Strip This Pan, Part One

My big ol’ twenty inch reversible grill has developed some pitting over the summer and I’ve been contemplating the pros and cons of various methods to strip a pan down to bare metal and start the seasoning process from scratch.

1. A self-cleaning oven on clean mode heats up the pan hot enough to incinerate the seasoning and burn off everything down to raw iron, but it heats up the house and has been linked to cracked pans.

2. Roasting a pan in a fire or over the barbecue can get the iron hot enough to turn the seasoning to cinders, but the heat is uneven and, again, has been said to warp or crack cast iron if not carefully monitored.

3. Elbow grease and a lot of sandpaper or other mechanically abrasive system will rip down the seasoning on all or part of a pan, and is a method I’ve used to spot repair seasoning, but the work involved is definitely… well, work.

4. Posts online have claimed that soaking in white vinegar overnight can erode the seasoning on a pan down to the point where it can be wiped off easily. I’ve never tried this, but with a twenty inch pan I might need a bigger sink or a big tub of some kind.

5. Back in the realm of over cleaning, chemical oven cleaner sprayed on the surface (then tuck the piece into a couple layers of garbage bags) is said to strip a pan to bare metal, though my suspicion is that the mess at the end might leave me wishing I’d tried something simpler.

6. And finally in the realm of complicated (and perhaps expensive if you don’t own the set up) is using electrolysis which likely involves some clever chemistry knowledge and a bit of electricity to erode the carbon of the seasoning.

I’m going to pick one of these before the week is out and give it a whirl.

Stay tuned.

The Hot Pan of Endless Convenience

This is not the first time I’ve brought up my mushroom grilling wonder pan on this blog, and it is unlikely to be the last. A summer of backyard grilling and open-flame cooking has done nothing short of cementing my resolve celebrate a years-long (if accidental) effort to season a chunk of generic cast iron into one of the most useful pans in my cast iron collection.

Behold, the barbecue beast.

In fact, one of the first posts I wrote in this space referenced a chance purchase by a naïve young cooking enthusiast a decade prior.

A new gas stove in the kitchen prompted an experimental foray into cast iron.

Frugally, I bought a small pan from a discount department store, a generic import that had no pre-seasoning but a cherry red enameled outer finish.

Cast iron was cast iron, I thought. Tho my lack of experience with the product left me floundering with messes and ruined meals. I struggled.

Admittedly, there is a learning curve when switching from an everybody’s non-stick basic cooking tool approach to a tool that requires care and preparation. I had jumped in the deep end and with minimal research immediately sunk to the bottom of the metaphorical swimming pool.

Years passed.

Further research and interest blossomed a casual cooking fascination into a mild obsession and I quickly expanded my collection of newer cast iron items.

The cherry red pan lacked for a home in my bursting cupboards and for one reason or another migrated to a more permanent home on the backyard barbecue grill, hiding under the lid from rainstorms and winter snow.

Year after year after year.

Back to that accidental effort: it was just sitting there taking up space on my grill, so alongside a steak, some seasoned chicken, or just a stack of hamburger patties I got into the habit of oiling up the cherry red pan, tossing in some veggies or sliced mushrooms, and grilling up a side aside the main.

Year after year after year.

Now that at least half a decade has passed, and my understanding of cast iron cooking has blossomed into a kind of enthusiast-level expertise, countless heaps of potatoes have been browned, numerous broccoli fry-ups have been enjoyed, and endless bowls of garlic mushrooms have topped homemade burgers, the pan is matured.

This cherry red generic cast iron pan still sits inside my barbecue, of course, waiting patiently for the next outdoor cookout, but now as a perfectly seasoned cooking vessel and a prime example of the potential of a little oil, time, heat, and patience has on a black iron surface.

The potential is bountiful and amazing in this barbecue beast, my hot pan of endless convenience.

Gear: Cast Iron Loaf Pans

The first cast iron loaf pan I bought was an experiment. I didn’t know that I’d use it much, but I’d read online that I might be able to get crispier crusts on my banana bread with a pan that had better heat retention than the aluminum ones I’d been using.

