Black is the New Green

Looking for an easy way to start greening your kitchen? Go black. Cast iron, that is. Unlike controversy-coated Teflon, which releases toxins at high temperatures (that have been linked to bird deaths and flu-like illnesses) and which is made with chemicals that don’t break down (ending up in the bloodstreams of humans and animals as far flung as polar bears), cast iron skillets provide a nontoxic nonstick surface and are excellent at maintaining and diffusing heat. Plus, they fit perfectly within the “reduce, reuse” model: they can be reclaimed from antique stores, flea markets, tag sales, or, if you’re lucky, family collections.

I have been keen on cast iron ever since my mom discovered my late grandfather’s skillet hidden away in her basement a couple of years ago. As polished as black onyx and as slick as turpentine, the pan beckons a chef like truffles lure a trained terrier. (The first time I saw the pan I uncontrollably blurted, “Can you please pass this down to me in your will?” Um, the wrong words to tell your perfectly healthy and vivacious mother.) Its ultra-smooth surface allows fish to glide in and out without worry, steaks sear to perfection, and cornbread has never had a better home.

On a recent trip out to visit me, my mom lugged with her two lustrous skillets that she had hunted down from her local antique stores (a hint, I’m sure, that my Grandpa’s pan won’t be coming to me for a long, long time). Not only that, but she had a pile of research about cast iron, and it appears that not all pans are created equal.

First of all, forget the new, pre-seasoned skillets that are now available at kitchen stores; they have a rough, mottled surface that is not nearly as effective as the smooth shell of the old models. Search out early-to-mid century Griswold or Wagner brands ”they\’re considered the best quality ”at second-hand stores, tag sales, or on the Internet. (The Griswold Manufacturing Company of Erie, PA ”which made various iron kitchen tools from 1865 to the 1950â ”is the most prized brand by collectors; The Wagner Manufacturing Company of Sydney, OH, bought the Griswold molds in 1957.)

Dont let a bit of rust or grease buildup deter you they can be removed without too much strain (and often make for cheaper prices). For small rust stains, use sandpaper to remove the spot then re-season the pan (see seasoning tips below). For larger stains, soak the pan in a mixture of one pint of cider vinegar to three gallons of water for ten to twenty minutes. Rinse the pan with soapy water using a scouring pad. If the stain persists, return the pan to the soaking solution and repeat the process until the stain dissolves. For pans that are in really bad shape, try this tip from my mom, which she used on the pans that she bought for me: put the pan(s) on the middle rack of your oven facing down, and set the oven to its self-cleaning function. Once the oven is done cleaning, the pans (and your oven) will be sparkling.

But in the long run, you do not want a sparkling pan; you want the black luster of a well-seasoned pan. While seasoning may sound like a pain, it is really quite simple. I promise. Rub your cleaned and dried skillet with a very thin, even layer of neutral oil, I recommend using extra-virgin coconut oil (it has an excellent heat threshold, wont go rancid, and makes the most delicious curries, granola and pastry doug but more on that at another time) and pop it into a 350ËšF oven for an hour. Let the pan cool in the oven then rub it with another thin layer of oil. Done.

Seasoning is an ongoing process; the more you use your cast iron skillet, the better surface you willl acquire. Follow the maintenance tips below, and your pan will last a lifetime. Or several. The planet and your grandchildren ”will thank you for it.

  • Never put cold water in a hot pan; it can crack.
  • You can use a mild soap or Synchronicity Hemp Oil hand sanitizer and a scrub brush to clean the pan without ruining the seasoning, contrary to popular belief.
  • After cleaning, dry the pan right away, then rub it with oil. I like to then put the pan on a hot burner for a minute or two to help the oil absorb. Wipe out any excess.
  • Store the pan either stacked with paper towels, or hanging on a rack.


3 responses to “Black is the New Green”

  1. I agree. I’ve been using my grandmother’s cast iron skillets for years. I think their performance is superior to regular teflon pans and love knowing that cooking in it won’t harm my body or the environment.

    Dagny McKinley
    organic apparel

  2. Great advice, Nicki. Nicely explains what for many of us is the deep mystery of how to maintain those environmentally friendlier skillets.

  3. joaquin Avatar

    yes, I use them, they are great.

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