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.

Cast Iron for the Rest of Us

Let’s get one thing outa the way. There are some Cast Iron Fundamentalists in the world (it takes all kinds), and I am not one of them. I take decent care of my pans, and they serve me decently. With a fundamentalist approach you can reach amazing heights with cast iron. You can slide a frying egg around in it before you’ve even looked at the spatula. I’ve seen these feats with mine own eyes.

My pans are good. In their best times, you can easily loosen and flip a fried egg. But ain’t no sliding goes on in my pans. I just don’t have enough space, patience or spousal support for high maintenence pans.

If you want to create cast iron perfection, better look elsewhere. As with everything else in this space, I am concerned with cast iron for the rest of us.

Notice I specified “in their best times.” Cast iron is very resilient, which is one of the things I like. You can fix it up fast. You can also ruin it fast. And then fix it up fast again. No need to worry one way or t’other.

after scrambled eggs with cheese

 

How to Clean Cast Iron

Let’s start with the big taboo breaker. You know I love me a taboo. Fundamentalists look away.

I sometimes use soap.

Well.

Yes, pretty much everyone who’s anyone knows you’re not supposed to use soap. But one of my favorite things to cook in cast iron is salmon. As you might imagine, it leaves a fine fishy infusion that just, no matter how I tried to fight it off, needed soap. The first time I did it, I looked over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching, squeezed my eyes shut and squirted away. The fishiness washed off perfectly, then I did a quick season on the stovetop, and my pan was back in business. Now I never hesitate, if I have a real grease-mess pan on my hands, I squirt on the soap. No regrets.

My point is that it’s not so intimidating or exacting as you might have feared. Cast iron is not an all or nothing proposition. There are many shades of gray. Or black, as it were.

Having got that out of the way, in general the less you wash your pan the better. As I explained in the last post, seasoning is a build up of oils. The more aggressively you wash, the more seasoning you strip off. No big deal, just wash as little as you can get away with. If all you did was fry an egg, don’t wash at all. If you fried a nice piece of fish, scrub with soap, then season to replenish.

As for gear, I really recommend a nylon scrub brush for cleaning cast iron. A metal brush takes too much off. Nylon scrubbies work, but whatever you use on your cast irons will get pretty gross looking, what with all the blackened grease, and I prefer to have a long handle between me and the business end. The trouble is finding a brush with stiff enough bristles. I have used a sharp scissor to clip long, floppy bristles shorter and that stiffened ’em up pretty well. But recently I discovered a thing called a “grout brush” which has really thick stiff bristles and works great. It’s even got black bristles, instead of the usual kitchen white, so it looks less gross with the gunk on it.

cast iron gear-- a stiff nylon scrub brush and a pastry brush for oil

(About that gunk– wash your brush every now and then on it’s own, by dripping soap into the bristles and then scrubbing hard against the sink or something to work the soap around. Rinse with lots of hot water. Repeat till clean.)

For the most part cast iron washing will consist of plain hot water and yer trusty scrub brush. If your pan has a decent season, it should be relatively easy to scrub clean. If you have a real problem pan, soak it for a few hours and it should come right off. If the mess is the greasy variety, use soap, as I said.

The absolute best way to clean a pan is to take it immediately to the sink, still hot from use, run water into it, and scrub clean. This gets stuff off before it gets a chance to crust on. Because your pan is still hot, it dries itself off quickly, which is good too. Best of all, next time you want to use your pan, there it is waiting beautifically for you. And wouldn’t that be nice?

Unfortunately, my most common wash happens when I go to use the pan and discover last night’s dinner crust around the edge, ‘cuz I’m just dirty that way. If running a spatula around to knock out chunks is not enough, I put a half inch of water in it and set it on the stove. When the water’s at a rolling boil, I use my cast iron brush to scrub it clean.

Most important is to dry your pan. Don’t ever leave it sitting with water in it, it could rust. (Again, if it does, no tragedy, just scrub as per post #2 and reseason.) Don’t use your kitchen towel to dry cast iron, it will really scum it up. Instead set your pan on a low flame on the stove and set a timer for five minutes. Do not leave the room!!! I refuse to accept responsibility when you practically burn your house down by leaving an empty skillet on high heat and then going to do just one little chore outside. I would never do such a thing. Ahem….

