Pop quiz: Name a three things that get better with age. Wine? Of course. Beef? Within reason. The GP crew? You’re damn right, partner. And number four, for good measure, is a cast iron skillet. Before there were non-stick pans coated in Teflon or enamel, there was cast iron, the original non-stick surface thanks to polymerized fat or oil built up with repeated use. Searing and braising meats, making stews in a campfire, frying eggs at breakfast. It retains heat better than other cooking metals, plus it imparts the seasoning of past meals. That means it’s the perfect medium for cooking a slab of beef — just in case you lost track of this month’s theme.
To find out how to season, cook with and maintain cast iron, we caught up with chef Michael Santoro of The Mildred, a budding Philadelphia eatery that’s charting new territory, surprisingly, with a traditional medium: his food is cooked and served almost exclusively in cast iron. It’s a departure from his avant-garde resume which includes stints at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and Basque restaurants Martin Berasategui and Mugaritz — but the food is equally sophisticated.
Discover what we learned from this sage of the skillet after the break.
Season & Cook with Cast Iron
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
2. Bake cast iron pan for 25 minutes.
3. Remove pan. Coat it with a film of lard and return it to the oven.
4. Reapply lard and smooth it out every half hour. Don’t let it pool.
5. Repeat for 3-5 hours. The longer the better.
6. At first, avoid liquids when cooking: no stocks, acids, beer and wine, even vegetables.
7. Roast and sear meats and fish in the pan to continue building the coating.
8. When you’re satisfied with the coating, use the pan for anything you’d like.
9. After each use, wipe clean with a towel. To remove build-up, heat oil until smoking, add salt, and scrape with a wooden spoon.
10. Impress friends and family. The world is yours.
Santoro uses a French skillet brand called Staub, though in the States we’re all probably more familiar with Lodge, which has been making cast iron cookware at a foundry in Tennessee since the end of the 19th century. Santoro likes cast iron because it challenges him to draw on Old World cooking techniques that have been forgotten about or under-utilized in recent years, with a heavy focus on low-temperature cooking and slow braising. It’s also an ideal surface for searing a hanger steak and crisping potatoes.
“The thing that’s beautiful about cast iron is the weight and the way it holds heat,” Santoro says. “It’s not the greatest conductor of heat when you look at pans across the spectrum, but it holds heat really well once it gets going. And they’re non-stick. That’s the other thing about cast iron: the seasoning on it. It’s miles ahead in terms of flavor and sear.”
The key is getting the pan to the point where it’s well-seasoned. All cast iron pans, Lodge and Staub included, come pre-seasoned, typically with a vegetable oil. So in theory you can go ahead in cook in them and achieve the non-stick benefits. But to reap the full rewards of the medium Santoro suggests seasoning them yourself, first over the course of several hours in the oven, then through use over time.
“The best pans we have are coated in lard,” he says. We won’t argue with that.