Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cooking with Cast Iron

Many of you will recall that I recently went on an antiquing day with Brianna and Renee.  While browsing the aisles of one of the shops I came across a great cast iron dutch oven complete with lid for $18.00.  I've been looking for one of these to add to my collection for a very long time.  I have several frying pans of varying sizes.  One of these little gems is tiny and just right for making a single serving of fried eggs.
Yesterday, I was at a thrift shop that I love to visit.  I was so excited to find a flat cast iron griddle pan for only $2.50!  It had some rust on it, which is why I'm sure it had been passed over and was priced so low.  People don't realize that you can revive cast iron with very little effort! (More on this below.)
Besides the durability of cast iron there are other fabulous benefits from cooking with cast iron.
Cast Iron is an even distributor of heat, which you will instantly appreciate if switching from stainless steel or aluminum. And you can move it from stove top to oven without a thought.
Cast-iron pans are created by pouring molten iron into sand molds. After the metal solidifies, the sand crust is blasted off, and any rough edges are removed. This is pretty much the way cast iron has been made for centuries.
The biggest fear most people have about cast iron is the seasoning process. The metal is porous and rough, and until it gains a patina from use it is the opposite of nonstick.  Seasoning is simple, and maintaining it is even simpler. To season a new pan wash it well and dry it. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees while you warm the pan gently over low heat on top of the stove. Using a brush or a paper towel, spread a tablespoon or so of a fresh neutral oil like corn or grape seed in the pan; the surface should be evenly covered, with no excess. Put the pan in the oven, bake it for about an hour and let it cool in the oven.
That's it.
It's helpful if the first few uses of the pan involve oil, like sautéeing or deep-frying. If you care for the pan properly, it will darken with use and become increasingly smooth, beautiful and easy to cook in.
Once the pan is seasoned, routine washing can almost always be done with a scouring pad, not steel wool or anything else that will damage the seasoning (although the worst that can happen is that the pan will have to be reseasoned).
Despite many recommendations to the contrary, a little mild soap won't tear off the seasoning.
Cast iron can rust of course, but never if you dry it after washing and keep it out of rain and floods. If rust does appear, scour it off with steel wool or sandpaper, and reseason. You can also use a paste of salt and baking soda.  Rub the paste into the rust areas
Cast iron really struts its stuff when you want to get a pan good and hot and keep it that way. For "grilling" a steak indoors, it can't be beat. Ridged cast-iron "grill pans" are good for two reasons: They raise the meat slightly above the surface, which promotes browning by preventing escaping liquids from contacting the meat, and they leave grill marks, which are attractive if nothing else.  This pan is next on my search.
Cast iron is as good at browning as any other cookware, and its mass lets it hold a steady temperature so well that it is perfect for deep- or shallow-frying.
But braising in cast iron, especially with acidic ingredients like tomato or wine, may degrade the seasoning slightly. In extreme cases, you may have to reseason the pan; more likely, you'll just have to treat it to a light coating of oil and a few minutes of warming.
In any case, this isn't a bad routine. Every so often I wash my cast-iron skillet and put it over low heat. When the water begins to evaporate I wipe it dry and spread a little oil over its surface with a paper towel. I leave the skillet over the heat a few more minutes and wipe it out again.
Yes, this is maintenance, and most cookware is maintenance-free. But it seems a small price to pay for inexpensive, high-performing, safe, nonstick pans. When it comes to cookware, new is not necessarily better.

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