Even if you aren’t a prolific home cook, if you love binge-watching cooking videos on social media, you’ll have seen the mighty cast iron pan. Used for everything from desserts and baked goods to curries and meat dishes, the humble cast iron pan is leading cooking trends now, a large part in thanks to cooking videos that tout the versatility of this kitchen tool.
However, the use of iron utensils in cooking has been prevalent for a very long time. The earliest known use of simple iron utensils was around 220 AD in China, followed later by the manufacture and use of Dutch ovens in Netherlands, and tetsubin teapots in Japan along with the more common pizza and dosa stones.
The advent of aluminium, stainless steel, plastics and of course, the non-stick coating, made this versatile utensil lose its sheen. As per eatingwell.com, “The repellent coating that keeps food from sticking to nonstick pots and pans contains PFCs (perfluorocarbons), a chemical that's linked to liver damage, cancer and developmental problems. PFCs get released and inhaled from nonstick pans in the form of fumes when pans are heated on high heat. Likewise, we can ingest them when the surface of the pan gets scratched. Both regular and ceramic-coated cast iron pans are great alternatives to nonstick pans for this reason.”
The use of iron utensils in cooking has been prevalent for a very long time. The earliest known use of simple iron utensils was around 220 AD in China, followed later by the manufacture and use of Dutch ovens in Netherlands, and tetsubin teapots in Japan along with the more common pizza and dosa stones.
A well-seasoned cast iron pan makes it almost nonstick, which means cooking without using too much oil or any other fats and also adds some iron into your food. This helps immensely, as many women face some level of iron deficiency in their body. According to eatingwell.com, “Cooking food, especially something acidic like tomato sauce, in cast iron can increase iron content by as much as 20 times.”
While these reasons have existed for a while to encourage the use of cast iron pans, the recent resurgence in its popularity is largely thanks to viral videos on social media channels.
Longevity and practicality make it a preferred choice for a lot of people, along with the diverse heating, baking and cooking possibilities it offers. Aesthetically pleasing, cooking and serving dishes in a cast iron pan has its rustic charm.
If cared for properly, cast iron utensils can last forever and often are passed down through generations.
My first iron pan
When I got my first iron utensil, a kadhai (a wok-style utensil), I had no idea about all of this. All I knew was that my mother told me to stop using non-stick and choose iron. Let me be honest, those social media videos also played a part in that decision.
The first time I cooked in it, everything seemed okay. I washed up and kept the pan away. A couple of days later, however, I saw red rust stains in the pan. I washed and used it again but I felt a metallic rust taste in the dish I made. Calling my mom, all she said was, “Oh! Didn’t you oil it after washing up?”
That was my introduction to seasoning. And not the salt and pepper kind. Every time you use an iron utensil, to stop it from rusting and to make it give you the best cooking abilities that it can, you need to season it – ideally after every use. This is also one of the things that could scare off a new home-cook from using iron pans, and it shouldn’t.
What is seasoning?
Seasoning is simply a thin layer of oil, usually vegetable oil or canola oil or another oil that has a very high smoking point and will not go rancid while on the utensil. The method to have this layer adhere to the pan involves a few steps, and is quite easy once you know how to do it.
Your cast-iron pan should look semi-glossy and black (after a couple of rounds of this method), thanks to its layers of patina or seasoning. Well-seasoned good quality iron utensils are non-stick naturally, will not rust easily and will last decades.
Clean up first
As with anything else, you need a clean canvas; clean your iron pan with soapy water and a scrub. Unless you have food stuck to it, you can use a regular gritty sponge. If your pan has some rust on it or if food is stuck to it, use a steel wool to get the pan clean.
Tip: Struggling to get stuck food off your pans? After the pan has cooled down, pour a little water in and boil it. Leave it as is for a couple of minutes as it cools down and use dish soap and a sponge or scrub (depending on the kind of utensil) to get it all off.
Dry the pan
You can either dry the pan by keeping it upside down on your drying rack or you can dry it off on the stove at medium-low heat. I prefer the latter so I don’t have to wait to start on the next steps.
Once the pan is completely dry, switch off your stove (if using the stove to dry the pan) and carefully rub oil all over the pan including the handles and underside. As mentioned earlier, you can use any oil that has a high smoking point and won’t go rancid easily. I use whichever vegetable oil is available in my pantry at the time. Neutral tasting oils are best in my opinion. Some people also use grape seed oil or flaxseed oil.
I use a clean cotton cloth to rub the oil on, choosing one that is sturdy enough to not leave lint and something that’s not too absorbent. I have also used kitchen roll paper with success.
Once you have oiled the pan all over, turn the stove back on and let the pan heat up on medium low heat for 3-5 minutes until it starts smoking lightly. Use the same cloth and wipe down to remove any excess oil on the pan. It should have a semi-glossy look all over with no dry patches, and should not be sticky to the touch – try the touch test after the pan has cooled down!
If you have an oven, you can also do this by ‘baking’ the oiled pan for 45 minutes in a pre-heated oven of at least 350 degrees Fahrenheit or 200 degrees Celsius. Since I don’t have an oven, I haven’t tested this method.
Some brands of cast iron utensils come pre-seasoned – they already have a layer of seasoning when you unbox them. However, even if the pan comes pre-seasoned, you will have to season on your own as you continue to cook in these utensils.
My kadhai was not pre-seasoned and wasn’t from a big-name brand, hence came cheaper than most available in the UAE. So while buying pre-seasoned is a great choice, you don’t have to buy just pre-seasoned in order to enjoy cooking in iron utensils.
Damage and longevity
As with any other material, cast iron is not indestructible even if it looks and feels that way. Overheating the pan, extreme force, pouring cold water in a searing hot utensil, extreme rust etc., can damage this tool over time. As long you season the pan, keep it dry and away from elements and take decent care of it, a cast-iron utensil can become your best friend for life in the kitchen, and for all sorts of dishes.
I now have added another iron utensil to my collection, a little wok that my mother gifted me after she used it for years. It truly feels great to have something passed-down like that in your kitchen, and cared for cast iron pans make it possible to share the love for cooking across generations.