It’s In the Seasoning
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Updated August 25, 2020.
As with many older relatives, my grandmother had a lot of things in her home we had to go through when she passed away. When we cleaned out my her house I was told to take what I would like from certain lots of things. I grabbed a cast iron skillet. The skillet was old, but completely new. It still had the instruction label on it and I think it was from the seventies.
My grandmother really liked gadgets, especially those for the kitchen. The cast iron skillet is more of trusty tradition than a gadget, but I am sure it was probably advertised in a gadgety all-in-one way that would be tempting back when it was new. There was another larger skillet, which appeared very gently used and I took that one as well.
It was more than a decade ago that I acquired these finds and a year or so into owning them myself I was still living at home with my parents. Lucky for me, most of my meals were prepared for me as family dinner. At the time I was working, saving money, and preparing to buy a fixer upper.
At some point I finally got to using the larger skillet, since it was already prepared, and made a cornbread from scratch for my family. Now, this cornbread recipe was not sweet, like the mixes my mom usually got at the store. However, I did not think about the fact that there was no sweetening agent in the ingredients as I read and prepared the recipe. Thus, the bread was rather bland and did not get eaten right away.
I was so cast-iron ignorant that I left the bake in the pan like we usually did with our non-stick bakeware and it sat for too long. Once I got the bread out and into the garbage, the skillet was a mess and I did not know what to do with it. House-buying and building kicked into high gear, the skillet got rusty and then packed away in a box of my stuff with the unused one…fairly forgotten.
Fast forward, or skip ahead for those born after VHS, about eight years. The gift shop I used to work in during the summers always has great looking cookbooks. They are small store that stocks themselves with unique and interesting gifts, many handmade from our region. In order to sell the merchandise, you have to know the merchandise, so those of us on the sales floor would look at and read about the items when it was quiet and we were not cleaning.
For a couple of years they carried Cook It in Cast iron by America’s Test Kitchen. This cookbook enticed me. By that time I had been living on my own for a while and was cooking regularly. The ingredients all seemed to be ones found in most supermarkets (no funny rare items), and the instructions straightforward. Not only that, there was a picture for each recipe, so you would have an idea of what the finished product should look like, and they all sure look inviting. Cue drool.
I put the cookbook on my wishlist and Mom and Dad, well…Mom, wrapped it up for me for Christmas. Super excited, I told my boyfriend, now husband, that I planned to cook my way through the book Julie & Julia style, to which he stated with a smirk he was certainly not opposed. The next step was to find those skillets and get them prepared, or seasoned as I now know the proper term to be thanks to my cookbook. To Do list task added.
To Do list task…still there.
And still there.
That seasoning task sat in my To Do list for months. In my defense, I was working full time, driving back and forth eight hours total every other weekend to see my fiancé while we prepared and planned our wedding on our own, until he moved here, so my weeks were rather full.
Finally, school let out for the summer last June, we got married and went on our honeymoon, and I had my first summer off from working since I was about fifteen. Wow! Aaah! But I, like my father, can’t sit still and took on the To Do list.
One weekend afternoon in August my husband and I came home from some activity and rather than resting like I had intended, I thought, I’ll just get started cleaning up the cast iron skillet. How long could it take? It was just rusty, but I had the steel wool and paper towels. Maybe a half hour and then I would sit down.
Hah! I started in on the scrubbing. After about ten minutes I had to dump out the residue and continue. Rust cover my hands and I pushed on. The task took more like four half hours, two hours if you’re not a fan of math, but I couldn’t stop; not when I was making so much progress. In hindsight, I would have liked to have found some finer steel wool for the finishing stages of the cleaning. The latter part of the scraping step would probably have gone easier if I had that. I could only find the rougher versions at the stores near us though.
That said, all the rust eventually came off of both the skillets, and then I finally sat down for the evening. Seasoning the skillets was a job for another day.
Cook It In Cast Iron is a great instructional resource. The chef’s in America’s Test Kitchen put together the cookbook and explain why the different steps are taken in each recipe. Their explanations help make it easy to apply the skills you practice in other situations in the kitchen. They are also great about explaining how to care for the cast iron skillets and properly season them for the best cooking outcomes.
It seemed crazy to me at first that I would have to basically cook my skillets for an hour in flaxseed oil, which was not super hard to find, but a little pricier than I would generally expect to pay for oil. However, as the chefs explained, a good seasoning seals the iron and keeps the food from sticking. If flaxseed oil was going to do that job best, then that’s what I would get. If I am going to do something, I always try to do my best at it, and the flaxseed oil wasn’t exactly breaking the bank.
Sidenote: My husband and I recently saw a presentation about how flax was produced in colonial times to make linen. The process for that is a serious amount of work. I can totally appreciate the price now, even if there are mechanized ways to get the product today.
The scent of the hot flaxseed oil is kind of fresh smelling too. I have grown to like it, and it also takes very little to keep the skillets in great shape after each time they are used.
Everything I have made in the skillets so far has tasted great. The skillets are straightforward tools that have been in use for a long time. While fancier gadgets have come into favor for their “ease” of use and clean up, their flashy newness is really one of the few things that have had people put the cast iron to the side (Another being the glass topped stoves). The care is not that difficult if you are diligent, and the food that can come from it is delicious. Keep an eye out for photos from the recipes I have tried and try them for yourself if they whet your appetite.
A couple of recipes we have already repeated are indoor barbecued chicken and my husband’s favorite: shepherd’s pie.
Have you used cast iron skillets before? Please share your thoughts on them in the comments.