You can spend lots of cash outfitting your kitchen – with designer pots and pans, with gadgets large and small – and wonder where all the money went. That’s not the case with cast iron. It’s inexpensive, sturdy as a tank, versatile as a Swiss Army knife and, best of all, will probably outlive you.
A 12-inch skillet, for example, costs about $30 and has a life expectancy of, say, forever.
Once considered impossibly clunky and old-fashioned, cast-iron cookery has made a major comeback in recent years. A new generation of home cooks has discovered the nonstick potential of a well-seasoned skillet. People are sautéing, searing, frying, making flapjacks and even baking bread.
Yes, cast iron, which has been around for centuries and mass-manufactured since the 1800s, is cool again, in large part because no cookery seems to retain heat better. And, with a little bit of knowledge and care, you create a nonstick surface nearly the equal of Teflon-coated pans, which tend to last but a few years.
Many professional chefs and home cooks swear by their clunky, impossibly heavy pans and pots, but cast iron is not necessarily for those seeking instant gratification. Unlike aluminum, which conducts heat quickly and uniformly, a cast-iron pan initially heats unevenly on a gas burner, creating hot spots that can be best eliminated by warming the pan slowly.
In many cases, though, cast iron can be a one-pan star in the kitchen. You can sear a roast or thick steak on the stovetop in a large skillet to create a nice crust, then promptly transfer the pan into a hot oven to finish cooking evenly and accurately.
A new book, “Cast Iron Nation” (Oxmoor House; $24.95; 288 pages), is replete with color photos and 175 recipes that show there are few limits to this cookware. Compiled and edited by Pam Hoenig, the book’s recipes underscore cast iron’s many uses. Every meal is covered and the range of dishes is impressive. If you assumed your old pan was merely for cooking steak or bacon and not much else, how about upside-down meatloaf? Grilled pizza? Baked spaghetti? Or seafood and chicken jambalaya? Those recipes are all in here, as are directions for peach upside-down cake, blueberry cobbler, zucchini fritters, pan-roasted spring vegetables, mussels with tomatoes and garlic, honey-roasted chicken breasts, chicken and mushroom stew, and plenty more.
Produced by Lodge Manufacturing, which has been in the cast-iron business since 1896 and is an industry leader, the recipes are family favorites from Bob Kellerman (and wife Cheryl), whose family runs Lodge. The book also provides helpful tips scattered throughout its pages, along with short and often charming personal essays by chefs about what cast-iron cooking means to them.
Writes Danny Mellman, a chef and restaurant owner from Blue Ridge, Ga.: “What more can you say about a product that’s not only American-made, local, and sustainably crafted, but one that’s simply great to use?”
“Part of my battery of tools as an urban private chef is my collection of contemporary stainless steel pots and pans,” writes June Pagan, chef and founder of Urban Survival Kitchen in Los Angeles. “Although they are quite nice to cook with, there is a certain coldness about them. Down deep, my ‘country’ heart belongs to my 10-inch cast-iron skillet, which always sits proudly on my stove as the ‘go-to’ pan for all of my comfort cooking.”
cast-iron pots and pans show up in Sacramento restaurants, including Mother, the hot new restaurant on K Street downtown, where they are often served with the food at the table.
For instance, the restaurant’s Dutch babies, those hearty German-style pancakes featured on the brunch menu, are served in the small cast-iron skillets in which they are cooked.
“I love cast iron,” said Mother owner/chef Michael Thiemann. “It gets incredibly hot and gets a good sear. You get great caramelization every time.”
Because the heavy cast iron retains heat so well, Thiemann uses them to keep the food warm, opting to do without the heat lamps common in many professional kitchens.
In addition, Thiemann added, cast iron gives his restaurant a certain aesthetic image he was after.
“The whole point was to bring some comfort into this place, and cast iron screams comfort food to me – it screams American comfort food, and I wanted to be an American restaurant,” he said.
