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Thursday, April 20, 2017 12:01 am

Don’t be afraid to cook with cast iron

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It’s rare these days to buy anything that will truly last 100 years, much less generations. Cast-iron cookware, when properly cared for, can last indefinitely. I have a set of cast-iron skillets that are true workhorses of my kitchen. Some I found at garage sales and the others I inherited from my great-grandmother. I cherish these skillets more than anything else in my kitchen, not just for their sentimental value, but because I use them every single day, often in the making of breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Cast-iron skillets have, for some reason, developed a reputation for being delicate or high maintenance, requiring special cleaning techniques and steeped in controversy regarding the use of dish soap. Perhaps the idea of having to “season” the pan intimidates folks. These perceptions could not be further from the truth – indeed properly maintained cast-iron cookware is a snap to clean and actually improves with age and use. Even neglected and rusted over cast-iron cookware can be restored to usefulness.

Cast-iron cookware is made today much the same as it was generations ago. Molten iron alloy is poured into a sand mold. When cool the mold is broken to release the pan. The materials for the mold are then recycled to produce new molds, and the pan is then ground down to remove the flashing and smooth its surface. Generally, pre-World War II vintage pans were ground down to a satiny surface, resulting in smoother and slightly thinner cookware than their modern counterparts. Most modern producers of cast-iron pans leave their surfaces rough to better allow the pan to be pre-seasoned. Some feel that these old-world pans are superior to their rougher modern counterparts, and many are highly collectible.

By the late 1960s, most of the iconic American cast-iron cookware manufacturers had gone out of business. Modern aluminum and Teflon-coated cookware had taken over the market, and heavy, old-fashioned cast-iron cookware had become unfashionable. In recent years, interest in cast-iron cookware has surged as cooks become more concerned about health risks associated with non-stick cookware and seek out sustainable cookware options. While still available in many thrift and antique shops, the renewed interest has made these pans more difficult to find and prices are higher.

For many years, Lodge remained the sole manufacturer of American-made cast-iron cookware. These affordable pans are heavy, rough and widely available. Small artisan makers such as FINEX and Smithey have popped up recently and have begun producing gorgeous, vintage-inspired cast-iron cookware. These pieces are hand-finished, and their prices reflect the time and attention to detail that is put into them.

Cast iron cookware is a joy to use and care for, which is why I cook with it so much. There are a few critical points to keep in mind when using it though.

PHOTO BY ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

 

Dish soap is fine to use on cast-iron cookware. During the seasoning process and over time with repeated use, the oils on the pan break down to form a hard plastic-like polymer – essentially a do-it-yourself Teflon, which does not react to detergents as oil would, and therefore won’t damage the surface of the pan. Elbow grease and a metal scrubber will remove seasoning from a pan, so go easy when scrubbing. Do not soak the pan or let it stay wet, as it will quickly begin to rust. Always dry immediately over high heat on the stove or in the oven, then wipe out with a bit of oil. I prefer to use flaxseed or grapeseed oils due to their high smoke point, but really any oil will do. Most modern cookware comes pre-seasoned and ready to use. It is important to scrub a new skillet with dish detergent before first use to remove any casting oils that may still be on the surface of the pan.

If you come upon a rusty old iron skillet or Dutch oven in a basement or garage sale, grab it! Almost all rusted-over cookware can be salvaged with a little TLC. First, sand down any large amounts of rust with fine sandpaper, then scrub the pan with steel wool and dish soap. Towel dry the pan, then apply a thin coat of oil to the entire surface, inside and out. Place the oiled pan in a 350-degree oven for an hour, then turn off the heat and let it cool in the oven. I periodically wipe down all my pans with oil and give them a turn in the oven for an hour to maintain their non-stick coating.

You can cook almost anything in well-seasoned cast iron. Bare iron can react with acidic foods and affect the taste. In a well-seasoned pan, the food is in contact with the non-reactive polymer coating, so acidic foods shouldn’t be a problem. Do avoid long simmers with acidic dishes that could begin to break down the seasoning. Cast iron holds its heat extremely well and cooking foods in a preheated pan ensures a crispy, well-browned crust. Cornbread does extremely well in cast iron, as does pan pizza, baked breads, skillet cookies and cobblers.

As a cook, the stovetop-to-oven capability of my cast iron is probably what I love the most. Meat can be seared on the stovetop, then finished in the oven. Transfer the meat to a warmed serving platter, and return the pan to the stove to make a sauce with all the lovely pan drippings. Perhaps you add something like mushrooms or garlic to the drippings in the pan and sauté briefly before adding a tablespoon of flour. Cook a minute longer, then add a cup or so of broth and some wine or heavy cream. Whisk out any lumps and bring to a simmer. Season to taste and voila!

This method can be adapted for many tastes and different ingredients. I cook all roasts in my big cast-iron skillet so I can easily make the gravy while the meat rests. It’s also excellent for preparing pasta dishes or a stir-fry. I often serve right out of the skillet on the dinner table, so no matter how long it takes everyone to wash hands and get drinks and settle down, the food stays piping hot.

If you’ve never used cast iron or think it’s just for searing steak, consider giving this old standby a try when cooking some of your favorite recipes. After all, what’s old is new again!

Contact Ashley Meyer at Ashley@realcuisine.net.

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