Fat-free cooking with cast iron

Q: What is the proper care for cast iron skillets? And can you suggest a recipe to inaugurate my new skillet?

A: Every kitchen should have a cured cast iron skillet. They are so versatile for cooking meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables and grains. And, they keep your arm muscles in tone. I’m sure you’ve heard all the talk about pumping iron today. Cooking with a cast iron skillet is another way to keep in shape!

Curing and caring for a cast iron skillet takes good common sense. First, buy a new pan – this will make it easy. One brand, WagnerWare, features a smooth, machined cooking surface. This is a big advantage when curing and cooking – take my word for it.

The truly effective seasoning, or curing, of a new cast iron pan takes place over a period of several months with continuous use and proper care. The pan will turn a dark color, possibly black, when it is fully seasoned.

To season a brand-spanking-new pan, warm it over low heat and peel off the label. Wash the interior of the pan with warm, soapy water. Use a mild soap. Remove the label adhesive from the pan and cleanse it thoroughly with a natural bristle brush or a plastic bun. Rinse and dry it completely with a kitchen towel.

Pour a 1/2-cup of vegetable oil into the skillet. Using a folded kitchen towel or paper towel, coat the entire inside surface of the skillet with oil. Pour off excess oil, leaving a thin film of oil on all surfaces.

Pre-heat your oven to 300° F. Place the coated, empty pan in the oven and bake for one hour. Do not touch the cast iron pan. It is very hot – including the handle. Turn the oven off and allow oven and skillet to cool for two to three hours or overnight.

Heat the empty pan on a large burner for five minutes over medium-high heat. The cooking surface will begin to burn or darken in color. Remove from heat and allow to cool. The new pan has now gone through its first seasoning and is ready to cook. Your cast iron pan will season more fully each time you cook with it.

If you have a stressed-out lifestyle and can’t imagine taking the time to season a new cast iron skillet (why don’t they come ready-to-drive, anyway?), calm down and take a short cut. Go to a flea market or antique auction and buy an old cast iron pan (seasoned by the previous owner). Clean it up a bit. Sanitize it in a 300°F oven for one hour. You’re ready to sizzle.

After each use, wash the surface with warm water and a brush. Never scour and never use an automatic dishwasher. Always dry completely after washing with a towel.

If the pan sticks when cooking, pour 1/2 cup of kosher salt into the pan and rub the salt around the area with a kitchen towel to smooth the surface. Discard the salt and wipe out the residue. Don’t use strong abrasive cleaners – they’ll destroy the seasoning.

The seasoning will break down if you cook with liquids, steam food or cook with acidic foods like tomatoes. Just reseason with a thin coating of oil using the oven method.

When storing a cast iron pan, always store it unstacked, without a lid or anything on top. A paper towel inside will help to absorb any moisture and prevent rust.

A seasoned cast iron pan offers a non-stick surface for fat-free cooking. You can sear chicken breasts, chicken tenders, fish fillets, scallops and shrimp over medium high heat for one minute on each side without fat. Then finish the cooking in a hot oven until the food is completely cooked (be careful of the hot handle).

Vegetables can also be cooked in a cast iron skillet without fat. Place four cups of coarsely cut vegetables (carrots, celery, peppers, potatoes or turnips) in a hot, seasoned skillet for ten minutes. Stir frequently. Add one 15-ounce can of stewed tomatoes or flavored diced tomatoes and stir. Cook five minutes and serve.

With proper seasoning and care, you can enjoy a lifetime of fat-free cooking with your favorite cast iron pan. In fact, you can pass it on to your children and grandchildren.

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