Indeed, many of the recipes in “Cast Iron Nation” have that comfort food feel to them. Sweet potato casserole made in a 3-quart cast-iron casserole pan. Smoked salmon and scallion frittata baked in the oven in a 10-inch skillet. And buttermilk-brined fried chicken with hot pepper honey made in a 5-quart fryer.
I tackled this excellent recipe at home and, while I didn’t have the exact piece of cookware, I improvised and used a cast-iron combo cooker. Think of a 3-quart pot with a rather deep lid. The lid doubles as a pan.
Brining the chicken in buttermilk gives the chicken added tenderness and flavor. The chicken pieces are coated in a mixture of flour, salt, black pepper, granulated garlic, onion powder and smoked paprika.
I heated my peanut oil to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, as directed in the recipe, and fried the chicken in batches, careful to maintain the temperature as the cooking continued (the recipe says to keep the lid on while the chicken cooks). Because of the heat-retaining properties of cast iron, the frying was terrific.
In less than 30 minutes, my chicken was a beautiful deep-brown color, crisp on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside. I followed the directions for creating an extra-crispy crust by coating the chicken twice before frying.
This combo cooker is the piece that renowned San Francisco bread-baker Chad Robertson recommends in his book on sourdough bread, “Tartine Bread.” Baking bread with a lid helps trap the moisture that escapes from the wet dough. This replicates the dynamic of an expensive commercial oven and accounts for crusts, crisp and substantial, that are often elusive to the home bread baker.
While “Cast Iron Nation” does not delve into the relatively complex world of sourdough (OK, it does have a sourdough recipe using commercial yeast, but sourdough purists will scoff at such a thing), it does have a useful recipe for a multigrain artisan loaf. This recipe suggests using a 5-quart dutch oven. I went ahead and used my trusty combo cooker. (I like this thing so much I bought a second one last year to streamline my bread baking.)
This bread uses a mix of four-grain cereal, whole wheat flour and rye flour and is sweetened slightly with 3 tablespoons of honey (I was lucky enough to use honey directly from a friend’s beehive). The recipe calls for active dry yeast, available at any grocery store.
The bread, in the shape of a boulé, or large round loaf, had a lovely rustic quality with plenty of flavor. My kitchen, as you might imagine, smelled like a bakery as the loaf cooled on a wire rack. There is a recipe in the book for crusty bacon and cheese bread I am eager to try next.
Fried chicken, bread, risotto, salmon and more. There are so many ways to use cast iron. And so many ways to use “Cast Iron Nation.”
If you truly utilize this book, with its clear instructions and 250 photos, you’ll be tackling the recipes for years to come – but you’ll never wear out your cast-iron cookware.
HOW TO USE CAST IRON
Getting and maintaining that famous nonstick performance out of cast iron takes some work, but it’s certainly worth the effort.
Many cast-iron pans now come “pre-seasoned,” but most cooks will want to do their own prep and maintenance. “Cast Iron Nation” suggests cleaning your pot or pan immediately after cooking by rinsing with water and, if necessary, scrubbing with a brush. The book advises against using soap, as it may remove the nonstick properties. Once clean, carefully dry the pan to prevent rust, then coat the cooking surface with cooking spray or vegetable shortening.
Because cast iron has such a mystique, however, dozens of theories about seasoning have cropped up on the internet. Many are detailed and bolstered by science and lore. The best advice might just be from www.sherylcanter.com/wordpress. The blogger argues that the kind of oil used for seasoning is crucial. Flaxseed oil, she says, is superior and provides the best nonstick results.
Garlic-topped flank steak roulade
Serves 4 to 6
This elegant yet easy recipe comes from Tammy Credicott, best-selling author of “The Healthy Gluten Free Life” and “Paleo Indulgences.” And while this tasty flank steak may look challenging, the steps are quite simple and will leave your guests thinking you’re a culinary rock star. You can find more delicious recipes on Tammy’s website at thehealthygflife.com.
2 pounds grass-fed flank steak
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 strips pork bacon, cooked (but not crispy) and chopped
2 cups loosely packed organic spinach leaves, chopped
1/3 cup chopped organic sun-dried tomatoes
1 cup chopped organic button mushrooms (7 or 8 whole mushrooms)
2 tablespoons coconut oil
5 organic garlic cloves, minced
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
With a meat mallet or rolling pin, pound the flank steak to an even 1/3-inch thickness. This will give you more surface area to work with when stuffing it.
