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A Couple of Cast Iron Questions

After years of cooking with a variety of carcinogenic non-stick cookware, I've finally found my way to good ol' cast iron - the original non-stick cookware. Seems grandma knew best - no surprise there.

Before purchasing a pair of skillets and a reversible griddle/grill, I scoured the net (though not the cast iron - don't worry!) for information pertaining to the use and care of cast iron cookware, and familiarized myself with the seasoning process. I read articles by Mark Bittman, dozens of posts here on Chowhound, and all sorts of other bits and pieces of information I came across online.

Now, I know the tried-and-true cleaning standard for cast iron cookware is to run it under hot water and to give it a few good scrubs with a stiff brush (with nylon bristles, preferably). I've no problem with that. I'm not one of those who frets over the possibility of germs and bacteria and such being left behind - as most people now know, heating the pan (and the cooking process itself) kills anything that might be wiggling about on the cookware.

That said, what does worry me is that, even after a good scrub under hot water (and I mean HOT water - the water temperature at my kitchen sink gets to a screaming, scalding hot), there's still a black, charry residue (albeit a thin one) that gets picked up by the paper towels I use when I re-coat the skillet or griddle with a bit of oil to keep it seasoned.

Now, here's the thing: after washing and drying the skillet or griddle, I can see that it looks and feels clean. I can wipe my finger over it - nothing sticks (like a black residue) to my finger. But when I use a paper towel with a bit of oil to re-coat the cookware, that's when the blackness appears, in the form of charry looking smudges all over the paper towel. Not a lot, but certainly a few.

Is that normal..?

I have to say that puts me off a bit more than the possibility of germs or what have you, becuase I don't like the thought of ingesting black, charry residue. I'm thinking it must get absorbed by whatever I cook.. though I can't say I notice black smudges on the food (on pancakes, for instance) I prepare using my cast-iron cookware.

What's your experience like?

One final question: I think I may have over-seasoned one of my skillets, as the outer surface (not the interior cooking surface) now has a few gummy spots. This makes the outer surface a bit difficult to re-coat with oil: the paper towel gets stuck on the gummy parts, and leaves behind little bits of paper towel lint everywhere. Following the advice of a few here on Chowhound, I originally seasoned the skillet with melted Crisco - not once, but twice. Meaning, upon bringing the skillet home, I seasoned it in the oven (using a thin layer of melted Crisco) twice in a row.

Will the gumminess eventually go away with repeated cooking (meaning, will it melt or burn off in time)? Should I just scrub those gummy spots really well using the stiff brush? Should I scour the whole darn thing and start over? Your insights would be appreciated.

Thanks in advance..

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  1. The only thing I can think of to your first question is that it actually might be particles of the iron coming off in your paper towel (and food). I've been around a while, and I remember my mother saying (and I also think I read it somewhere) that cooking in cast iron puts more iron in your diet because you are literally eating the infinitesimal particles of iron.

    1. Well with all due respect, I think Eujeanie is a bit off in saying that, for lack of better insinuation, you're eating your pan. The little black residue is simply that. Teeny tiny amounts of oil that has turned charred & black. Are you getting more iron by cooking in a cast iron pan? Not anything measurable, I'm positive. The slightly blackened paper towel is a good sign - it shows that your pan is being seasoned. The obvious answer is that it's not showing up on/in your food. Long story short, I have the same thing happen to me and I've had my pan for years.

      As for the gumminess, that is normal for a new pan in my experience, as well. It will go away if you scrub it a good bit with NYLON bristles and hot water and salt. With that said. it won't hurt anything, mind you.

      Here's the best piece of advice that I can give you. One good way of seasoning a cast iron pan pan is to cook in it while it's on your grill. That is to say use it IN your grill, but don't cook anything ON your grill. Hopefully that makes sense. Just use your pan. The grill i's like an oven but without the smoke and smell that comes with seasoning inside - you're grill is outside after all. Cook some steaks in the pan while it's in the grill or (my favorite) cook a butterflied whole chicken in a 1/4 inch of olive oil. Let you pan cool, dump the grease and then scrub it as usual. You'll have a pan ready to handle almost anything!

      1. ere's the more-or-less official word about cast iron care:
        http://www.lodgemfg.com/usecare1.asp

        In my experience, you just can't expect cast iron to look like stuff you see in food magazines, much less like new.. The outside gets carbon deposits, but these are just signs of a well-used pan to me. Think chuck wagons and vacation cabins and your 19th century ancestors, rather than expensive Food Network sets.

