In Praise of Cast Iron

Somehow it seems fitting that the weekend after the UN releases their report on climate change, Minnesota experiences it’s coldest weekend in three years. The average low was around -10F each morning. Needless to say, I busied myself inside.

After last weekend’s adventue making bread, I found a different recipe:

Pane Rustica

It’s a loaf of Pane Rustica, a chewy, white peasant bread that was excellent. One twist is that it’s meant to be baked inside a dutch oven, so I ended up using one of my 5-quart cast iron ovens. I found the recipe at David Fankhauser’s Cheese Page, a collection of recipes for making everything from cheese to bread to root beer, all using simple, everyday kitchen tools. If you like making food from scratch, and you don’t like spending a lot of cash on equipment, this is the place for you. It’s like Alton Brown meets MacGyver.

Anyway, I made the bread recipe twice. The first time the dough was a sticky mess, and the bread ended up with a nice, crisp crust, and lots of air pockets in the bread. The dough didn’t rise that well, so the next time I made it, I used less water, and ended up with a dough that was easier to work with and rose better, but the resulting bread was much denser. It was still good, but not what I was looking for. Lesson learned…

The bread was one of a handful of recipes the wife and I made last weekend using some cast iron. Here’s the complete list as best I can remember:

  • Choclate-chip pancakes for my son in a skillet
  • Two loaves of Pane Rustica in the 5-quart dutch oven
  • Cornbread in the skillet
  • Chili in a 7-quart dutch oven

Cast Iron cookware is some of the most versatile, inexpensive and rugged stuff out there. It’s has it’s drawbacks, namely that it’s heavier than hell and it requires regular maintenance. You can’t throw it in the dishwasher, you shouldn’t use soap on it too often (if ever), and you can’t subject it to rapid changes in temperature. That said, it’s some of the few things in life that get better with age and repeated use, and if you take proper care of it, you’ll be able to pass it down to your grandchildren.

There are many brands of cast iron out there, but the stuff I prefer is made by Lodge. Here’s a picture of my collection:

My Cast Iron Collection

From front to back:

  • Lodge Wok, Lodge 12-inch skillet
  • Lodge 7-quart dutch oven, Lodge 10-inch skillet
  • Lodge 5-quart dutch oven, Lodge 5-quart dutch oven.

Cast iron cookare can be found in many places including most big-box housewares store, some DIY stores (Fleet Farm in the Upper Midwest), sporting goods/outdoors stores and other places like Amazon. While you can find good deals on eBay and elsewhere online, keep in mind that cast iron cookware is heavy, so watch out for the shipping costs. Amazon used to sell a ‘Cast Iron Cooking for Dummies’ set that included a book, a 5-quart dutch oven and 10-inch skillet for around $55. Since it was listed as a book, it used to qualify for free shipping, which was a deal. It now appears that Amazon has wised up, and while the set still qualifies for free shipping, it’s now almost $90, which isn’t such a deal. Finding them locally, especially if you can use a discount coupon of some sort is the way to go.

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21 Responses to In Praise of Cast Iron

  1. Wait a minute now, what’s up with the white flour? Why are you using the devil grain?

    Just kidding. You gotta start somewhere. The bread looks good. I think I prefer those big round balls of bread over the nice little loaves. Personal opinion I guess.

    So you got all the cast iron stuff locally at stores? I’ve been thinking about trying flea markets and such but I’m not sure how successful people really are at those places.

  2. Bart says:

    The short answer is: because I had it, and that’s what the recipe calls for. I might try a version with the 20% bran flour that the other loaves were made with… I’d be curious to see how that would turn out. I know white flour is evil, but it’s evil quotient is pretty low compared to trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup. And, I’d wonder how good a whole-wheat baguette or ciabatta would taste… it would probably taste good, I guess, but would it taste like what a baguette or ciabatta *should*? I honestly don’t know.

    Most of the cast iron I received as birthday or Christmas gifts over the last several years. The big-box home goods stores will probably carry common items like the 12″ skillet and the 5-quart dutch oven… we got one of the 5-quarts from the old Homeplace store that used to be near us. I’ve seen them at Linens ‘n’ Things, Bed, Bath and Beyond, and Fleet Farm for sure. Other places will carry them as well.

    You can order them online, but usually any savings you get from a lower unit price will get washed out with the shipping costs. The stuff isn’t that expensive to begin with (The most expensive piece I own retails for maybe $60), but it’s heavy.

    You can find deals at flea markets… odds are most pieces will need to be restored. Some pieces may be expensive since old cast iron is collectible depending on who made it.