Having warned you thusly, I will confess I only occasionally dry my pans. A well seasoned pan will just have a few beads of water clinging after the wash, which dry fine so long as the pan is left out in the open air…. At home in Cordova I had a pot rack above the stove. I highly recommend this to anyone with the means to make it happen. I love hanging pots and pans. A joy to behold, but also just darned practical. But here I just set the pan back on the stovetop and even there they dry fine.

seasoned skillet after a wash. see how the water beads up? that means the seasoning is pretty good. a great seasoning wouldn’t even have beads of water on it.

The key amongst all of this is to pay attention to your pan. Consider it a low maintenence pet, akin to maybe a goldfish. You can ignore it most of the time, but once in a while you do actually have to feed the bugger. In the case of cast iron, this means reseasoning. The oven season that I described in the first post is great for popping yer pan’s cherry on, but for regular upkeep a stovetop quickie is perfectly effective.

Say you’ve made spaghetti sauce in your pan (more on that in the next and last post!), washed it with hot water, and now you notice that rather than the “few beads of water,” the whole inside of the pan is wet. You dry it stovetop, and then it looks… well, dry. A well seasoned pan, even when dry, will have a sheen to it all the way accross. That’s the oil that keeps food from sticking. If your pan looks dry when it’s dry, just add a few drops of oil (really, drops are all it takes, be light), brush it around with a pastry brush, and heat it over low again for five or ten minutes. Need I repeat? Set a timer. Do not leave the room. Smoking oil does not smell pretty.

There. All fixed up and ready to go.

Rescuing and Seasoning Cast Iron

So I’ve lit your fire for cast iron, and you’re wondering where to start?

Cast iron care and cookery is very simple and forgiving. That’s why I love it. It’s really all about one thing, the seasoning.

Cast iron “seasoning” is just a fancy term for a build up of oil on the surface of the iron. It’s the ultimate DIY non-stick coating that doesn’t flake off into your food and cause Alzheimers! In general, if you use and care for your pan right, this build up is maintained on it’s own. Which is what makes it all so brilliant.

I’m going to start with how to rescue an old cast iron skillet. If you already have pans and you just want to re-season them, or you are buying new ones, you can skip to the Seasoning section below.

How to Rescue an Old Cast Iron Skillet

If you read between the lines up there, you’ll have realized that “seasoning” is just old cooking oil from many past meals. That’s fine if it’s your meals, but what if you want to dig grandma’s old skillet out from the basement? Isn’t there something a little gross about cooking in someone else’s years old oily build up? Even I’m a little grossed out, and I have a high-level gross factor.

So if you’re scrounging an old skillet you’ll probably want to get all the dusty, crusty  old black seasoning off. I’ve heard of throwing pans into a good hot woodstove or campfire to burn ’em clean. Sounds like it would work fantastically, though I’ve never tried it. Second to that is just good old fashioned elbow grease. Scour the pan with a metal scrubbie, steel wool, or a wire brush. Attack any bumpy spots with the edge of a metal spatula. Buck the taboo and squirt dish soap on between scours (more on soap and cast iron later). Use lots of soap, it is oil after all, and unlike the rest of your life with your new skillet, this time you want to get that oil off.

When you’ve scraped and scoured to your liking, give it a good old regular wash and then set it on the stove on low heat. Set a timer for five minutes so you don’t forget about it! When it’s thoroughly dry, proceed to the seasoning below.

But what about an old rusty pan?

Cast iron is iron. Iron rusts when exposed to moisture. Thus if you are scavenging a pan from any place even moderately damp, you are likely to see some rust. Maybe a whole pan full of it. Fear not! Even a real rust bucket is salvageable! Just follow the same soap and scour method until all the rust is gone. Or, well, actually, if there is a very thin layer of rust dust that just doesn’t seem to wash off, don’t worry about that. The seasoning will absorb it.

