What and How to Cook in Cast Iron

Wow, what a tangent, eh?

Sorry about that for all of those who just didn’t see what was so interesting, and can we get on with some more cast iron blather already?

Oh yes.

How you clean your cast iron is important, but what and how to cook in it is every bit as essential to the integrity of your fabulous new pan. Consider cooking as a part of the seasoning process, because in fact it absolutely is. Certain foods will enhance your seasoning, others will eat it right off. It’s all about the balance of oils, acids, and sugars.

First and foremost, cast iron cookery is not low fat. If you’re used to using one of those oil misters, you’ll have to come around to the whole ‘fat is not actually bad for you’ revolution and start tipping from a bottle. I have gotten increasingly liberal with the oil in my cast irons, and I find it really helps. I used to eek out the tiniest amount that would cover the pan with a super thin sheen (out of frugality, not health, I’ve always believed in fat), but the more oil I started to use in cooking, the better my pans got.

Let’s start with eggs, because isn’t that after all where the day itself often starts? Eggs are one of the most frequent things to hit my cast irons, and a offer a good explanation of general cooking advice.

Fried eggs are in the plus category. If you fry a couple of eggs in your pan every morning, it will be a great thing. Here’s how to do it: take your best seasoned pan, pour in a generous glug of oil and turn the heat on medium. One of the most important things about cooking with cast iron is to let your pan heat up, with the oil in it, until good and hot before you put the food in. This way you get a bit of last minute seasoning in, plus when the food hits the hot oil, it forms an immediate crust, and prevents sticking.

Next in importance is do not flip or stir foods too soon, give them a few minutes to form that crust. You can poke at the edge with a spatula (using metal utensils with cast iron is just fine by the way) to see how it’s going under there. When your eggs are ready to flip, they should loosen pretty easily. (If they don’t your pan needs some TLC, give it a quick stovetop seasoning after this batch of eggs) If you’re pan is looking dry, or the eggs were a bit hard to loosen, then tip some more oil in as you flip ’em.

The pan shouldn’t need to be cleaned after frying eggs. Maybe a few crusts to scrape into the trash.

How about scrambled eggs? Back when I first started to discover blogs, I found a post about how to scramble eggs in cast iron. The author apologized for directing people in such a basic activity, but then went on to do it. And I was so glad, I realized I had never really known how to scramble eggs!

Of course there are many different ways to do it and everyone has a different “perfect scrambled egg,” but like many things I have discovered as I get older, I had stubbornly clung to my easy no-nonsense way (crack eggs into pan and stir over heat) even though I really loved when other people cooked those big fluffy hunks of luscious eggs. I had never thought or wondered why my eggs were never like that, until I read that post. I still sometimes fall back on the no nonsense way, but mostly I follow her directions. In addition to making great eggs, this is definitely the best way to cook scrambled eggs as far as your cast iron is concerned. Here’s how (my apologies to you, Oh Great Inspirer who’s name and blog I’ve long forgotten and cannot therefore link to):

Heat pan over medium heat, using a smaller sized skillet will make hunkier eggs. Pour in a tablespoon or two of oil and swirl to cover. Crack your eggs into a bowl, salt to taste and beat well with a fork (I use forks all the time for cooking, they’re so damn versatile!). When the pan is hot pour the eggs in. Now, this is important if you like big hunks of eggs, do not stir for a few minutes. Let the eggs set on the bottom. Then hook that same fork underneath, grab the set egg and gently fold it over the still runny stuff. Approximately. Let cook a minute more and repeat. When most of the egg is set, you can give it a regular stir, breaking up the big chunks into smaller if you like. Turn the heat off while the eggs are still wet looking, as they will continue to cook a minute more in the heat of the pan.

If you’re using good fresh farm eggs that you feel confident about, you can go ahead and slop the cooked eggs back into the bowl you whisked the raw eggs up in, and save a dish! Unless that queeves you out. I understand. What’s one extra dish against the mountain already in the sink anyway?

