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An Old-Fashioned Way to Cook Fat-Free

Recently my sister-in-law, who happens to also have diabetes, visited me for a couple of weeks while I was recuperating after surgery. Since she’s a fabulous, innovative cook I was delighted when she announced she’d be doing kitchen duty, preparing and serving all of my meals.

To my surprise the first thing she did was to unearth my 20-year-old cast-iron skillet and once satisfied that I’d properly kept it well seasoned, went on to prepare some of the most delicious meals without using an ounce of fat in cooking crispy fish fillets, blackened sea scallops and chicken breasts, “fried” sweet potatoes and other crisp-cooked vegetables-all in the cast-iron skillet. I’d long forgotten that a seasoned cast-iron pan offers a nonstick surface for fat-free cooking. You can even finish off the cooking in a hot oven (just be careful of the hot, hot handle).

If you don’t own a cast-iron skillet, it’s well worth the time and monetary investment. You can find skillets for sale right here on the Net and at cookshops everywhere. Or, you can scour the tag and yard sales for one that might look as if it’s seen better days. Not to fret! We’ll tell you how to get that new or very old one into shape so that you can enjoy a lifetime of fat-free cooking with your cast-iron pan. In fact, you can pass it on to your children and grandchildren.

To season a brand-new skillet, warm it over low heat and peel off the label. Wash the interior of the pan with warm, sudsy water (this is the only time you’ll wash the pan with soap), cleaning it thoroughly with a natural bristle brush or a plastic scrubber. Rinse and dry the pan completely with a kitchen towel.

Using a folded paper towel, coat the entire inside surface of the pan with solid vegetable shortening. Do not use vegetable oil as it will leave a sticky film and not allow for proper seasoning.

Place the coated, empty skillet upside down in a preheated 300°F (149°C) oven and bake for 2 to 3 hours. Place a cookie sheet or foil beneath the pan to catch any drips. Remove the skillet periodically (be careful as the pan and its handle will be very hot). Re-wipe the inside with the greased paper towel, Afterwards, turn the oven off and allow the skillet to cool in the closed oven overnight.

To re-season an old, rusty pan, first remove the traces of the old seasoning by placing the pan in a self-cleaning oven and run the self-clean cycle. This should “ash” any remaining seasoning. Wash thoroughly, then follow the instructions above for seasoning a new skillet. If the skillet has rust, it can be removed by steel wool. Sometimes a halved raw potato and scouring powder will be needed to remove stubborn rust.

Once seasoned, clean the skillet after each use with warm water and a brush (I keep a short-handled brush with stiff natural bristles that I use only for cleaning my skillet). Never scour the skillet, use soap, or an automatic dishwasher. For stubborn spots, clean the pan with a mixture of salt and vinegar, then rinse it well and dry it thoroughly on the stove over very low heat. Store the skillet without a lid or anything on top. To further control moisture and prevent rust, you can lay a paper towel inside the skillet.

In time, your cast-iron skillet with darken with use, turning from the steely gray of a new skillet, to dark gray or black. Should the seasoning break down over time (it will if you cook with liquid, steam food, or cooked with acidic foods like tomatoes), just re-season it with a light coating of solid vegetable shortening, again baking the pan in an oven.