Cast iron - did I ruin a pot?
July 24, 2011 12:54 PM   Subscribe

Cast iron pan question - did I ruin something at my host's house that I'm going to have to replace?

So, I'm in Germany, living with a host who only speaks German. My German is decent, and I can get around, but I'm worried that I misunderstood my host's directions when it comes to her cast iron cookware.

So I scrambled some eggs, scrubbed it with a brush after I was done, and then put some cooking oil in the pan, rubbed it, and in my best knowledge, she told me to put it over fire. Well, I did that, but it caused some smoke, obviously. She came in, and told me the pan was kaputt, that it was burnt. I'm not quite sure if what I did is really irreversible. Is it? Can it be salvaged? It looks fine, maybe just some burnt cooking oil is all.

I read some on the internet, but not much helps me in solving such a silly question, that I'm obviously a little bit touchy about. I'd replace the pan if it really is a goner, and I'm not quite sure how to approach/explain to her if it really isn't either.

Maybe you could help me on both counts.
posted by makethemost to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
With such little information, I don't think it's kaput. I mean, I clean my pans in much the same way as you describe - scrub, oil and heat. Sometimes there's even smoke. Cast iron pans are very tough and hard to ruin. But, if *she* says it's ruined, I don't know if I'd want to argue with her...
posted by patheral at 12:58 PM on July 24, 2011

Is this a coated cast iron, or not?
posted by SMPA at 12:59 PM on July 24, 2011

Yes, this is my dilemma. Most things I have read say that this is standard fare - even sticking it in the oven for quite long periods at around 350 F. Still she said that it's burnt because it reached over 180 Celsius. I don't really think so, but maybe.

And I don't think it's coated. But I'm not exactly sure.

If it's not a goner, I don't want her to throw it out, and I don't want to pay the 70 Euros to replace it, even if she said I didn't have to.
posted by makethemost at 1:01 PM on July 24, 2011

I don't think it's coated because I know she asked me to season it.
posted by makethemost at 1:04 PM on July 24, 2011

The only way to ruin cast iron is to let it rust. Any burnt oil can be removed by reseasoning the pan. She may be upset about that, as reseasoning can take time. But there's no way you have to buy a new pan, which would also require reseasoning, so she would be in the same situation either way.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:08 PM on July 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

If it was coated, it'd be really obvious, because it'd be shiny (what I'm thinking is that it might be coated on the bottom.)

With plain old cast iron, which is what I always use, you can totally stick the thing in the oven. I do it all the time.

With enameled cast iron, well...

I'm thinking it's enameled because normal cast iron does not cost 70 Euros.
posted by SMPA at 1:10 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

(And if it is plain cast iron, go buy her some new stuff rather than giving her money, because there is no way in heck it's going to cost you 70 Euros. My most expensive piece of cast iron cost $35.)
posted by SMPA at 1:12 PM on July 24, 2011

Any way you can post a photo? Basic cast iron is really hard to ruin, short of putting it in blast furnace. Even rust can be taken care of with elbow grease. This is why so many of us have cast iron pans from our grandmothers, which may well have belonged to their grandmothers.

None of this may apply if it's enameled or coated.
posted by rtha at 1:13 PM on July 24, 2011

Thanks for the speedy help. I am not sure if it is coated, and I wouldn't be able to really effectively navigate the conversation (i.e. "Well, is it coated or not?" "I wasn't sure..." etc.")

If there's any shininess at all, would this indicate a coated pan? She did ask me to season it though, so I'm not sure what's up there.
posted by makethemost at 1:14 PM on July 24, 2011

Even if the pan itself isn't permanently "kaput" (which it isn't), if I had built up a seasoning on my cast iron skillet over many years and then decided that it had been ruined, I'd be upset. That said, she might be a little over sensitive/black-and-white as to how/whether it's ruined. Everyone has their preferences as to how their pans should be seasoned, and it depends on tradition and superstition and how the pan is used. A pan used for searing steak will have a different cure than a pan only used for frying chicken.

I don't see how replacing the pan would help. The pan is just fine, it's the seasoning that needs to be replaced, and that can't be bought. I'm assuming it didn't sit in the fire long enough to crack.
posted by WasabiFlux at 1:15 PM on July 24, 2011

N'thing that it can't possibly be ruined.
It may need re-seasoning, but it's not ruined.
FWIW, we do a cold wash, dry over low heat, then spread a little oil around with a paper towel and let it cool.
posted by SLC Mom at 1:16 PM on July 24, 2011

If she asked you to maintain it that way, and it's dark grey or black (shiny or less shiny), it's not coated or enameled or anything.
posted by WasabiFlux at 1:17 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is it branded Le Creuset or similar? These have a grey or beige coating of enamel on the pan.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:17 PM on July 24, 2011

she may very well be completely wrong, but it might be worth the money to make certain there are no bad feelings for the rest of your time there. but make a deal with her - she gets to use new pan all for herself, you get "kaput" pan so you don't have to fret about it all over again.
posted by batmonkey at 1:17 PM on July 24, 2011

It's basically black with a little silvery in the middle.