Now we move farther afield, because don’t you sometimes like to make scrambled eggs with all manner of goodness thrown in? Onions, peppers, garlic are all in the neutral category, as far as cast iron goes. They’re fairly dry, and fried in oil, which is good, but I think it’s the sugars that negate that. At any rate, no problem, just make sure to, again, heat the pan first, use plenty of oil, fry to your liking, then stir in the eggs. Cheese? For some reason, when I add cheese into my scrambled eggs, they stick a little. Not bad, but enough that I have to wash the pan afterwards.

Before we leave breakfast, I want to mention pancakes. Great for cast iron! So long as you are liberal with the fat, you are essentially seasoning your pan and cooking breakfast at the same time! I like to brush a little oil in as I heat the pan, and then otherwise use butter. I’ve come around to using plenty of butter when I fry hotcakes, so they get the lovely crispy edges, and then I just skip the extra butter on top part. Yum! My daughter loves pancakes, and as long as I make them with 100% whole wheat (I use pastry flour) they last in my belly pretty well too. Cast iron griddles by the way are completely awesome. I left mine in Alaska, boo hoo.

seasoning my pans while makin' brekky. ah the multi-tasking.

How about the rest of the day?

Grilled cheese, toast, quesadillas? Fabulous for your pan.

Fried onions, fried zucchini, fried rice, anything that starts with the word fried? Fine. Your pan might need a wash, but should still be well seasoned.

How about dishes that start with frying and move on to a sauce? These are okay, but anytime you cook liquid in your cast iron you are taking it down a notch. Tomato sauce especially because it’s acidic. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, I always make spaghetti sauce in my cast iron. Just start with plenty of oil for the frying of onions part, and when dinner is over, make sure to remove your saucy dish from the pan to a non-reactive container for storage. Then wash your skillet and see how it looks. Much of cast iron care comes down to this:

After washing your pan, look at it. How much water is still clinging to it’s surface? If there is a scattering of drops across it, that’s good. If it’s a slick of wetness straight across (which it probably will be if you’ve just done spaghetti), it needs a little TLC. Just do a quick dry/season to put her back on track– set the pan on the burner on low for five minutes or until dry, brush lightly with oil and leave on that low heat for another five minutes. USE A TIMER. DO NOT LEAVE THE ROOM. I only reiterate this so many times because I have just about burned our house down more than once by thinking I’d just pop into the next room to do some small chore. This time I won’t forget, really. How can I do the same stupid shit so many times, over and over, without learning the lesson?

Meat and fish are a category unto themselves. In this case, what’s bad for the goose is great for the gander– your pan will suffer a smidge from it, but meat and fish cook brilliantly in the even heat of cast iron. I have come to think it’s the sugars that eat into the seasoning, though I don’t really know. Something leaks out as they fry and does kinda bad stuff. Again though, no matter. Just means you have to do a thorough wash and maybe a quick season afterwards. See the cast iron cleaning post for my taboo-breaking soap use on fish pans (ie: it’s okay, really).

I have to interject another annoying “how to cook something basic” suggestion here. For years (on the occasions I had it) I just cooked meat in pans without thinking much about it. Sometimes it was good, sometimes not so. In case you are new to cooking, or like me, a self-taught who has not cooked enough meat to really get on a roll, here’s how.

When a recipe calls for “browning” meat, it doesn’t just mean any old cooking. To brown meat, you need a quick shot of high heat, which sears the outside to a rich mahogany color. This gives a dark, roasted flavor and also seals in the juices. You need hot burner, but also an important ratio of meat to pan. If you have a lot of meat, cook it in more than one batch, you want only one sparse layer. You should be able to see a little skillet between pieces. If it’s one big roast just make sure your pan is at least an inch bigger all around.

Once again, heat that pan over medium. Add oil, even if it’s a fatty meat because it takes a minute for the fat to render out and you don’t want any meat to hit your pan dry. When the oil is good and hot and shimmery looking, place your meat in carefully. Turn the heat up to high. Now leave it alone for a minute or three. Then peek under a piece to see if it’s brown, and if it is, flip each piece over. If at any point your oil is smoking, turn the heat down a little. Also if you haven’t already, learn where the hot spots on your burner are (mine are always between 9 and 12 o’clock regardless the stove… Is it how I set the pan on or what?) and flip those pieces first. Once the meat is brown on both sides you can continue with cooking on low until done through how you like, or add liquid if the recipe calls for it.

