Sustainable All

If you asked me for my political position on where the world should be going, I’d tell you. After all, it’s never great to write these things down, particularly on a public website where you are trying to foster a positive, happy vibe without some means to avoid the wrath of the countless people who disagree with you.

Instead, I’ll write about why I like cast iron so much.

What do you think the world will be like 25 years in the future?

We live in a disposable world, don’t we?

We’re arguing over single-use plastics — bags, straws, and wraps — as if the question is one of convenience trumping trash. In reality, it is a question of sustainability.

Everything we do shifts energy. Everything we do increases the general entropy of the universe. These are just laws of physics, not even opinion.

The opinion comes into play when we ask what the accumulated effects of billions of people shifting around energy and increasing universal entropy mean for this tiny ball of dirt and water and air upon which every one of us are bound past, present and future.

For as much as I love great cooking and hefty cookware, there is a often said but generally understated benefit to cast iron: it lasts forever.

The thing is that a lot of things last forever. That plastic straw you sipped your cola through for fifteen minutes will last in the ground as waste effectively forever. Well, okay, sure, ten thousand years is not actually forever, but it’s a heckuva long time on a human scale.

On the other hand that plastic straw is not usable forever. It’s usable for a few weeks under ideal circumstances, if you saved it and washed it and took care with it. But ninety-nine percent of the time a plastic straw lasts forever but is usable for fifteen minutes.

Cast iron pans last forever, but more importantly the are usable for a very long time. Generations in many cases. We can confidently say that any well-made cast iron pan is usable for good hundred or so years because we have examples of collector pans that date back easily as far back as cast iron pans were commonly manufactured. Yes, they take energy to cast and energy to mine iron from the ground and energy to move around the supply chain to get into your kitchen, but over the usable life of a pan — which can be very long — it even out, and likely even wins out.

On the other hand, there are much less sustainable ways to fry an egg.

In the next twenty-five years, say by the mid-40s, I really think we’re either going to need to have our collective mind firmly wrapped around the kinds of choices we make about disposable versus sustainable objects.

Do we drink from a straw or do we slurp from a cup? Do we love our non-stick Teflon™ or do we cook on cast iron? Do we keep the species alive for a few more hundred years, or do we turn the Earth into an unlivable wasteland?

I think that decision, however we manage to get there — by consensus, force, or inevitability — will dramatically shift what the world in twenty five years looks and feels like.

Thirty one topics. Thirty one posts. Not exactly a list… but close. In December I like to look back on the year that was. My daily posts in December-ish are themed-ish and may contain spoilers set against the backdrop of some year-end-ish personal exposition.

Strip this Pan, Part Four

In short, and to conclude this short series of posts, the effort to strip and re-season the twenty-inch reversible grill was a modest success.

In the end, it was a combination of elbow grease and chemical oven cleaner that seemed to net me the best result of the multiple methods I tried.

I found that using a wire brush to score the surface of the old seasoning then applying a liberal dose of chemical cleaner overnight allowed the bare pan to be the most easily exposed.

Four cycles of re-seasoning later in the oven and I tried grilling up a batch of chocolate chip pancakes this morning. That was definitely a success.

As far as cost goes… alas between buying scouring pads, a wire brush set for my drill, and a can of oven cleaner, I probably spent close to thirty bucks to achieve what I did here. A cycle of the self-cleaning oven is not free either, but it wouldn’t have been thirty bucks.

In then end and all that said though, having tried all these alternative methods to remove the old seasoning, I think I might just go back to the self-cleaning oven method next time. Simple. Effective. And not so nearly smelly, painful, or expensive.

Strip this Pan, Part Three

Time being limited and linear, it’s taken me over a month to get around to tackling the twenty-inch reversible grill reseasoning project.

For reference, check out parts one and two wherein I presented my options to deal with the pitting that was destroying the five-year-old seasoned surface of my Saturday morning pancake flattop and tried the least aggressive way I had read about, soaking in vinegar, to strip the seasoning. Spoiler alert, vinegar didn’t work.

A couple days ago I went to the store and picked up a can of oven cleaner, a pack of abrasive dish cleaning pads, a roll of industrial strength paper towel, and a pack of steel brush wheels for my power drill.

