Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network celebrity chef, author of Old-School Comfort Food and the executive chef at New York City’s Butter restaurants. Read her PEOPLE.com blog every Tuesday to get her professional cooking tips, family-favorite recipes and personal stories of working in front of the camera and behind the kitchen doors. Follow her on Twitter at @guarnaschelli.
Periodically, I have a chef friend who cooks for me and friends. Every few weeks, I am going to have a guest chef’s hands and one of their methods folded into my blog. I will leave the identity of the chef for you all to guess as you read about a great cooking technique. In this case, the mystery “Whodunnit” settles a dispute about how to clean and take care of a cast-iron skillet:
I am the type to use a cast iron skillet to bake a cornbread or sear a steak. I love the way the skillet gets so crazy hot and seems to cook things on a kind of slow burn. I love the crusts I am able to develop on meat, the taste and browned exterior of a baked cornbread that’s still moist on the inside. I also sear vegetables like cauliflower or broccoli, for instance, and they get gloriously brown and tasty.
I have memories of my mother making a Yorkshire pudding to go with steak by pouring the batter into a greased cast iron skillet she had warming in the oven. The satisfying feeling of watching cornbread batter almost sear is it hits that hot cast iron surface makes me hungry as I type!
But cast iron skillets, while they may hearken to a simpler time or remind you of a campfire, raise a lot of questions. People always ask me, ‘How do I season my cast iron skillet?’ While cast iron skillets often come pre-seasoned, I like to season mine in the simplest way possible. I pour a few spoonfuls of a neutral-flavored oil (canola or grapeseed, for example) in the skillet and warm it gently on the burner. When it begins to smoke lightly, I roll the oil around the surface of the pan and then shut the heat off and let it cool. Then, I wipe any excess oil out. This process of seasoning can be done with oil or can be done from using your skillet for cooking chickens and steaks over and over again. The best seasoning for cast iron is using it to cook your food!
What about when you sear steak (or cook a chicken) in the skillet and there is residual crust and fat in the pan when you’re done cooking? How to clean it? Wow, the endless arguments I have had on Twitter about the best way to clean your cast iron! If my pan has a good seasoned coat on it, I don’t concern myself with cleaning it without scrubbing. But truth is, I don’t want some leftover chicken bits sitting in there festering until the next time I use my skillet. It’s not very clean or sanitary. I go old school and simply use a scrubber and some soapy water to remove the crust. I rinse, immediately wipe dry and move on! Yes. Soap. Water. Sponge: the trifecta of theoretical “no no’s” for cleaning a cast iron skillet. I have always done it this way and had great success. Just don’t put the skillet away wet. Water, when it sits in the skillet, can cause rust.
Then, this past weekend, I had an accidental lesson in alternative method that I really like. My pictures reveal how my friend got his skillet clean. The method is easy. My question for you is twofold: Do you like how he cleaned his skillet (after serving me a delicious chicken dish with crispy cast iron skin) and do you know what fabulous chef these hands belong to?
Method: Chef heated his dirty skillet and added a thin layer of kosher salt. He warmed the salt over low heat until it smoked lightly then began using that salt layer like the rough part of a sponge.
He held a sturdy kitchen towel and rubbed the salt on the surface of the skillet, scrubbing away the sticky chicken bits over low heat. (P.S. This method could also help you get rid of a rust spot in your skillet.)
The skillet was so clean and he just discarded the salt. He warmed a little oil in the clean skillet to re-season it, wiped any excess oil and arranged it neatly on his shelf. I swear I heard the skillet breathe a happy sigh of relief at being treated so simply and with such love.
Now the next part of the question needs to be answered by you: Whose hands are these?