The second cast iron loaf pan I bought was also an experiment. I didn’t know that I’d use it much, but my daughter suggested that I try baking sourdough in a “real bread shape” instead of dome loafs and rather than split my recipe and make less bread, I doubled my pans and tried just cooking two smaller loaves.

A year and a half later, experimenting complete, I can honestly say that these two pans are the most frequently used pieces of cast iron in my collection.

This specific style of pan (the L4LP3 Logic Loaf) comes from Lodge and is no longer manufactured (from what I can tell) having been replaced by an updated design.

Each of these two pans are a 10 1/4 inches long by 6 1/8 inches wide by 2 7/8 inches deep rectangular cast iron shell perfect to hold and proof half a batch of my sourdough bread or a full recipe of banana bread batter.

I use these pans so frequently, and in fact rarely even put them back into the cupboard, because almost fifteen months ago having been sent home from the office to “work from home” during the pandemic, I started baking bread on the regular.

Sourdough folks will online often compare photos of their loaves. Big dome loaves with a perfectly formed ear and baked to a perfect golden hue grace social media. These are gorgeous masterpieces of bread art (and they likely taste good too!) But my two modest loaf pans land upon my countertop a pair of neatly shaped sandwich bread loaves hot from the oven and tasting just as amazingly. Where my Dutch Oven is the artisan tool I use to bring forth an occasional sourdough creation, my two loaf pans are my workhorses, functional and simple, getting the job done two or three times per week.

Of course besides sourdough and banana bread, these pans have a list of other uses.

We take them camping and with a blend of meats, veggies, starches and sauce (covered with aluminum foil) make for a one-dish campfire casserole.

In them I’ve cooked pastas, meatloaf, pastries, potatoes, squash and more.

Any recipe that calls for a loaf pan in our house these days defaults to the cast iron while their flimsier cousins collect dust in the cupboard.

I bought these two pans as experiment not knowing if a heavy, sometimes-awkward replacement for our old loaf pans would bring any additional value to my cooking. I would say that after a couple years of experimental data, they definitely do… and I’m not looking back.

Should I avoid using soap on my cast iron pan?

About a week before I am writing this post, the official Twitter for Lodge Cast Iron posted a simple question: “Soap or no soap?”

About fifty people weighed in on the debate, asserting a broad range of opinions from both Team Soap and Team No Soap.

For the uninitiated the argument goes something like this:

For much of the long history of cast iron cookware, soap was a harsh chemical usually derived from a process involving lye. These natural soaps would chew through the seasoning of a cast iron pan. Soap-free techniques for salting, scrubbing, cleaning, heating, and oiling a recently-used pan have long been refined and shared among cast iron users, passed down as general means of care and tending of cookware.

But soaps are now mostly gentle chemical concoctions that bear little resemblance to the soaps of our great-grandparent’s era. Couple that with an overall aversion for most people to use something that hasn’t been scrubbed clean with a squirt of lemon-scented goo, and many people will tell you that no, actually soap isn’t going to harm your pan.

Team Soap asserts that almost all modern dish soaps are fine, and so long as you dry and oil your cast iron your pans will be just fine.

Team No Soap argues back that soaps, harsh or not, are unnecessary as there are techniques and tools to clean a pan without that product. And, oh-by-the-way anything that doesn’t help your seasoning is possibly hurting it.

Personally, I don’t use soap.

I fall into the Team No Soap camp because I stick to the core rule that whatever I put in my pans is either improving or degrading the seasoning.

Soap, in my opinion, no matter how gentle is not helping the seasoning so thus it is degrading it.

If I’m going to degrade my seasoning, it’s going to be from cooking something delicious to eat, not for taking a cleaning shortcut.

That said I will invoke my other rule, that is my Rule of Participation: anyone who participates in something should be encouraged to do so even if it means shortcutting or bending the rules of best practice at the beginning because eventually they will grow their knowledge and either change themselves towards the norm, or shift the normal to something better.

In other words, if a little soap is going to get more people into cooking with cast iron, great! As they learn, invest, and practice they will either see things with a different eye or will bring new evidence to the table for the rest of us.

Should you avoid soap on your cast iron pan? I think so… but don’t get so hung up on the question that you switch back to aluminum. A little soap is probably just fine.