Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hands On - Cast Iron

I pump iron.  In the kitchen.  I figure as long as I can heft my large cast iron frying pan and dutch oven,  I am in good shape.  That is one reason I use cast iron -  I can get weight bearing exercise without having to hit the gym.

My first set of pots and pans was harvest gold Club aluminum.  Coated with first generation Teflon, which I hope doesn't kill me some day.  Those pots served me well for a long time, but somehow over the years they wore out, were burned to death or otherwise didn't survive divorce or cross country moves.  My 70's Club aluminum is never going to make it to the next generation. My mother's large Club hammered aluminum kettle, which was used to sterilize family baby bottles in the 50's, did manage to make the jump, however.  I plan to use it this Thanksgiving to make a mountain of mashed potatoes.   Someday I will have to decide who has earned the right to be keeper of that kettle when I am gone.  Over my dead body will it end up on E Bay.

As the Club aluminum gradually vanished, I acquired several pieces of cast iron cookware.  I use many of these pieces daily.  They are on their way to becoming future heirlooms - hopefully treasured ones.  I like the idea of my children and grandchildren feeding my great grandchildren with the same tools I used.  I can't prove it, but I think it will make them stronger,  smarter and happier.   For sure not lazy.

One of my favorite pieces of cast iron - a small Lodge two handled pot -  came with a story.  I purchased it new at an old fashioned hardware store in Tupelo, Mississippi about a dozen years ago.  The store owner was eager to tell me and my husband about his store's place in history.  It seems that once upon a time a young man showed up at the store with his Mama.  He really wanted to get a gun.  But his Mama talked him into getting a guitar instead.  His first guitar.  His name was Elvis Presley.  So my cute little cast iron covered pot came from the store where Elvis got started. I think I need to name it.  How about the "love me tender" pot?

There are lots of reasons why you might want to acquire a few cast iron pans aside from achieving some measure of immortality. 

Cast iron pots are made from an alloy of iron (about 97%) and carbon (3%).  Cast iron is a very efficient thermal conductor.  Heat distributes evenly with no hot spots.  Cast iron retains heat very well.  A cast iron pan will absorb more heat and hold it longer than an aluminum pan of the same thickness.  Tip - the pan is hot enough for most purposes when a few drops of water skitter around on the surface.  If the water lies there - too cold.  If the water instantly turns to steam - too hot.

Cast iron is very affordable and widely available.   You can often find good used cast iron at second hand stores or auctions.   Griswold and Wagner are two respected brands.  Or you can buy a pan new from Lodge Manufacturing, located in Tennessee.  It is a family owned business that has been producing cast iron cookware since 1896.  Even Lodge is now importing enameled cast iron from China.  But their classic plain cast iron is made in America.

Cast iron is virtually indestructible.  The only way to ruin a pan is by exposing it to a sudden dramatic change in temperature.  Don't ever add cold liquid to a hot pan -  it may crack.  But other than that, cast iron will not let you down.  If the pan gets rusty or the seasoning wears away,  it can always be scoured and re-seasoned.

Cast iron is a source of dietary iron.  If you consistently cook with cast iron you are much less likely to ever have a problem with anemia due to iron deficiency.

Cast iron is versatile.  It can go from stovetop to oven to table.  (I do not recommend freezing or storing food in cast iron.)

Cast iron can withstand very high temperatures, which makes it good for frying or browning foods.  My small cast iron skillet is perfect for pan frying pork chops or steak for two.

Properly seasoned and maintained, cast iron is virtually non -stick.  If you do not have confidence in safety of the various modern non stick coatings, cast iron is for you.

Alice Waters, author of The Art of Simple Food and other cookbooks, says "If I could have only one pan, it would be a cast iron skillet.  The heavy iron heats evenly, making it a wonderful vehicle for browning and frying.  An added bonus is that a seasoned cast iron pan is virtually non-stick."

One drawback of cast iron is that it is not a good choice for some acidic foods.  It may slightly discolor some light colored foods.   I often use my Dutch kettle for spaghetti sauce, however, and have not had a problem.  

I have a cast iron pan that is rusty and has lost its seasoning.  How can I bring it back?
First, scour the pan well with steel wool or a wire brush to remove all the rust and to smooth the surface.  Wash with water and dry thoroughly. Some recommend cleaning the pan with oven cleaner.
Using a brush or paper towel, rub the entire pan and lid - inside and out - with a flavorless vegetable oil (flaxseed oil is considered by some to be the best) or even a little lard.  You want just a very thin coating - don't use too much.  Wipe off excess.  Place pan - upside down - and lid in a 350 degree oven for about two hours.   Turn off oven and leave pan in the oven until it is cool.  Repeat this process several times.
(Note - you can use the same process for a new unseasoned pan, except it will not be necessary to scour off rust.)
Use the pan for frying or sauteing a few times after this first seasoning so that the cooking oil provides some extra sealing of the pan's surface.  The more you cook, the smoother the pan becomes.

How do I take care of my pan once it is seasoned?
Wash with water and dry well.  Sometimes I use a very light duty scouring pad which does not seem to hurt the seasoned surface.  Some people recommend using salt if you need a little abrasive action to remove any stubborn food.  Every so often wipe on a little oil after the pan is thoroughly dry.

Pineapple upside down cake
This is a classic dessert which requires a well seasoned iron skillet.  This is a good recipe from Epicurious, but I would omit the cardamom and use about 1/4 cup of minced crystallized ginger in the topping instead.

Tomorrow:  Focus - ZUCCHINI SQUASH


  1. fabulous advice! i'm with you, i love my cast iron pans...i roasted my beets in one in the oven and they were delish! i use all-clad for my every day pans and they give you a good workout too! i made a lovely lentil soup yesterday so thanks for the inspiration!! didn't have beans for minestrone so used what i had...i posted the recipe on my blog today if you are interested!! i'm not usually a cooking blog but am inspired on occasion to type out a recipe...

  2. I only have one 10" skillet, passed down by my mother, and I love it. I use it all the time. I've found that an easy way to clean it is to deglaze it, just like when you make gravy. I figured that if deglazing can take off all that baked on stuff (which amazes me every time) then it should clean it just as well. I just heat the pan, put in some water, and whisk it clean. Then dry it and wipe on some oil if needed. I've been wanting to get more cast iron but couldn't decide what to get. I think a dutch oven will be next.