Great cooks and celebrity chefs covet cast iron and accolades flow like gravy off biscuits. Southern cooks pass down cast iron, the object of more back-stabbing than the family jewels, through generations.
Our mouths water at the thought of great food, so we get out that old pot or buy a new black skillet. We dream of crispy fried chicken like Grandma’s, a golden, unbeatable crust on cornbread, eggs that never stick or a stew like none other.
But who are we kidding? Reality and apprehension set in. What can we cook in that heavy pan? Do we have to season the pan? Can it work on our stove? The old pan is dusty, but can we wash it? What about the rust?
No, it seems just too intimidating. Sadly, we again hide the formidable pot on the back of the shelf.
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It is time for the straight story. There is nothing hard or mysterious about a cast-iron pan. The first and single most important step is to get it out and use it often.
Why use cast iron?
Cast-iron cookware was the kitchen standard for hundreds of years. It was the bedrock of early American cooking, able to last throughout the far-flung trips of the earliest pioneers.
Then fickle shoppers turned to new, shiny pots lined with nonstick coatings. Foundries closed and only a few, old-fashioned cooks continued to fry in the black skillets.
Yet great food has never gone out of style, and there is new interest in cast iron. But why, and is that simple pan worth its weight?
▪ Durable: Cast iron can last for generations: One investment will give you great cooking for your lifetime. Yes, your children and even grandchildren can look forward to using it.
▪ Versatile: Few pieces of cookware can go from the burner to the oven, out to the grill or even the campfire. Cast iron is safe for use on gas or electric burners.
▪ High temperature: Cast iron can be used over very high temperature, so it is the ideal choice for searing meat, pan-frying, browning food, deep-frying, caramelizing fruit for an incredible dessert or achieving a crispy, golden crust.
Cookware with nonstick coatings should not be used at high temperatures, making them a dubious choice for searing or browning meat.
▪ Retains the heat: Cast-iron pans heat slowly, but once hot they retain the heat and maintain an even cooking temperature, meaning sauces and gravies are a cinch. The pots also are ideal for simmering a stew, braising, or even table-top serving, where they help keep the dish warm. (Be sure to place cast iron on a trivet or hot pad for serving.)
▪ Improves with age and becomes nonstick: While most pans today may lose their shine or worse, the nonstick coating chips and wears away, cast-iron pans get better every time you use them. Cast iron is porous, but after it is used several times the surface becomes the shiny, black, nonstick surface you want.
▪ Health: Two health benefits come from using cast iron. First, small amounts of iron seep into the food from the pan, and iron is a key element needed in the diet to prevent anemia.
Second, nonstick coatings have become a source of controversy over possible toxic chemical emissions if they are overheated. The natural nonstick surface of a well-seasoned cast-iron pan allows cooks to reduce the amount of oil they use and yet avoid nonstick coatings.
Seasoning — no mystery
Seasoning means that the tiny pores in cast iron are filled with baked oil. It gives the shiny, black, nonstick surface cast iron is known for.
Many new cast-iron pieces today are preseasoned. This means the factory has done the first step and all you need to do is wash the piece, dry it, rub the cooking surface with a little oil and begin cooking.
Vintage pieces that you pick up at secondhand stores or dig out of the cabinet should be seasoned (or re-seasoned) if they haven’t been used in a long time.
Wash the piece in very hot water using a stiff brush. If the piece is old and you feel you must, you can use a bit of dish detergent (but this is the only time). Dry the piece thoroughly.
Line the bottom rack of the oven with aluminum foil or cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil and place it on the bottom rack of the oven. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Using a paper towel or old cloth, evenly rub the surface of the piece, inside and out, with melted vegetable shortening or vegetable oil. Cover it completely, including the corners, crevices, handles, lid and knob. Usually about 2 tablespoons of shortening will cover a standard piece.
Place the piece, upside down, in the oven on a middle rack. The foil-lined rack below will catch any drips. Bake for 1 hour. Turn the oven off, and let the cast-iron piece and oven cool several hours or overnight.
The surface should appear black and shiny. If freckled or still a dull gray color, repeat the process.
▪ When to repeat the seasoning process: If you use the piece often and dry it thoroughly, you will rarely need to reseason it. However, if food begins to stick to the surface, you notice rust, or you haven’t used the piece in a long time, reseason it. If you have boiled liquids and are suspicious that the seasoning has been removed or if the food begins to taste a bit metallic, reseason the surface.
It was once common to coat cast iron in oil before storing it. But if the piece isn’t used for a long time, the oil can become rancid, so now it is recommended to thoroughly dry the piece but not oil it. If your cast-iron piece smells of rancid oil, pour 1 cup of white vinegar in the pan or skillet and add water. Boil for 30 minutes, then wash, dry and season the pan.
