The one where there aren't any pictures

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I started this entry on May 7th but got distracted by a phone call, saved the draft, and forgot about it. Tonight as Frugaldad kept me company in the kitchen as I finished up the dishes, he suggested that I blog about the merits of cast iron pans since I was scrubbing one. So since I often cook ground beef in my cast iron pan, I'll finish up my previous thoughts and move on to cast iron.

On Tuesday morning the mobile butcher made a visit to the Frugal Farm and took away 4 sides of beef and left our pasture empty of cattle. While I am glad that we know exactly what these cattle have been eating, and the conditions they have been living under, it was kind of a strange feeling to wake up that morning knowing what was about to happen. We'd been caring for these cows since Halloween, watering and feeding out hay, all the while knowing this day would come. We're meat-eaters, so we did what we'd planned to do.

I even cleaned out the freezer of all those blackberries I picked last summer and made room for all that beef. So far I have only cooked up some of the ground beef, and it seems great. It is very lean but not too dry. We have a lot of steaks and other small cuts that I will have to grill this summer. But in the meantime, I like to cook ground beef in my cast iron pans.

When we first got married, we were given a fairly nice non-stick frying pan. The kind with teflon. Even with care, after a couple years, the finish started flaking off. Then we spent a sum of money on what we thought was another great non-stick pan, but again, after a couple years, the finish was flaking off again. After reading enough articles about the safety of those non-stick finishes, and the toxicity of the fumes from hot teflon, we decided that there had to be a better way.

So we switched to cast iron.

Cast iron scares a lot of people, I think. It has a reputation of being hard to clean and care for, heavy, and definitely not non-stick. With a little bit of effort, I have transformed 3 very inexpensive pans into wonderful non-stick pans that I enjoy cooking in. I have three sizes--a 7-inch, a 9-inch, and a 12-inch.

The smallest pan gets the least use because we have a big family. Our ten-year-old son has learned to cook eggs, though, and on mornings when I don't cook a family breakfast, he often makes himself eggs in this pan. We inherited this pan from an extended family member who was going to donate it to charity because it was rusty. We cleaned it up with some steel wool, and started the seasoning process (I'll get more into seasoning in a minute).

The middle pan is the one we have had the longest. We paid a whopping three dollars for it (NEW!) at an outdoors store. When it was new it was gray. Now it is black. I mostly use it for making eggs and it has a really good non-stick interior.

The biggest pan is the newest pan and I had to buy it because the middle one was too small to saute dinner for the whole family once the third or fourth child was born. It is a Lodge Logic pan, which is supposed to be a pre-seasoned pan, but we have added a lot of seasoning to it. Even brand new, it was about $15.

How do you season a cast-iron pan? There are instructions out there that say you can rub it with oil and put it in your oven, et cetera, et cetera, but that is just too much work for me. The smallest pan might have gotten this treatment once because it was in the roughest shape, but I season the pans just by using them. I cook fatty meats in them like bacon or sausage and make sure that the grease goes all the way up the sides of the pan, and then when I am done using it, I scrape the pan with a plastic scraper, rinse, and dry it by setting it on a stove burner until it is dry. The cast iron absorbs the oils from the food and over time, and the oil cooks and hardens and becomes very slick. It is the complete opposite of a pan made with teflon. Instead of wearing out over time, it just gets better with age.

One thing I have learned through both experience and watching professionals is that you need to cook in a hot pan and most foods will release themselves from the pan when they have cooked enough, even in a stainless steel (not a non-stick) pan. I always preheat the pans before I cook, especially for food like scrambled eggs. Scrambled eggs are the true test of a non-stick finish, and not having your pan hot can ruin your opinion of cast iron's merit. I heat the pan on medium-high heat until it is smoking-hot (I usually use a bit of bacon fat for our eggs--because that's the way we cook around here, and when you work hard and watch your portions, you can still eat this way and lose weight) and then add the eggs, wait a few seconds, and then start stirring. If the pan is sufficiently hot, the eggs don't stick at all.

I do treat the cast iron pans with care, as I do all of my cookware, but I don't exactly follow the rules as I should. Now that they all have nice finishes on them, I stick them in a sink of soapy water to wash them, not afraid that the soap with ruin my seasoning. I scrape off the bits of food, and even scrub with a scotch-brite pad if something is really stuck. I will skip the soap if I have made something like gravy that has left the pan looking dry, and I'll just scrape it and dry it, leaving the residual grease to absorb. I don't feel bad if the last of the wash water is a little greasy because it helps season the pan, especially the outside. Then, as I mentioned before, I stick the pan on a stove burner, turn it onto high, and then turn it off when the water in the middle of the pan starts evaporating. It's fairly important not to leave the kitchen when you're drying a pan or you will forget about it. Ask me how I know. One time I went outside, came back in to a white-hot pan, thought it would be a great idea to pour some vegetable oil in the pan to help the seasoning, and the oil promptly ignited. Now I try not to leave the pan until last so I have something else to do while it dries.

We'd always been careful not to scratch the pans by using non-metal spatulas but recently we've switched to metal. The reason for this is, the finish is so hard that the only part of the seasoning that the metal spatula will scratch off is the high spots. You smooth out the finish by scraping off the high spots. We haven't been using the metal tools long enough to notice a difference but I will report on the progress after a while.

One word of caution---if you leave your cast iron pan on a wet counter, in a sink full of water, or even with water in it, it can and will rust. I am careful not to do this but occasionally it happens. I just scrub off the rust and try to get some more seasoning on there.

So there you have it, frugal non-stick pans that only get better with age that will never need replaced.