What I’ve read online (since I’ve never stripped a pan this way before) was that spray on oven cleaner is an agressive chemical approach to degrading the seasoning of the pan enough that you can pretty much just wipe it off.

It wasn’t quite that simple, of course.

The instructions I had read told me to coat the surface in oven cleaner, wrap in a plastic bag, and wait twenty-four hours.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Furstratingly, a day later, I had a pan with some very clean, but still very firmly attached, seasoning.

Back to the drawing board.

Yesterday afternoon I rinsed off the pan, and switched over to the drill and wire brush method. Forty-five minutes of shoulder aching, noisy, smelly, whirring away on the pan, I had stipped about half of the top surface down to bare iron.

To be honest, I’ve not been too worried about the edges or the reverse side. The bottom of this pan is a ridged grill pan that I think we’ve used less than five times since we bought this piece. It’s not that it isn’t useful, it’s just that this grill is pretty much my dedicated pancake pan and the smooth side gets used weekly and so consequently the smooth side is the side that I care about.

But even given that I only cared about the top half of the pan, a day plus forty five minutes of neighbourly-annoying outdoor cast iron maintenance had only got me part way to what I’d accomplished pretty much passively when I reseasoned this years ago by the self-cleaning oven method. That method, of course, has it’s risks not the least of which is the risk of the pan cracking in extreme heat, but with a crick in my back and a small bit of flaking seasoning embedded under my bleeding thumbnail (did I mention that part?) I was starting to reconsider the risk versus reward calculation.

Then I had a bit of an idea … mostly because I was tired and it was starting to get dark out

I lightly burred down the rest of the still-seasoned parts of the cooking surface with the steel wire brush, then resprayed with oven cleaner before stuffing it back in the bag and stowing it once again for an overnight.

This morning the results of the combined method had seemed to have paid off respectably well.

Over the pan where I had scuffed the surface of the seasoning, the chemical oven cleaner had been able to get under and into the old seasoning. It was able to do the job I had expected a day earlier. The bulk of the old seasoning flaked off and easily washed away with a little bit of light scouring from a dish pad.

I was able to grind the remaining stubborn specks off with the drill setup, wash it down really well, dry it up, and …

… as I write this post the pan is in the oven baking on a first coat of bacon grease seasoning.

I’ll spend the day doing multiple coats of a new seasoning layer, getting it back up to a surface that I can attempt some pancakes on in the coming week, and of course, report back with how it all turned out!

And hopefully part four is the part where I tell you how great it all turned out … and not me resorting to the self-cleaning oven again.

Friday Frights: Cast Iron Versus Magic

There are countless great arguments to switch to cooking with cast iron, but a socio-political one was outlined recently by the HBO Comedy show, Last Week Tonight, as they profiled a report on the effects to both our health and the environment from the types of chemicals used to make other non-stick frying pans.

You can watch the twenty-minute clip embedded below … which if you are unfamiliar with the show is a late-night, no-holds-barred news-comedy program. (And a language/political-bend warning for those with sensitive minds.)

To sum up ( if the clip doesn’t play in your part of the world) a group of chemicals called PFAs have been used to make all sorts of modern products since the 1950s. While there have been countless conveniences from these products, there have also been many environmental and human health problems that have been identified from the manufacture or disposal of things containing those chemicals.

One of the big, well known products is Teflon™ which could be considered the non-stick alternative to a well-seasoned cast iron pan.

But where cast iron becomes non-stick through seasoning, a process that can be done at home and involves the polymerization of food-safe oils into a thin, slick surface on top of the raw iron, chemical non-stick coatings are factory applied and involve typical sorts of industrial side effects.

Of course, manufacturing cast iron cookware is undeniably a resource intensive effort, too. Mining, refining, extreme heat, and casting, not to mention the costs of shipping heavy pieces of cookware around the world.

Neither of these are perfect.

But as the scales weigh out the pros and cons, cast iron versus coated non-stick pans, factoring in things like longevity of the cookware itself, sustainability of the manufacturing process, impacts to our well-being and our world, and the accumulation of chemical debt that is incurred by the mass production and disposal rates of both these options, I more and more feel like those scales are tilting out towards cast iron.