Season the steak with salt and pepper to taste on both sides, then lay it out flat in front of you. Sprinkle the chopped bacon over it in a single layer, then evenly layer on the spinach, tomatoes and mushrooms, in that order. Roll the steak up lengthwise tightly into a log (roulade), then tie it with kitchen twine in 2 or 3 places to hold it together. (At this point, you can wrap the roulade in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, if you like. Bring to room temperature before cooking.)
Heat the oil in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When the pan is really hot, sear the roulade until browned on all sides, 2 to 3 minutes total.
Remove the pan from the heat and sprinkle the garlic all over the roulade. Place the skillet in the oven until the stuffing is hot but the meat is still pink in the center, 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let the roulade rest for 10 minutes. Remove the twine, slice into pinwheels, and serve.
Variations: Get creative with the filling. Try any combination of your favorite flavors, like sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, spinach, onions, mushrooms, bacon, sausage, uncured salami, green or black olives, fresh herbs, etc.
Pan-seared salmon with dill sauce and sautéed asparagus
From Al Hernandez with the Vine Times. The Sacramento River is California’s largest river, and boasts runs of king, steelhead, and other types of salmon. The flavor and color of freshly caught wild salmon make for a luxurious and healthful meal. This decadent fish is perfectly paired with another local favorite, asparagus. Areas around Sacramento are known for their asparagus production, and California is one of the nation’s leading producers. For this recipe, Al Hernandez, the food and wine editor of The Vine Times, gives us his recipe for lightly sautéed asparagus as the perfect accompaniment to pan-seared salmon.
4 (4- to 6-ounce) skin-on salmon fillets
2 pounds asparagus (preferably thin or medium-thick)
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons olive or grapeseed oil
1/2 cup crème fraîche or sour cream
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
Freshly ground black pepper
Season the salmon fillets liberally with salt; set aside
Take one spear of asparagus and, using both hands, one at each end of the spear, break it in two. It will naturally break at the right spot. Then cut the rest of the spears using the broken one as a guide. Discard the woody ends.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over high heat until hot. Place the salmon, skin side down, in the pan. After about 1 minute, reduce the heat to medium. Cook the fillets another 5 to 8 minutes, depending on their thickness.
While the salmon cooks, whisk together the crème fraîche, dill, and granulated garlic in a small bowl until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Turn the fillets over and cook to medium or medium-well doneness, whichever you prefer, another 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate, cover with aluminum foil, and let rest for 10 minutes.
To the same skillet, still over medium heat, add the remaining 2 teaspoons oil and the asparagus spears, season to taste with salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the asparagus are tender, 7 to 10 minutes.
To serve, arrange asparagus in the center of each plate, set a salmon fillet, skin side down, on top, and spoon dill sauce over the salmon.
Spicy sausage and cheddar yeast rolls
Makes 18 rolls
With his passion for bread, Bill Ryan, founder of the Louisiana Dutch Oven Society, is always looking for different ways to create a great tasting roll. After tasting your first one, you will quickly be grabbing for more.
1/2 pound ground andouille or bulk Italian sausage
1 cup minced yellow onion
1 tablespoon minced jalapeño chili (remove seeds for less heat)
1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 cups warm water (about 110 degrees)
6 cups bread flour
3/4 cup yellow corn meal
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 cups (8 ounces) grated white cheddar cheese
Brown the sausage in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat until fully cooked. Add the onion and jalapeño and cook, stirring a few times, for 3 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a paper towel-lined plate to drain and cool to room temperature.