        BTW, I have a decades-old cast iron fry pan that I inherited and find I don't even need to reseason after cleaning (no soap, of course). Then I wipe it out with a paper towel and don't worry about it. The food tastes fine.

        1. Hi...I do Mt.Man/Black Powder event cooking (all outdoors in 1760-1840 dress) over wood or coal and only in cast iron dutch ovens...I do things that make the other cooking contest woman frown..like wash my cast iron later at home with Mrs. Meyers soap then toss them in the hot oven to dry.. I just season them when its time for the next trip...I also do this with my pans and put them on a hot burned after washing....I know...but... it works for me... sometimes if they are really bad or I have over seasoned them (thats the drippy looking stuff) I toss them into the oven and turn it to clean : ) they come out real nice....I also put paper towls between the lids and pices to help keep them dry, so that can not lead to rust...I have won three out of four times this summer and my food always comes out nice and clean...I have seen some with that black stuff stuck on, not to good looking : ( ......hope this helps you enjoy cooking with cast iron! : )
          My last win was with fresh peach pie in an 8" dutch oven..it worked very well!

          2 Replies
          1. re: Kimala

            You're right, you're not exactly eating your pan- this states what I meant a little more eloquently:

            Yes, cooking in a cast iron skillet can add significant amounts of iron to your food and into your body... if you eat it. This was proven by researchers who tested 20 foods, the results of which were published in the July 1986 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. They measured the iron and moisture content of these items when raw, and after cooking in an iron skillet and a non-iron (Corning ware) dish, separately. A new, seasoned iron skillet was used, in the event prior use might have affected iron absorption. The researchers also compared iron absorption when using a new iron skillet versus an older one.

            Researchers found that cooking in an iron skillet greatly increases the iron content of many foods. Acidic foods that have a higher moisture content, such as applesauce and spaghetti sauce, absorbed the most iron. As a matter of fact, the big winners in the foods tested were these two items. For 100 grams of each (about 3 oz.), the applesauce increased in iron content from 0.35 mg. to 7.3 mg., and the spaghetti sauce jumped from 0.6 mg. to 5.7 mg. of iron.

            Food cooked for longer periods of time absorbed more iron than food that was heated more quickly. They also found foods prepared with a newer iron skillet absorbed more iron than those cooked in an older one. Foods that were cooked and stirred more frequently absorbed a greater amount of iron as well, probably because they came into contact with the iron more often. Hamburger, corn tortillas, cornbread, and liver with onions didn't absorb as much iron. This was probably due to the shorter cooking times, and the fact that they were either turned once or not at all, resulting in less contact with the iron.

            Here are the changes the researchers found. Foods cooked at home may vary in iron absorption based on the age of the skillet used and the amount of time the foods are heated. This list can give you a general idea of the difference in dietary iron content cooking in an iron skillet can provide.

            Foods tested (100 g./3 oz.) Iron content when raw Iron content after cooking in iron skillet
            Applesauce, unsweetened 0.35 mg. 7.38 mg.
            Spaghetti sauce 0.61 5.77
            Chili with meat and beans 0.96 6.27
            Medium white sauce 0.22 3.30
            Scrambled egg 1.49 4.76
            Spaghetti sauce with meat 0.71 3.58
            Beef vegetable stew 0.66 3.4
            Fried egg 1.92 3.48
            Spanish rice 0.87 2.25
            Rice, white 0.67 1.97
            Pan broiled bacon 0.77 1.92
            Poached egg 1.87 2.32
            Fried chicken 0.88 1.89
            Pancakes 0.63 1.31
            Pan fried green beans 0.64 1.18
            Pan broiled hamburger 1.49 2.29
            Fried potatoes 0.42 0.8
            Fried corn tortillas 0.86 1.23
            Pan-fried beef liver with onions 3.1 3.87
            Baked cornbread 0.67 0.86

            So, if you're looking to increase your dietary iron, use a new cast iron skillet. After all, the iron in cookware is no different from the iron in our bodies — except we have much smaller amounts!

            1. re: Eujeanie

              Wow, you're right! Although, I don't think I'll ever cook tomato sauce, white sauce or applesauce in my skillet ;-) I only use it selectively for things like pork chops or bacon & such.

          2. About that gumminess. I think some of the Crisco pooled there if you put the pans in the oven right side up. Maybe if you put them in up-side-down the excess will run off. This is not the clean it back to bare metal oven cleaning cycle. Just at 350 for an hour. You might just re-coat the whole inside while you're at it. Put foil on the shelf below to catch the drippings.