This whole browning business really gives meat a meaty flavor. But it also works miracles with almost anything you fry. Browned onions are a world apart from simply cooked onions. Zucchini, to die for. Browned salmon with nothing fancier on top than salt and lemon? My absolute favorite way to eat it, and believe me, I’ve eaten a lot of salmon in my day. Mushrooms you’ve hardly eaten till you’ve eaten them properly browned.

Just keep the heat high, don’t crowd the pan and don’t stir or flip until the bottom is crusted with brown gold. For me at least, this was a revelation in cooking.

Before we leave meat, I’d better mention pot roast. Cooking a roast in a deep cast iron with a lid works great. You can do it stovetop on whisperlow, in the oven, or if you have one, on the woodstove. At our home in Alaska I cooked stuff on the woodstove a lot in the winter, and cast iron is perfect. In addition to pot roasts, I also cooked pretty much anything one might cook in the oven on low heat. It took quite a bit longer, but whole potatoes in a skillet with a lid on works beautifully, as do yams, thick slices of winter squash, cornbread, not to mention stew, beans, etc, etc….

Let’s finish up with dessert, shall we? Because baking in cast iron is awesome. For awhile I was on a kick, trying to find cast iron cookie sheets (never did, they make griddles of course, but they are inconveniently sized for ovens) because I loved the even and perfectly browned crust I always got baking in my skillets. Cornbread is a classic in cast iron, but cake works good too, just grease it like any baking dish. I like to make pie in my big cast iron when I’m making pie for a crowd. Fruit is acidic though, so things with fruit on bottom like crisp and cobbler will be better off in a pyrex. You can use your cast iron, but you’ll probably have to season afterwards, and definitely don’t let that fruity goodness sit in the pan overnight or it will pick up an iron flavor.

Biscuits bake brilliantly in cast iron, as does bread. The whole artisan bread in five minutes a day revolution depends on deep, lidded cast iron pans and really does produce an amazing bakery quality crust. Those deep lidded pans are actually called Dutch ovens because people used to set them in the coals of the fire and bake things in them, with more coals heaped on top (traditional Dutch ovens have a flat lid). I did this in mine a few times, years ago, I remember it being a bit tricky. Another old technique that takes a bit of practice.

Which reminds me, I have neglected to mention one of the best parts of cast iron– camp fire cooking! I lived in a treehouse some many years ago, and we had our kitchen set up underneath, including a raised stone firepit where we did all our cooking (a bucket of water and an old board for cutting on completed the “kitchen”). The thick heavy build of cast iron helps to distribute the otherwise uneven heat of a campfire beautifully. Plus, when the flames lick it black, who can know?

I guess I could go on all day. Cast iron is so versatile, flexible and forgiving, how can you not love it? But, I’d better wrap it up, I think it’s just about time to go cook some eggs.

6 thoughts on “What and How to Cook in Cast Iron

  1. Plus when you cook an acidic dish like spaghetti sauce in it, it adds a teensy bit of iron to your food, which is great for a pregnant mama. An old anaemia remedy was to poke an iron nail through an apple/tomato/citrus, leave it overnight, eat the fruit then repeat. Tasty, hmmm?

    1. hahaha, you really cracked me up there, Sue.
      do you mean because of my skill with cast iron? or my ability to blather on and on about so very little?

  2. We just dug up our cast iron for a london broil tonight. We had it stashed since we’ve just bought a house with a flat-top electric range, and we heard it that cast iron was a no-no. Have you heard about this, too? Is it just a cosmetic thing?

    Anyway, great post.

  3. I dug the cast iron skillets that my mom got when she was married 32 years ago. She let them go and when I found them a a few months ago they were covered in rust and hideous! I found some articles on resurfacing them and have been cooking in them since. Every time I use them I get a little excited and now that I only have to wipe them out, that beautiful gloss and smooth surface makes me smile. I have an unnatural love for my cast iron skillets! Anyway, thank you for the great post!

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