Saturday, May 31, 2008

Old Cast Iron vs. New Cast Iron

Old cast iron and new cast iron are very different beasts.

If discussing skillets, the two characteristics of a pre WW2 pan that first grab your attention are:
  • They are lighter in weight. The walls and bottom are thinner than a modern Lodge skillet.
  • They have a much smoother interior surface.
The lighter weight means you cook at lower temperature settings on the stove. The smoother surface is a result of the superb iron ore that was found near Lake Erie and also the machining that is no longer done to save on labor expense.

Pictures tell the story better.
~click to enlarge~
On the left is a Lodge 8SK 10.5" skillet. On the right is a Favorite Piqua Ware skillet of the same size. The Lodge is probably 16 years old while the Favorite is at least 74 years old. I don't know the exact date of manufacture for the Favorite but the Favorite factory shut it's doors in late 1934, a casualty of the Great Depression.

Griswolds, Wagners, Wapaks, (and probably others) offered similar quality. Old Lodges were very smooth as well.

Which do I prefer? If I could only have one I like the older pieces best. Fortunately I get to have old and new so I've developed some preferences.

For very high heat applications (like blackening fish) I'll take the newer heavier pans. For normal everyday lower temp cooking like making eggs the old pieces are simply unbeatable.

One common mistake many people make is assuming that the old pieces are more nonstick because they have been cooked in for 50+ years. This is not true. I clean all my old iron down to bare metal so I'm losing the accumulated seasoning. Even after starting from nothing the old pans outperform the newer ones (with 16+ years of seasoning) within just a couple of months.

Seasoning Cast Iron Cookware

I have been using my own cast iron for about twenty years. Before getting my own collection started I used my mom's skillet for many "food experiments". I am far from an expert but I will lay out some of my thoughts and some ways that do work.

I think seasoning should be thought of as a base. You initially season raw naked cast iron so that it won't rust. Once this is done I think you should concentrate on using the piece often. It is constant and steady use that will give you a glossy smooth finish that resists sticking.

People are looking for a way to season a piece of cast iron and have it all black and slick and non-stick in 30 minutes or an afternoon. I don't think this is reasonable. The preseasoned pieces that are offered by Lodge will save you a bunch of time but they are just giving you a head start.

1) Here is the method I use on smooth (antique) pieces:
  • Scrub piece with soap and very hot water.
  • Turn upside down and place into an oven set at 140 degrees for 30 minutes.
  • Remove from oven and coat with a very thin layer of Crisco or Lard.
  • Return to oven upside down and raise temp to 250 degrees for one hour.
  • After this I use the piece a lot.
Use doesn't have to mean frying everything you eat for the next 6 months. Here are 3 non-frying ways you can use a cast iron skillet that will improve it.
  • Use it as a roasting pan - roast chicken, vegetables, elk, - whatever you like.
  • bake biscuits, cornbread, small pizzas, scones - cast iron is phenomenal bakeware.
  • saute mushrooms, onions, shallots, peppers, celery - aromatics and root vegetables.
After a couple months of this the seasoning should be taking hold and you'll notice the piece getting slicker each time you use it. After 6 months you'll never want to part with it.

2) Rough finished cast iron will never get as slick as the older smooth pieces but they can be seasoned faster and they will be fairly nonstick. Some people advocate seasoning rough finished pieces (such as Camp Ovens and Fajita griddles) at 500 degrees.

This does work in applications where you aren't trying to maintain a glass smooth surface. Like with the method listed above you'll want to use very thin coats of lard or shortening. Place the coated piece (upside down) into the oven and crank the heat to 500 degrees for 1 hour. After 1 hour turn the oven off and allow the piece to cool to room temperature (several hours for big Camp Ovens).

*UPDATE* After more experimenting I still think this works well but I think you should first season the piece at 250 degrees. On two pieces I worked on recently the high temp seasoning flaked off in places once I started cooking with the DO. I've seen this before and I've concluded the high temp seasoning is a nice hard coating but it is on the brittle side. Lay down a couple layers of the 250 degree seasoning as a primer. This low temp still gets into the pores of the iron and it adheres better. After this you can crank up the heat to get a hard black coating.

3) Another option that works best for skillets is to season the piece like one seasons a wok. Get it good and hot on a burner (outdoors is best) and wipe the interior with an oil soaked wook of T-shirt or wadded up paper towels. Let the pan cool then heat it up again until literally smoking hot and wipe it down again. Repeat this process 4-5 times and you are on your way.

I've tried all kinds of oils and solid fats over the years. Lately I think I favor Crisco for the initial seasoning and a good quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil for the rest. Both have a relatively low smoke point and this is helpful when seasoning because you are trying to get the iron hot and the fat to polymerize onto the metal.

Conclusion: There is not just one way to season or "sweeten" cast iron. Consider the type of piece you are using and whether it is rough or smooth.

The worst method IMHO is the one prescribed by Lodge. 350 degrees is a lousy temperature for seasoning because it is hot enough to make the greased-up black iron sticky but not hot enough to burn the oil and begin the polymerization.

Stick with 250 as your initial temperature, then increase the heat to 450, then hotter if you can monitor everything. On smooth pieces you need to pay attention and do not crank the heat and walk away. At high temps the oil will congeal into dots and lumps in as little as 10 minutes.

For these pieces keep the high heat duration short and be ready to wipe them down with more Crisco or lard (or oil) frequently.

Please see this follow up article for another method that works well.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Biscuits cooked in a cast iron skillet

Preheat oven to 425 Fahrenheit
Place an ungreased 10" cast iron skillet in the oven.

2 cups AP flour (or Pastry flour for lighter biscuits)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 stick cold butter cut into 1/4" slices
3 TBsp. Crisco (I use the zero trans fat kind)
3/4 to 1 cup of buttermilk*

Put all the dry ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse it several times to mix.

Add your shortening and butter and pulse it 8-10 times until the fats are well incorporated.

Dump contents of food processor bowl into a large mixing bowl and add the buttermilk while mixing with a spoon or silicone spatula. *I live at 8000 feet so I need more liquid than most people.

Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead until smooth. Knead as little as possible to achieve a smooth dough. {Heavily flour your counter top/cutting board. You want a fairly wet dough that holds together. As you knead it flour will be absorbed up from your work surface}

Pull your hot cast iron skillet from the oven and add approx. 1 tsp. shortening to the pan.

Roll dough until it is about 1/2" thick and cut with a cutter or a glass.

Place the cut biscuits in the hot skillet. When the last one has been placed turn the other biscuits 1/4 turn and flip with a thin spatula.

Baking time depends on the size of the biscuit. I use a 3" cutter so I bake for 12-13 minutes. Smaller biscuits take less time.

* All Purpose flour works well but lately I've been using King Arthur Pastry flour and the biscuits are even better. Look for a high quality pastry/cake flour and try it. It is money well spent.