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.

Strip This Pan, Part Two

I know that with a name like “the cast iron guy” you might expect that I’m some kind of guru in cast iron when in reality it as much about a philosophy of life that is expressed in the form and function of cast iron as much as a so-called cast iron expertise.

I write this as a caveat because often I post ideas that I’m as much interested in exploring more about or expanding my experience with and not so much sharing some deep knowledge of or advice in.

Like, say, recommendations for stripping a cast iron pan for reseasoning … with, say, vinegar.

Something that I have to report that as of my experience over the last twenty four hours did not work out at all for me.

I set up a shallow basin in the backyard.

I rested my twenty-inch cast iron grill in the basin.

I submerged the grill with a generous glug-glug-glug of multiple litres of 5% white vinegar.

I let it sit for sixteen hours.

The result? My pan was wet and smelled of vinegar, but there was no noticable breakdown of the seasoning let alone was it completely flaking off or otherwise dissolved. In fact, I would say all I accomplished was wasting about five bucks worth of vinegar. The pan after drying is unchanged from its soak in food-grade dilute acetic acid.

I suppose the allure of this idea that vinegar might have come from the notion that acids are bad for seasoning. We’re told to limit how much you might, say, cook with tomatoes (which are an acidic food) because they degrade your seasoning. A few years ago I made the mistake of leaving a bit of tomato sauce in the bottom of a pan (someone else put the lid on and it got missed in clean up) and a couple days later the seasoning had degraded to the point where I needed to run it through the oven a few times.

Also, vinegar seems like one of the easier and/or cheaper methods of stripping a pan. No fancy chemicals cleaners or tools or long, energy-expensive trials in the oven: just a bit of solution from the cupboard.

It’s also suprising how many search results appear for this, too, complete with warning about how the pan might rust up as soon as you pull it from the vinegar bath.

I suppose, if I’m being generous to these content farmers, there are many vaguely worded bits of advice about using vinegar on cast iron and there seems to be a genuine misunderstanding between “cleaning” a pan and actually stripping the seasoning. It’s easy to assume it will work “as advertised” if you’ve never tried it for yourself.

Which I have now tried.

And which I’ll not be trying again, unless someone happens to point out some glaring error I may have made in my simplistic trial of (basically) soaking my pan in kitchen chemical overnight.

Bringing me back to my point of experience versus expertise: prior to this weekend I had no experience with vinegar and cast iron, whereas now I can confidently advise that I don’t recommend you bother with this method.