And I'll be here for 3 more days.
posted by makethemost at 1:18 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is plain cast iron cookware. It should be gleaming (due to the seasoning) but obviously rough in the sense that duh, it's iron.

This is cast iron with an enameled bottom. The inside is just like the plain cast iron, and the bottom is super shiny.
posted by SMPA at 1:18 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Like I said, it looks like it's the plain cast iron, but there's a patch in the middle that has looked silver since I've gotten here a month ago.
posted by makethemost at 1:20 PM on July 24, 2011

Then it's just a seasoning issue, the 180 degrees Celsius thing makes no sense, and it's totally fixable.
posted by SMPA at 1:23 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

How should I navigate this, considering I only know the word for iron, pan, and "isn't broken"? Some of this stuff is pretty jargon-y. All in all I would be okay with paying for it, but the hard feelings are getting me down. Likewise, it would be a waste if she thought her pan truly was broken. Should I get someone to translate?

She gave me sort of a mini lecture, in telling me that it was okay that it was broken, that I'm only <2>
What should I do next? I could take pictures of the pan, if that helps.
posted by makethemost at 1:26 PM on July 24, 2011

I'm also of the opinion that, if it is indeed a solid cast iron pan it is not ruined and can be made fully functional by re-seasoning. I think pictures would help us determine whether that's the case.

That said, if it were me and I could afford it, I would apologize for upsetting her and replace it.
posted by trip and a half at 1:32 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

My mother has cast iron skillets that are crusty on the outside but smooth and shiny on the inside. I am with the rest of these posters that have said it just needs seasoned again. I used this technique to clean a really old skillet my mom gave me:

Rinse the cast iron skillet with warm tap water. This eliminates food particles from the skillet, simplifying the cleaning process. Don't dry the skillet.
Place the skillet inside a sink. Cover the rusty portion of the skillet with baking soda. Use enough baking soda to fully cover all of the rust.
Cut a single potato in half. Scrub the rust-covered portion of the skillet with the sliced potato pieces. The potato lifts the rust off the skillet.
Pour white vinegar over any leftover rust that's on the skillet. The vinegar will eliminates any residual rust.
Scrub the skillet with a moist sponge or dish scrubber. Rinse it thoroughly with warm tap water.
Inspect the skillet. Repeat Steps 2 through 5 if any rust remains.
Dry the skillet thoroughly with a towel to prevent more rust from developing.

You may just want to get a new skillet for this person and take the old "ruined" one and use it the rest of your lifetime.
posted by sandyp at 1:32 PM on July 24, 2011 [9 favorites]

Here's a link, that I hope works, with 3 pictures of said pan:
posted by makethemost at 1:36 PM on July 24, 2011

Another point, the best cast iron skillets (IMHO) can be had for much less than 70 Euros.
posted by trip and a half at 1:37 PM on July 24, 2011

Looks like that pan had a nice thick layer of seasoning on it, much of which has fallen off. There isn't anything obviously wrong with the pan itself, but the seasoning will likely need to be cleaned off and redone.
posted by ssg at 1:43 PM on July 24, 2011

Yeah, looks like it got half-unseasoned. Here is a picture I took of our cast iron frying pan five minutes ago. It needs seasoning is all (I need to fry bacon in it more regularly is what).
posted by rtha at 1:52 PM on July 24, 2011

The whole "she asked me to season it" thing kinda bothers me... People who love their cast iron pans tend to go out of their way to take good care of them, making sure it gets seasoned the "right" way (which can involve specific oils, kinds of salt, various temperatures from "low for a whole day" through "broil it until it stops smoking") - Which usually means doing it themselves no matter how much you insist on cleaning up after yourself.

It also seems odd that she would want you to re-season it unless it had gotten pretty nasty for some reason - Many cast-iron fans insist you should never wash them, just wipe them out after use, add a drop or two of fresh oil, and hang it up ready for next time.

Any chance you completely misunderstood her? Or that she might just want to tease you a bit?
posted by pla at 2:28 PM on July 24, 2011

Not ruined, but needs seasoning.

This is a reason I dislike cast iron. This indestructible cookware is way too precious to let others use.
posted by 2N2222 at 2:29 PM on July 24, 2011

I think that you probably didn't misunderstand in principle, but perhaps mis-performed in practice by letting the pan get hotter than what she thinks is okay. People are picky about their skillets, and Germans tend to be pickier than picky about stuff one can reasonably be picky about.

Whether it costs 70 Euros or not depends on the brand, which often is cast into the center when looked at from below. (This looks a bit like the straight-side LeCreuset 24cm from a while back - which would be an enameled one - but I'm unsure about the "patch of silver in the center" that you mention. I don't see that on the pics, only reflected light...).

If you keep having communication issues regarding whether it's cast iron or something else; about what she told you to do and what you did otherwise, or not; and about whether she thinks cast iron should be treated in any special manner or not, you can assemble a short statement in German and either post it here or memail it to me. [I'm a native German and I've 30 years of experience of cooking with cast iron skillets.]

