Several years ago, I was awakened to the toxicity of a lot of everyday things – plastic, shampoo, makeup, and the like. I became a little obsessed, and drove Hubby rather nuts with my quest for ‘safe’ shampoo, ‘safe’ freezer storage containers, ‘safe’ hand cream, and so on. I pitched the plastic spatulas, and spent an awful lot of money trying to find a ‘natural’ conditioner that would tame my long, curly hair in our hard water and dry, static-y winters. In the course of my research (obsession), I read a couple of books that really changed my view on a lot of ‘modern conveniences’ that I thought I couldn’t live without. In particular, “Slow Death By Rubber Duck” was a real eye-opener (and a very engaging book, I might add). The authors set out to make their point – that a lot of everyday items are loading us up with toxic chemicals – by testing their own blood and urine for various chemicals, and manipulating their chemical load by doing things like wearing body spray and using cleaning chemicals. One of the things they discussed was teflon, and the information in the book was quite terrifying – it’s bad for people, and terrible for the environment. Suffice to say, we got rid of the non-stick cookware before I even finished the book.
We started our non-non-stick adventure by buying a stainless steel, copper-bottom frying pan. Everything stuck, and it was impossible to clean. Hubby threatened outright revolt.
Our next purchase was a second-hand cast-iron skillet. It worked, sort of. Sometimes things were okay, sometimes not. We had no idea what the trick was. We washed it like everything else – scrubbed it with soap and water – and it got harder and harder to cook with. And more and more frustrating. I absolutely did not want to go back to teflon, but I also wanted to be able to scramble eggs on Saturday mornings, without having to commit to half an hour of scrubbing just to clean up. Eventually, I got smart and did some research.
Turns out, cast iron needs to be seasoned. Basically, it needs a thick, cooked-on layer of grease in order to function well and prevent sticking. Unfortunately, soap removes the seasoning, so basically, we were progressively destroying the ‘non stick’ capabilities of our pan every time we washed it. You can re-season a pan, by scraping (sanding) off the old seasoning, coating it lightly in grease (we use lard), then baking it on high heat in the oven for a few hours – then repeating to build up several layers. Later, we read that if you just cook with extra grease for the first few months, and don’t scrub the pan out too vigorously, it will season while you cook. We’ve had fairly good luck with that, but we’ve always put a ‘base’ layer of seasoning on the pan, first.
We also learned that you need to use a lot of grease in the cast-iron pans, in order to keep stuff from sticking, even if they’re still well-seasoned. It was shocking, after using teflon, where you don’t need grease at all. We’re talking tablespoons of oil or bacon fat or whatever. It also works better if you drop in your dollop of butter or bacon grease, and let it melt in the pan for a while before you add whatever it is you want to fry – the pan needs to be hot when you add your food. We discovered that plastic spatulas don’t work at all in cast iron (just as well – it gave me a final excuse to dispose of them), and that wooden ones are questionable. We invested in a nice metal spatula, which helped a great deal.
Cleaning got easier, too, once we quit washing off our seasoning every time the pan got dirty. Using a metal spatula meant that stuck-on stuff got scraped off during the cooking, and using lots of grease meant that generally, the food was floating above the pan, rather than cooking on to it. Now, we often just wipe out the leftover grease with a paper towel, and put it away for next time. It does not sound very hygienic, but nobody’s gotten sick here yet. If something is stuck on, we scrub it off with a designated scrubber (no soap), then wipe the pan out. For really badly stuck stuff, we put some water in the pan, and put it back on the stove to boil, before scrubbing. That does not happen very often anymore. Then, once the pan is clean, we let it dry, and wipe it with a bit more grease or oil before we put it away. That protects the pan, and helps maintain the seasoning.
We’re pretty comfortable using the cast iron skillet, now. It’s too bad that the skill of seasoning and maintaining cast iron is not one of those kitchen skills that is passed on anymore – it would have saved us a lot of heartache if we had ‘just known’, rather than having to learn by trial and error. However, now that we’ve figured it out, it was worth it. If you still have teflon in your kitchen, I’d really encourage you to do a little reading, as that stuff is really scary!