all the crud out, and then simply heat it up on your stove to evaporate all the water.
For those lazy-when-it-comes-to-the-dishes home cooks, like myself, this is wonderful, wonderful news. To wash, simply rinse in really hot water while scrubbing with a stiff brush.
For stubborn food that’s stuck to the pan, boil water in the skillet and let it stand for 10-15 minutes. Then rinse again. Another note: Never allow cast-iron to drip dry–you should always towel-dry it immediately to prevent rusting. After patting it down with a clean towel, you can also place your cast-iron over low heat on the stove to dry it completely.
- Re-seasoning them is too.
You’ll know it’s time to re-season your cast-iron skillet when the food begins to stick or the once shiny black pan starts turning a dull color (which means the food may start sticking soon). Here’s how to do it:
Simply preheat your oven to anywhere 350° to 400°. Line the bottom with foil. Clean your pan with hot soapy water and a scrub brush and dry it well. Spread oil over the entire surface (inside and out) of the pan. Place the pan upside down on the top rack and bake for one hour. Turn the oven off and let the pan cool in the oven completely (you can just leave it overnight).
Here Are A Few Things You Need To Know About Using Cast Iron Pans
- Consider the design of your skillet
Cast iron skillets come in a variety of shapes and sizes, all of which can impact how the skillet is used. When it came to designing Stargazer Cast Iron products, Huntley took a lot of the features he liked from his collection of vintage pieces and added them to his custom-made product.
“That surface finish is the gateway drug for a lot of people,” says Huntley. “Our skillet has a smooth finish like a lot of the vintage ones used to have. And for me to that was one of the first things I was really excited about.”
Another thing to consider when looking at the design of your skillet is the handle. Because cast iron retains a lot of heat, those handles can get really hot, even if it’s not directly over the stove burner.
“To get the handle to stay cooler, we put that fork in it and made it longer to dissipate the heat,” Huntley explains, describing the unique shape of the Stargazer’s handle. He also added a larger helper handle, that little handle opposite of the long handle, to help lift up the skillet. Though the skillet is lighter than other cast iron skillets, it can still be quite heavy.
- The seasoning is renewable
When it comes to rules regarding cast iron skillet care, seasoning is the most contentious issue. But Huntley says not to worry too much about it.
To season your skillet, all you have to do is coat it with a thin layer of oil and heat it hot enough and long enough to fully smoke it off. The key here is to make sure that the oil is no longer slick to the touch but fully baked onto the cast iron skillet. The scientific term for this process is called polymerization.
“There’s a misconception that just wiping the oil on the skillet is seasoning,” says Huntley, “but I think unless you fully heated it, unless the oil is polymerized and hardened, it’s not seasoned on there. It’s just going to wipe back off again.”
- There are a multitude of oils you can use to season your skillet
It’s relatively easy to season your cast iron skillet, but what kind of oil should you use? When developing the Stargazer cast iron skillet, Huntley experimented with about 15 different kinds of oils and in the end, he didn’t notice that big of a difference in each oil’s performance.
He does, however, recommend using a vegetable-based oil or any oil with a high smoke point. “We use canola, grapeseed, and sunflower oils at our facility. Any of those are fine,” says Huntley. “Some people are all about flaxseed oil as well.”
While you may have thought you knew everything there was to know about cast iron, keep in mind that this centuries-old material is still being developed in new ways to make it more practical for commercial environments. It’s durable enough to withstand scratches and other wear and tear, and versatile enough to be used with any heat source.
Note that Cast iron also emits more heat (which makes sense, since there’s more heat crammed inside the pan), so it cooks more of the food. While steel essentially only cooks the part of the food that’s touching the pan, cast iron radiates heat out at a far higher level, meaning more food gets cooked.
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