Three Steaks: The Ballad of the Cast Iron Skillet

So I’ve been sitting on these photos and food experiences for quite a while now. I apologize to keep all two or three of you who actually want to read my ramblings waiting, but I promise that it’s gonna be a good one. It’s a long one, so buckle up.

Remember when I said that I would make sure to post my successes and failures with equal weight? This is one of those failures. Or shall I say two failures. A great many failures. Failures in the form of red meat and cookware.

This all began a few weeks ago when my girlfriend’s lovely mother gave me a cast iron skillet that she had lying around. My last roommate had a whole set of extremely well seasoned cast iron cookware, and I had been missing cooking with them. The pan was in decent shape, but the seasoning had worn off a bit. It hadn’t rusted, but I’m not sure what it was originally seasoned with. The seasoning was a bit uneven. However, instead of cleaning it, stripping the seasoning off, cleaning it again, and re-seasoning the pan, I decided to just add some more seasoning on top of it. I heated the pan on the stovetop for a few minutes and pre-heated my oven for 350. I smeared some olive oil onto the pan with a paper towel, and I put it in the oven for 30 minutes. Not knowing any better, I took it out and examined it. It had a nice black sheen. I thought, “mission accomplished!” but boy oh boy was I wrong. The pan looked nice and shiny, but I didn’t bake it for long enough, and, more importantly, I didn’t strip the old seasoning off. I essentially just laid a very thin layer of polymerized fat on top of the old, dirty seasoning. It was also slightly sticky. Not exactly what I wanted. The non-stick properties of cast iron pans is caused by the oil polymerizing and bonding with the iron. Some oils bond better with the iron. Olive oil is not one of them. My girlfriend and my roommate are undoubtedly sick of hearing about this silly pan and my obsession with it. I’ll get back to the pan “science” later in the post. Here’s a shot of it just before I heated it up after I “seasoned” it with the olive oil:

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Without really doing much research, I decided to go ahead and try to break in the new pan. I decided to challenge myself; I don’t have much experience with red meat, so I decided to make a steak for all the internet to see. I don’t know the first thing about steak. I know that I like it medium rare. I know it’s good with pepper. I know that I should eat it with a full-bodied red wine. That’s about it. I originally wanted to make a filet mignon, although I wasn’t even really aware what cut of the cow that I wanted to eat. I must have looked pretty silly standing in the beef section of Shaw’s on my phone looking up where on the cow each cut comes from. I picked out a boneless NY strip top sirloin…

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…and some green beans and potatoes and went home to experiment with my shiny poorly seasoned pan.

Following the advice of my mother, I decided to pan sear one side, and then stick it in the broiler for a few minutes. I tossed some potatoes in some olive oil in a Teflon skillet and put the beans in some boiling water (easy peasy) and I seasoned the steak with a bit of salt and pepper. Here’s where things starter to go south. I didn’t really know what “broil” meant, other than the fact that there was a button for it on my oven. It also only had low, medium, and high settings. So I, being very inexperienced with the oven, turned on the broiler on high right as I set the potatoes on the stove, and I left the door shut. I found out later with some simple googling that you should leave the door open when you broil, because instead of cooking with heated air (baking) you are essentially turning on the top heating element in the oven and cooking the food with induction. This makes perfect sense to me now, but at the time, I just figured that the door was meant to be shut. So as I heated up the air inside the oven, preparing to accidentally bake my steak, I peeled the potatoes and overcooked the green beans:

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A recipe for steak that I was glancing at earlier mentioned a red wine and balsamic vinegar rub and sauce, so I prepped it (and myself for the ensuing tragedy) with a little bit of this old stand-by in the Ferry house…

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I have discovered in recent months that I really enjoy a nice pinot noir, but I’m not a fan of fuller-bodied red wines like cabernet, but I couldn’t help but sample it. After all, I enjoyed the pinot grigio that I used to make the sauce for my scallops, and, as my roommate says, a glass for the chef is a requirement when cooking with wine…