Oh and btw: people do season even enameled cast iron skillets, because it makes them relatively non-stick. In practice, one simply rinses them without detergent and the fat residue builds up a layer over time. Perhaps that's what's kaputt, according to her.
posted by Namlit at 2:37 PM on July 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm confused - did she ask you for money to replace it? Quite frankly, if you are a guest in someone's home and they think you ruined it, you should just own up and pay for it instead of arguing about whether you actually ruined it or not. That's part of being a good guest.
posted by echo0720 at 2:43 PM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah... that surface is in bad shape.

There are many ways to season a cast iron pan. If you ask your host if you may fix it, I explained one method in a thread.

You will need: Heat, Oil, Kosher (or) Rock (or) Sea Salt, a good rag, a potholder and possibly a set of tongs. From the shape of those pictures, it was probably in crappy condition to begin with, but if it wasn't - yeah, you did a number on it.

Do not attempt to rectify this without asking if you may do so.
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:53 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

For something as indestructible as cast iron it seems like everyone is going to a lot of trouble. I just use mine (almost exclusively to any other cookware) and you know what? it seasons out just fine to a pretty tough finish after a few uses that is decently non stick. Cooking some bacon or something just as fatty/greasy will give it a nice seasoning with no other effort. It is cast iron and so yea it rusts sometimes when i wash it. Something like rust isn't going to hurt you or what you are going and especially not the tiny amount on the surface of skillet.

She is being kinda crazy and 70 euros for cast iron is extra special crazy. Most of mine that i didn't get from grandmothers (really) i picked up from junk piles (really), or 5 bucks at a yard sale. Except for my cast iron wok (which is really great for stir frys). Too clean the really nasty rusty/grimy ones I just put the whole thing into a large wood fire (usually while camping out) and let it really hot, like cherry red hot. After it cooled off I cooked some bacon it and it was good to go. There is nothing tougher than a plain cast iron pan, just use the thing, it will take care of itself.
posted by bartonlong at 10:30 PM on July 24, 2011

I used to work at a cookware store that sold nearly every type of high end pot or pan, and after looking at the picture provided, my first thought is that that is a carbon steel pan, not cast iron (which also explains the exposed silvery area in the center, and also the paler, only lightly seasoned areas towards the sides). That being said, the care is the same as for cast iron, and it doesn't look like it was seasoned well in the first place.

IMO, that pan isn't dead, but then I don't really know why she's saying that it is. It needs cleaning and re-seasoning (I like the oil/salt method mentioned above), but I don't know if that will be good enough for your host. With her permission, I would attempt to re-season. Myself, I give a light scrub, rinse, heat to evaporate the moisture, lightly oil, and heat again. It really doesn't take much more time than the scrub, oil, heat way - but that's just me. Good luck.
posted by shinyblackdog at 11:26 PM on July 24, 2011

Cast iron is difficult to damage, much less ruin, much less by using it to heat oil above the smoke point, which is what it sounds like you did. The only damage you might have done is to the seasoning, and even that is easily remedied. It's one of the virtues of cast iron. (Is there perhaps some German folk belief about smoke and cast iron pans, like fan death or something?)

Anyway, here is Mark Bittman's method for seasoning, which I used to reseason the cast iron dutch oven I inherited from my grandfather. I had not yet learned to cook with cast iron and scrubbed the old seasoning away with steel wool and soap. Bittman's method restored it to its old glory in an afternoon, with little effort on my part. Here is a more scientific approach to optimize results, but at the cost of a little more time.

That said, a lot of people believe that cast iron cookware takes years to season, or that the cookware acquires a unique seasoning that imparts discernible qualities to the food cooked in it. I think this is pure sentimentality, born of cast iron's long lifespan. My friends who brag about the seasoning their mothers built up on the skillets they now use are clearly taking pride in the continuity their cooking has with their mother's. The seasoning--or what they imagine the seasoning to be--is just a stand-in for the objects' histories, and for that reason they would consider a skillet ruined if it need to be reseasoned. If your host has *that* sort of attachment to her cast iron, you might have "ruined" it without doing any damage to the pan by damaging some symbolic feature. Unfortunately, I doubt there'd be anything you could do to "repair" the symbolic damage, especially since it doesn't look like she kept the pan in good shape to begin with.

So you probably didn't ruin anything, but if your host thinks you did (and it sounds like you're not quite certain on that point), it might be better to offer to make amends as best you can for the sake of harmony.
posted by Marty Marx at 11:38 PM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree with shinyblackdog that it looks like a carbon steel pain not a cast iron one. I've had a hard time keeping my two carbon steel pans seasoned (tends to come off when I cook dishes with more liquid in 'em), but reseasoning is always an option (unless you have gaping holes in the pan itself. Before paying out any money for a new pan, ask if you can try reseasoning to the hosts preference and ask for thorough instructions so you know exactly how she prefers it done.

BTW seasoning is an inexact science and a little smoking is usually encouraged. You'll find a fair amount of disagreement over the precise method, but here's a nice low-brow explanation:
posted by that's candlepin at 11:03 AM on July 25, 2011

Or use Bittman's method to oven-season. That'll do as well.
posted by that's candlepin at 11:05 AM on July 25, 2011

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