In a small bowl, combine the yeast, sugar and 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the water. Mix about 4 minutes to dissolve the yeast.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, all but 2 tablespoons of the corn meal, the salt, sausage mixture and cheese. Mix until it lightly comes together, then add the yeast mixture and mix until the dough pulls from the side of the bowl and forms a ball. Remove the dough from the bowl. Coat the bowl with the remaining 1 teaspoon oil, return the dough to the bowl, and turn it to oil all sides. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm area (70 to 75 degrees) until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Using your hands, gently roll it into a narrow loaf about 24 inches long. Cut the dough across into 18 equal pieces. With the palm of your hand, roll each piece into a round roll. Sprinkle the bottom of a 7-quart cast-iron Dutch oven with the reserved corn meal. Place the rolls in a single layer in the pot, spacing them 1 inch apart, cover with a cloth, and let rise for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Using a sharp knife, make an X on top of each roll. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Enjoy warm from the oven.
Red beet risotto with mustard greens and fresh goat cheese
Judy Schad, cheese maker and owner of Capriole Farms in Greenville, Ind., likes to combine her cheeses with the seasonal produce of local farm markets. She feels the intense earthiness of beets and greens contrasts perfectly with the light, sprightly flavors of fresh goat cheese. She reminds us that risotto is a great “raft” for a number of ingredients but the secret is to add the hot liquid gradually, stirring constantly until the rice has absorbed the liquid before adding more, a process that takes about 20 minutes, until the rice is al dente but not soft.
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
2 (21/2- to 3-inch) beets, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 1/2 cups chopped white onions
1 cup Arborio or medium-grain white rice
3 cups low-salt vegetable or chicken broth, brought to a simmer in a saucepan and kept warm
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 cup dry white wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups chopped mustard greens
6 ounces Capriole fresh round goat cheese, plain or with herbs, crumbled, plus more for serving
Melt the butter in a 5-quart cast-iron Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the beets and onions, cover and cook, stirring a few times, until the onions are soft, about 8 minutes.
Stir in the rice, then add 1/2 cup of the hot broth and the vinegar. Increase the heat to high; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low. When the broth has been absorbed by the rice, add the wine and cook, stirring, until it is almost completely absorbed. Add more broth, about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly and allowing the liquid to be absorbed by the rice before adding more. (Run a wooden spoon across the bottom of the pot; when you can create a path through the rice with the spoon, enough broth has been absorbed so that more can be added.) Add the last 2 cups of broth 1/2 to 1 cup at a time. Do not allow the rice to stick to the bottom.
Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir in the mustard greens and all but about 1/2 cup of the cheese. Stir only until the greens have wilted. Serve immediately on individual plates, sprinkled with additional crumbled cheese if you wish.
Serves 6 to 8
For Tanya Holland, cookbook author and chef-owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, this dish is a celebration of her Southern heritage and early cooking school experience. “My paternal grandmother in Virginia always fried apples in a cast-iron skillet to serve with breakfast. My maternal grandmother in Louisiana always toasted pecans in her pan. Cherry clafoutis was one of the first ‘exotic’ desserts I made when I was taking cooking classes at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School ... at twenty-three, I felt so sophisticated just being able to pronounce it!”
Tanya like this recipe because it makes a great breakfast dish or after-dinner dessert, not to mention afternoon snack. If you’re serving it as a dessert, don’t forget to top each portion with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
3/4 cup pecan pieces
11/2 pounds firm, semi-sweet apples, like Fiji or Pink Lady
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon apple brandy
11/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Pulse the pecans in a food processor until finely chopped; be careful not to process into a powder. Set aside.
Peel and core the apples. Alice the apples in half, then cut each half into 1/8-inch-thick half moons.
Heat a 10-inch cast iron skilled over medium heat; add the butter. When melted, swirl to coat the bottom. Add the apples, 1/4 cup of the sugar, and the cinnamon and cook until the apples soften, about 10 minutes, stirring a few times.
While the apples cook, whisk the eggs, remaining 3/4 cup sugar, the milk, brandy and vanilla together in a medium bowl. Whisk in the pecans and salt, then slowly whisk in the flour to avoid lumps. Pour the batter over the apples in the pan. Bake for 10 minutes at 375 degrees, then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and cook until the clafoutis is nicely puffed up and browned on top, another 35 minutes. Serve immediately.