▪ What about rust? Use steel wool or an abrasive soap pad, such as SOS or Brillo, to scrub away the rust. Hardware stores also sell rust erasers that may be helpful.
Once the pan is clean, wash it thoroughly in hot water using a brush, and then season the pan. For extensive rust, you may try to soak the piece in a mixture of 2 cups of vinegar per gallon of water for 1 hour, then scrub it. If rust is still present, repeat several times.
In extreme cases, the piece can be sandblasted; contact sandblasting companies to determine if they do cast-iron pieces or if they can refer you to someone who does and to determine if it is cost-effective.
How to care for cast iron
▪ Once seasoned, cast-iron cookware is easy to wash. Usually just a swish of hot water, and maybe a stiff brush, plastic scrubber or coarse salt paste is all that is needed.
▪ Thoroughly dry the cast iron, using a paper towel, before storing it. If left damp, cast iron can rust. Do not coat the cast iron in oil, as it can become rancid.
▪ Avoid soap or detergent and do not place cast iron in the dishwasher. Do not soak cast iron.
▪ Avoid rapid temperature changes. Do not pour cold water into a hot cast-iron pan or it may crack.
▪ Preheat a cast-iron pan over low heat. Once hot, you can increase the heat.
▪ If you cook an acidic dish, such as one with tomatoes, or a dish that is highly alkaline, like beans, for long periods of time, the food can take on a metallic taste, especially if the pan is new and not highly seasoned. Wait to cook chili or beans in a well-seasoned pot. If the dish still has a metallic taste, it is time to reseason the pan.
▪ Get out those hot pad holders and use them. Cast iron will be very hot and retains the heat for longer periods of time.
New, vintage and colorful cast iron
Cast iron is manufactured in both the U.S. and abroad, and many companies preseason their pieces.
Check the label to discover where a pan was made: While American companies such as Lodge Cast Iron have agreed to meet safety standards, manufacturers in other countries may not adhere to the same standards.
Vintage cast iron, from such names as Griswald and Wagner, remain popular. Early cast iron was polished, so the finish was satiny. Modern production methods are different, so the finish today is pebblier.
Some claim that vintage is the only way to go, and many cooks agree. New pieces will become nonstick with use but may never develop the satiny surface of the antique ones.
If purchasing used cast-iron pieces, avoid those with cracks or pits. Look carefully to be sure that cracks or pits have not been filled with paint or epoxy, which is toxic.
The surface should be even, somewhat like fine sandpaper, and there should not be obvious odd spots or splotches. Rub your hands over the surface and walk away if you feel waves or the sides and bottom are uneven in width or depth.
Old pans that are rusted can be revived.
If you don’t want to season a pan but want the same cooking properties of cast iron, possibly in a color to match your kitchen, you may want to try an enamel-coated cast-iron piece.
Companies such as Le Creuset or Staub offer high-end pieces, and makers such as Martha Stewart and Mario Batali have mid- and lower-end options. Even traditional makers such as Lodge offer enameled pieces.
Enameled cast iron is a smart choice if you want to wash your pan with soap, but beware that it will never be as nonstick as traditional cast iron, and you’ll need to use plastic instead of metal utensils to avoid scratching or chipping the finish.
Skillet Pizza Dip
This makes a tasty appetizer but is easier served on small plates. It is best to spoon the bread pieces and filling onto the plate rather than try to dip into the center.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1/2 pound Italian sausage, removed from casings
1 1/2 cups homemade or jarred marinara sauce
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, divided
1 (3.5 ounce) package pepperoni slices
1 (13.8 ounce) tube refrigerated pizza crust or 12 frozen unbaked dinner rolls, thawed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Heat a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausage and cook, stirring frequently, until browned and well done. Add marinara sauce to sausage mixture and stir to combine; remove from heat.
Sprinkle mozzarella cheese and 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese evenly over the sausage mixture.
Place pepperoni slices in a ring around the skillet, overlapping slightly. Make 2 rings total around the skillet. Place any extra pepperoni in the center.
Unroll pizza crust and cut across the long side into 1-inch strips. Cut each strip in half and roll into a ball; place in a medium mixing bowl. If using thawed dinner rolls, cut each roll into fourths and place into bowl. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle evenly with garlic powder and Italian seasoning. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Toss gently to coat dough pieces. Place dough pieces in a ring around the side of the pan (on top of the pepperoni slices). Form approximately 2 rows with the dough. The center circle will be without dough pieces.
Bake 18 to 25 minutes or until dough is golden and the cheese is bubbly.
Allow to stand for 10 minutes and serve.