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I was ready to throw the steak on the pan. I didn’t add any oil at all, and I had turned the heat up pretty high on the burner to heat the pan. I wanted to go for that nice charred look on the bottom of the steaks that I see in other more experienced peoples’ blogs. The pan was smoking hot (another issue, as I will address in a bit), and I tossed the steak onto the pan. It sizzled right away with that familiar sound. It sounded like I was doing everything right. The sizzle of the steak lulled me into a false sense of security. I felt I could do no wrong. Well, the wine probably helped as well. I was feeling good enough to take a photo of the steak cooking in the pan:

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The first red flag I should have noticed was the fact that the oil that I had just used to season the pan had not actually hardened very well, and it started to liquify. I only oiled the cooking surface (ANOTHER mistake that I will address further down) and I think I’m actually lucky that the oil didn’t go rancid in the time that I spent between seasoning and cooking. The steak looked decent, though, and it looked like the bottom was cooking nicely. Here’s where I made another HUGE mistake. I poured a generous helping of my red wine and vinegar sauce into the piping hot pan.

I wish I had gotten a picture of this, but because what happened caused the most ridiculous moment of panic, I didn’t have the presence of mind to grab the camera. The alcohol didn’t flash fire or anything fancy like that, but I bet it was pretty close. The real damage, however, came from the vinegar. Vinegar, as I’ve found out, is fairly acidic, and is exactly the kind of thing you’re not supposed to put in a cast iron pan. It immediately began to eat through the seasoning around the edges of the steak. The liquid mixture was bubbling and popping and splashing everywhere, so instead of calmly trying to fix the problem, I opened the oven door and stuffed the pan in. I also didn’t put it on the top burning right next to the broiler, but the damage had already been done, as the broiler had been on for about 20 minutes at this point on high with the oven door shut. I proceeded to wipe the sweat off my brow and chug that glass of wine as fast as I could.

My mother had recommended that I only broil it for two minutes if I wanted medium rare. I opened the door after 2 minutes, and saw a relatively gross piece of steak staring back at me. It was sort of grey and colorless, and it almost looked soggy from all that wine and vinegar that I poured all over it before I hastily put it in the broiler. I let it cook for another minute, which actually was the right thing to do, for once, because when I took it out and cut it open, it was on the rare side of medium rare.

At this point, I got impatient, so I cut it in half, plated it, and snapped a quick memento…

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You can almost see that the bottom of the steak was sort of charred, but the wine, vinegar, and the baking instead of broiling basically ruined it. It was tough, soggy, and very metallic. I found out later upon inspecting the pan that I also ate a big chunk of the old seasoning that had come off when I poured the vinegar-wine mixture on the steak.

I was pretty annoyed with myself at this point. I reluctantly forced down the whole thing (although the potatoes were not too bad, albiet burnt) and tossed the leftover piece. No way was I eating that thing again. I almost immediately sat down and did some research on the pan and on broiling. Oops. I vowed to never make that mistake again! The hero of the kitchen can’t make these critical mistakes! One day I will master steak or risk having my man card taken away by the guy-food police!

When I went to clean up, I discovered pretty quickly that there was something fishy up with the pan. I knew to wash it nearly immediately with hot water and then let it dry on the stove for a few minutes with the burner on to evaporate all the remaining water. The problem was that there was a section of seasoning that was removed that was the shape of the steak. You can sort of see it in this picture:

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At least, that’s what was left of it. I suspected at this point that the seasoning was destroyed. I tried to strip the seasoning off with a method that I read about online: salt and a little bit of oil with some steel wool. It helped a little bit, but it mostly just made a mess and dulled the steak outline a little bit. See here:

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I decided to go another route. I couldn’t seem to clean off the seasoning, so I decided to just add more on top of it. A silly idea. When I was reading about seasoning pans, I read somewhere that coconut oil was a good seasoning agent, although that’s not at all the route that I have chosen to take at this point. However, I bought a jar of coconut oil, which is actually sort of a gross solid fat, and attempted to add another layer of seasoning on top of the mess that I had made. I melted the coconut oil in the pan, spread it around, and then set the pan (upside down this time so that the oil didn’t pool and gather) in the oven at 400 degrees for half an hour. This time the pan came out looking slightly less shiny than the initial seasoning with olive oil, and it didn’t really cover up the strange steak-shaped outline in the pan. I discovered later that coconut oil is not a great oil for seasoning either, as it is a saturated fat instead of polyunsaturated fat, and therefore has fewer bonding points that will bond with the iron in the heat. Coconut oil is not unlike seasoning your pan with lard, though. People have been using lard and other saturated fats for as long as cast iron cookware has existed with great success. Here is a fantastic chart on different fats and oils with smoke points and all sorts of other mumbo-jumbo!

I, at this point, decided to try another steak in the pan to see if the coconut oil had improved anything at all. I used a similar cut of steak (bone-in NY Strip top sirloin this time), and I bought a second steak to cook on the grill for comparison. Unfortunately my phone was dead during this venture, so I have no photographic evidence of this travesty.

The pan seared steak was terrible. I cooked it very similarly to how I did it the first time. I even made the same side dishes! My attention to detail was impeccable at this point. I broiled it properly (door OPEN) and I didn’t bathe the steak in vinegar while it was cooking, or at all for that matter. However, this steak didn’t cook through properly, like my last one had. It was tough to cut and chew, but it was on the rare side in the center. It was also grey and metallic tasting. My theory was that I was still tasting the iron and very old seasoning from the pan. Sure enough, there was a steak-shaped discolored ring in the pan even after I washed it out and scrubbed it with warm water. The grilled steak, on the other hand, was fantastic. Rare, juicy, tender, and red. I’d eat 1000 of them if I could. Disheartened, I went inside and did the dishes with my head hung in shame.

The next day, I tried once again to season the pan, this time with canola oil, but I left it on the stove top too long by accident. I poured some oil into the pan with the intention of spreading it around, and it started to bubble around the outlines of my two previous steaks. It produced a lovely black gunk that I wished I’d taken a picture of. It was truly disgusting. I realized that this black gunk was what I had been ingesting when I was eating the steaks and tasting a metallic twinge in the food.

I decided to go back to the drawing board. My Google-Fu is pretty strong, so I went back to the internet, determined to learn as much as I could about cast iron skillet seasoning. Let me be clear. II have read just about all there is to read about cast iron online. The following methods that I decided to use were the most uniformly respected and repeated and referenced methods online today. I stumbled across this wonderful blog post getting down to the nitty-gritty science behind seasoning; she recommended flaxseed oil because it hardens extremely well, creates the best non-stick surface, and bonds with iron better than almost any other edible oil.

I also researched how to recondition an old pan and completely strip the old seasoning. It seems that the best method is an electrolysis bath, but that’s not something I really have access to. Besides, this pan isn’t an antique Griswold or Wagner pan. It’s a Lodge #8SQ2 a well made American pan, probably made in the 80’s or 90’s before Lodge started only selling skillets that are pre-seasoned with vegetable oil in their factory in Tennessee. There are quite a few cooking snobs out there on the internet that seem to look down on Lodge, but I think it’s just because they are seasoning perfectionists, and they don’t want to have to use Lodge’s pre-seasoned pans. It’s apparently virtually impossible to buy a new cast iron pan these days that doesn’t come pre-seasoned. Anyway, on to the juicy part.

As per some advice I read online, I took some oven cleaner and sprayed the pan inside and out. Oven cleaner is toxic and corrosive to the skin, so I took it outside, donned my lovely kitchen gloves, and sprayed into a disposable roasting pan.

