Ever pass up a cast-iron find at a flea market because you thought it'd be too hard to keep clean? Big mistake—at least according to John Folse, the Louisiana-based chef, restaurateur and author of Chef John Folse's Cast-Iron Cooking Cookbook ($11). "The greatest misconception is that cast iron is difficult to maintain," he says.
Folse, who refers to cast iron as the "original no-stick cookware," touts its many advantages: It manages and retains heat well, makes for a handsome serving vessel, and works beautifully whether you're roasting, stewing, baking or cooking over a campfire. And cast iron will last a lifetime. "It leaves its own legacy," says Folse, who uses a 125-year-old pot that belonged to his uncle.
Here are his tips for keeping your cast iron up to snuff.
First, season it with oil. "During this process, the pores in cast iron absorb oil and create a natural nonstick finish," Folse says. When you get a new pot or pan, rinse and dry the whole thing, holding it over a low flame to fully remove any moisture. Then, use a paper towel to coat the surface with two tablespoons of vegetable oil; don't miss the corners, edges and lid. Place the pot upside down and lid right side up on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake for an hour at 500 degrees; let cool completely with the oven door closed (4 to 6 hours). Remove and wipe with a paper towel—voila, your new pan is ready to go.
Turn the heat down. "Since cast iron heats evenly, you don't need to cook on high heat," Folse says. For best results, cook on a medium or medium-high setting, and never place cast iron on an already hot burner. Let the burner and the cast iron piece heat up together.
Moisture is the enemy. Dampness can mean rust, cast iron's ultimate foe. After washing—always with a mild detergent and never in the dishwasher—dry it over low heat or a small flame. Store in a warm, dry place with tops or lips off so moisture won't collect inside (it never hurts to put a paper towel inside).
Don't use it to store food in the fridge... especially if it's acidic or a tomato-based sauce. While it won't affect the flavor or discolor the pot, "the acid will oxidize and that rich red tomato sauce will have a dull brown color in the morning," Folse says.
Remove the build-up. "If you're lucky enough to find a cast-iron piece at a flea market, you'll need to bring it back to its original luster," Folse says. To clean, wash the pot as normal and place it on an open fire. Cook until the residue burns away, remove (careful not to burn yourself!) and let cool. Use a scouring pad or steel wool to scrub clean. Then, see step 1 to re-season.
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