To Every Pan There is a Season(ing)

Whether you bought your cast iron or dug it out from under an abandoned house and cleaned it up, before you start cooking you need to season it. This is an easy task, and one you can repeat any time you feel like giving your cast iron a little extra attention.

There are (as with everything it seems) lots of different ways to do this, and everybody swears by theirs. There’s the high temperature camp and the long, long camp. Whatever blows yer skirt up babe.

Basically the idea is just to get a thin coat of oil on your pan and heat it up so that the oil penetrates into every pore. I think the long, low method is easier. Brush or rub your pan with whatever kind of oil you have (extra virgin olive oil is a last choice because it burns at lower temperatures, canola is better, coconut oil best of all), make sure you also coat the outside of the pan, and the lid if it has one. Use a very light hand, or the extra oil will drip down onto your oven and make a big stink, it really only takes a few small drops. Then put your pan into a 300F oven for about an hour. You can stop there, or repeat the whole procedure a second time for an even better seasoning.

That’s it! Your pan is ready for cooking! The seasoning will get better with time, provided you cook and care for it properly. But that’s for the next post.

I do so love to keep you hanging.

seasoned skillet after a wash. see how the water beads up? that means the seasoning is pretty good. a great seasoning wouldn't even have beads of water on it.

Cast Iron Cookery

I found an old cast iron skillet at a junk shop the other day. Brought her home, cleaned her up and seasoned her, and she’s a beaut. It’s inspired me to do a small series on cast iron– how to cook in it, and how to take care of it– so that you never have to buy another damn teflon pan again. Anyone interested?

I am a huge fan of cast iron. I’ve been cooking in it for 15 years. I love the fact of it’s permanence. You can get an old cast iron from your grandmother, and pass it on to your grandchildren. Never worse for wear. I am even fond of it’s heft in a weird way. Cast iron is solid, man. The seasoning may come and go, but the pan itself endures all.

I love the way you don’t have to worry about your cast iron pans. Take care of them, yes. Jealously guard them from well-meaning but ill-informed dinner guests? No. I hate the way teflon encourages stress in the kitchen. My dad always used teflon pans. He was pretty much the only person allowed to use or wash them, and they got stored on a high shelf behind a closed door. After a nice dinner party he’d have to jump up with alarm when someone approached the pile of dirty dishes.

And if you’re not stressed out about your teflon, you should be. Teflon is theoretically safe, so long as it is never heated too hot,  washed with an abrasive scrubbie, or touched by metal of any kind, which will de-laminate the coating. As a side note, if ever you decide your bucket of freshly dug razor clams would be good sauteed with some garlic butter, do not attempt this in your new teflon pan. Ahem. Even well washed clams harbor bits of sand that will rip the shit out of teflon.

So, you’re convinced? Ready to cast off the shaggy teflon nonsense and cast on some cast iron? Alright!

Cast iron skillets can often be found at thrift stores, garage sales, or your grandmother’s basement. They don’t have to look pretty to be good pans. I once recovered a complete rust bucket found in the grass by an old campsite. A little work, as we shall see in the next post, but it resulted in a fabulous pan and a heavy dose of satisfaction. I have a friend who swears she got a “bad” cast iron, that just won’t season, so it’s possible that such a thing exists. So far, I’ve purchased or recovered almost a dozen cast iron pans and haven’t had any bad ones. The brand doesn’t seem to matter. They all work just as well as their seasoning.

New cast iron is actually pretty cheap, compared to other quality kitchen equipment. If you want to buy new, you can probably find a selection at your local grocery or hardware store. Online, Lehman’s Non Electric Supply sells an extensive collection, including my first cast iron, a combination of a 3 quart dutch oven and a lid that is also a shallow skillet on it’s own. I highly recommend this if you’re looking to buy new. It’s a perfect combo. Covers all your bases for only $40.

Are you all fired up? Buy, beg, borrow or steal yourself a skillet or two, and follow along with the next two posts:

Rescuing and Seasoning Cast Iron

Cast Iron for the Rest of Us