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So the reason that oven cleaner works for cleaning off cast iron seasoning is that it contains lye. Lye is sodium hydroxide, which is used in making soap. And bombs. And to clean your drains. It’s strong. It’s gross. I sprayed the cleaner on the pan all over, and I put it in a garbage bag and left it for a day. I was actually worried that the oven cleaner was going to eat through the roasting pan, but thankfully it didn’t. The garbage bag was there to prevent the spray-on oven cleaner from evaporating quickly.

I was supposed to leave the pan in the bag with the lye for two days, but of course, I became impatient after one day. I took it out of the bag; it was now completely covered in brown gunk (not dissimilar to the black gunk the the vegetable oil had produced in my pan before, except there was a lot more of it). I scrubbed off the brown gunk, and voila! Off came almost all the old seasoning, just like that! Ah, the magic of science.

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The pan now was back to its original gun-metal dull grey color. However, as you can see if you look closely above, it nearly immediately started to rust once it was dry. The next step was to let it soak in vinegar and water for half an hour!

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The pan just barely fit into my sink, and I was able to get the whole thing submerged. I poured in an entire bottle of distilled white vinegar and filled the rest up with water. After 20 minutes or so, the pan stopped bubbling from the contact with the vinegar, and I knew it was time to remove it. I lightly scrubbed it with steel wool to get off any remaining rust, and I put it in the oven at 200 degrees to dry it off completely.

Because RI is a humid area, I needed to start the seasoning right away to prevent any real rust from forming. This is what the pan looked like immediately before I began to rub it down with flaxseed oil:

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I probably could have let it soak in the lye a bit longer, but I just wanted to get the messy part over with and move onto the fun seasoning steps.

I began to rub the pan down with flaxseed oil all over as Sheryl describes in her blog post about the science of seasoning….

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Sometimes making a mess is fun and delicious! And nutritious!

I oiled the pan, wiped almost all the oil out, set the pan upside down in the oven, turned it up to 500 this time, and let the pan pre-heat with the oven. I set the timer for 1 hour; when it went off, I turned the oven off, but didn’t open the door. Apparently, you can damage your cast iron pan by exposing it to cold air after it’s been in a 500 degree oven for an hour. It can supposedly crack or break. I was done with taking chances. At this point, I’ve spent more money restoring this old pan than it would have cost me to buy a new one. I’m invested in the pan. I’ve grown attached to it. Some people in my life find my attachment a bit strange. But I make those people tuna steaks and they quickly forget about it.

Anyway… I took the pan out after it was all cooled off (about 2 hours after I turned the oven off). TADA!!!!!! It was starting to turn black! Sort of! It was a dark bronze mixed with black. There were small spots on the rim of the pan where it was touching the oven rack, but I addressed them in the second seasoning round.

This is the pan after 1 seasoning round:

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…and after the second…

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…and the third…

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…and the fourth…

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You can see that it’s gotten progressively darker and more smooth. I’m planning on doing two more coats before I cook on it.

That’s all for now. I know that was a doozy, and it was mostly about the pan, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I have plenty of delicious posts on the horizon… my next post will be breakfast themed!

Special thanks to Lindsey White for giving me the pan, and Jenny and Andrew G. for patiently listening to me chatter on and on about it for the last several weeks!

STATS:

Prep time: hours

Cook time: weeks

Eating time: very little

Drunk Roommate Seal of Approval: “Oh, you’re seasoning that pan AGAIN? *eyeroll*”

Mood: SCIENCE!

Music playing while preparing: Lost River by Murder By Death

Peace!

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2 Responses to Three Steaks: The Ballad of the Cast Iron Skillet

  1. Stephen Litterst says:

    I reseasoned my cast iron pan a while back and tackled Alton Brown’s filet au poivre recipe. The steaks turned out fantastically, although he didn’t happen to mention just how high the flames would reach when the pan is deglazed with brandy.

    • abferry says:

      I have yet to cook in the pan since starting to reseason it! I’m gonna do a few more rounds of seasoning before I try something ; it will probably be some sort of fish though! I need some good cookbook recommendations, and Alton Brown is at the top of the list!

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