Per serving, based on 6: 694 calories (66 percent from fat), 50 grams total fat (18 grams saturated), 80 milligrams cholesterol, 33 grams carbohydrates, 25 grams protein, 1,654 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Parmesan Crusted Pork Chops With Sage-Mushroom Gravy
Makes 4 servings
3 sage leaves, plus additional for garnish
1 cup milk or half and half
4 bone-in pork chops, cut about 3/4 to 1-inch thick
3/4 cup buttermilk, divided
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1 1/4 cups panko crumbs
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup sliced button mushrooms
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh sage
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Place sage leaves and milk in a 1-cup glass measuring cup. Microwave on high (100 percent) power 75 to 90 seconds or until milk is steaming hot but not boiling. Set aside to cool and to let the sage leaves steep in the milk.
Place the pork chops in a shallow baking dish. Pour 1/2 cup buttermilk evenly over the chops. Turn the chops to coat evenly. Allow to stand at room temperature 30 minutes.
Drain the chops, discard the buttermilk and pat the chops dry with a paper towel.
Mix together the remaining 1/4 cup buttermilk, the egg and the hot sauce in a pie plate or shallow dish. In another dish, stir together the panko crumbs and the Parmesan cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Heat a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat until hot. Add 2 tablespoons oil and heat until oil is hot. Dip a pork chop in the buttermilk mixture, turning to coat evenly, then coat evenly in the crumbs. Place the chop in the hot pan. Repeat with a second chop. Cook until golden brown on each side. Remove the chops from the skillet and set aside. Add additional oil, as needed. Repeat with remaining two chops.
Arrange all 4 chops in the hot skillet, overlapping if necessary. Bake, uncovered, 10 minutes or until a meat thermometer inserted in the center of the meat reaches 150 degrees. Move the pork chops to a deep serving platter; cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm. Carefully wipe out the skillet with a paper towel and return to medium heat.
Melt the butter in the hot skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes or until the mushrooms are golden brown and any released moisture has evaporated. Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, 30 seconds.
Stir in the flour, blending well. Cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute. Stir in the wine and cook, stirring constantly, 1 to 2 minutes or until most of the wine evaporates. Remove the sage leaves from the hot milk; discard sage. Gradually blend the hot milk into the wine and onion mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until thickened and bubbly. Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir in the minced sage. Spoon the sauce over the chops. Garnish with additional sage leaves, if desired.
Per serving: 524 calories (61 percent from fat), 34 grams total fat (12 grams saturated), 135 milligrams cholesterol, 20 grams carbohydrates, 29 grams protein, 290 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Balsamic Glazed Roasted Brussels Sprouts
If a sweeter sauce is preferred, increase honey to 1 1/2 tablespoons.
Makes 4 servings
3 slices bacon
1 pound fresh Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
1/2 red onion, halved and very thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Heat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until crisp, turning to cook evenly. Remove bacon, leaving drippings, and place bacon on paper towel-lined plate to drain. Chop bacon into 1/2 -inch pieces.
Add Brussels sprouts and onion to drippings. Stir well. Cook uncovered, over medium heat, without stirring 5 minutes or until edges of the Brussels sprouts begin to brown.
Stir in garlic and cook 1 minute.
Place the hot skillet in the oven and bake, uncovered, about 10 to 15 minutes or until the Brussels sprouts are tender, stirring once midway through the baking.
Spoon Brussels sprouts into a serving bowl.
In a small bowl, mix together the balsamic vinegar, honey and mustard; drizzle over the Brussels sprouts. Add the bacon. Season with salt and pepper. Stir to coat evenly.
Grill: Heat the cast-iron skillet over medium, direct heat on the grill. Add the bacon and cook until the bacon is crisp. Remove the bacon, leaving the drippings. Stir the Brussels sprouts and onion into the bacon drippings. Cook in a covered grill, stirring every 5 minutes, for about 15 minutes or until the Brussels sprouts are almost tender.
Stir in the garlic and cook 1 minute more. Remove from the grill and proceed as recipe directs.
Per serving: 103 calories (22 percent from fat), 3 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 4 milligrams cholesterol, 17 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 134 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Skillet Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookie
Makes 8 servings
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vegetable shortening
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate morsels
1 pint vanilla ice cream
Chocolate syrup, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt and oats; set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat together butter, shortening, brown sugar and granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.
Add the flour mixture and continue to beat just until blended. Stir in semisweet chocolate morsels.
Lightly oil a 12-inch cast-iron skillet. Add dough and press to flatten the dough across the entire bottom surface of the skillet. Bake until edges are brown and top is golden, about 25 to 35 minutes. (Don’t overbake as the cookie will continue to cook for a few minutes out of the oven.) Place on a wire rack to cool 15 to 20 minutes. Cut into 8 wedges for serving.
Top each serving with a scoop of ice cream. If desired drizzle with chocolate sauce.
Per serving: 680 calories (37 percent from fat), 29 grams total fat (16 grams saturated), 99 milligrams cholesterol, 102 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams protein, 643 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.