  3. Besides, if you are following a lot of the other recommendations in Nourishing Traditions things will probably be just fine, even if you do eat a little sugar and white flour now and then.

    Well, we’ll find out because that’s how I’ll be living. I’ll be a real life experiment I guess.

  4. Dan says:

    The bread looks good. I’ve never thought about making bread using cast iron before. I foresee buying a Dutch oven in the near future and trying it out.

    I recently received a cast iron skillet for my birthday and had a question on seasoning it. It was pre-seasoned, but I still wanted to add a couple more layers on it before I used it. I used Hain safflower oil to season and put it in upside down in the oven over a drip pan at 350 deg. After it started to heat up, it really started to smell like something was burning and also like very hot metal, so I turned it down to 250 and the smell was almost gone. I think it was too hot for the safflower oil. I also read that some skillets made in China may have a water soluble shellac on them instead of oil. The website suggested scrubbing the coating with steel wool in hot running water and then seasoning again. I only washed it with a little soap and hot water using a soft sponge before I seasoned it as that’s what the directions said to since it was pre-seasoned. I think I will scrub it down and try seasoning again with another oil. Do you have any suggestions for good seasoning oils? I don’t want to buy Crisco if I don’t have to as I probably won’t use it for anything else, but this seems to be what most people use.

  5. Bart says:

    The pre-seasoned pieces generally have some sort of vegetable oil baked on… exactly which I don’t know. If you’re not sure what the coating is on your piece, I’d definitely look at taking it off and starting from scratch. For what it’s worth, I think any more pieces I’ll buy will be unseasoned, since with regular use they will build a up a coating fast enough. My 7-quart dutch oven came unseasoned, and I’ve already got a nice patina on it since Christmas.

    (NOTE: See Dan’s comments about Crisco & Trans Fats later in this thread. I’ve since stopped using Crisco)

    I’ve used both Crisco and vegetable oil in seasoning my pieces, and I’ve had better luck with the Crisco. Like you, I don’t use it in cooking or baking, but a small can is pretty cheap, and if you use the cast iron a lot, you’ll go through it fast enough. I generally wipe down any piece I use after cleaning with another thin layer of shortening to help build up the cure.

    Another thing I’ve recently started doing to help build the cure up is to coat the cooking surface of a dutch oven or skillet with shortening and stick it in the turned-off oven after I’ve finished baking/roasting something and letting the residual heat bake another layer of oil into the cookware.

    For what it’s worth, if you’re going to get the iron hot enough to bake an oil coating on, you’re probably going to get some smoke from the oil, since most of the ones you’ll want to use will have a smokepoint below 350F. Safflower oil starts smoking at 300F or so. If the smoke is a problem, you can also do the cure on a grill outside when the weather is nice enough to do so.

    For oil smokepoints, check out this link:

    http://www.goodeatsfanpage.com/CollectedInfo/OilSmokePoints.htm

    Enjoy!

  6. Dan says:

    Thanks for the advice. I’ll be getting some Crisco and trying that out this weekend. I will use the turned off oven trick to help speed up the patina process as well.

    Good point on the smoke points of oil. The smoke was only a problem because while the cast iron was in the oven, I was seasoning my new carbon steel wok (another b-day present) on the stove top and the smoke and smell seeping up from oven through the hole of one of the burners became irritating. I was originally going to use olive oil, for the high smoke point, but didn’t because I was afraid the olive taste would come out in the food.

    FGLB-my girlfriend got my 10.5 inch skillet at Target for under $20. It seems to be a good quality skillet. The only thing I don’t like about it is the handle area has a raised up triangle shape on it so you can grip it with your thumb and am not sure if I can get a handle holder to fit it. I think I will scout out the flea markets and such around here for dutch ovens and bigger skillets and if nothing turns up I’ll look at getting a Lodge.

  7. Dan says:

    I wanted to follow up on my last comment. I spoke with my natural foods grocer/dietician friend about seasoning and he advised against using Crisco to season my skillet because of the trans fat in it and thought the safflower oil should work ok at a lower temp. I followed that conversation by searching on the Weston Price website and found out that they also advised against using Crisco for the oil hydrogenation and high trans fat content and also for the chemicals used to defoliate cottonseed plants (the main souorce of oil in Crisco) before harvesting.

    Because of this, I reversed course on my Crisco decision and used saffflower oil and seasoned at 250 for 4 hours last night.

  8. Bart says:

    Good points about the trans fats, Dan. I hadn’t even bothered to think about that, but it makes sense. You learn something new every day.

    Well, I’ll switch to something else then. I had been using straight vegetable oil, before the Crisco. Perhaps I’ll use that again, or maybe I’ll go for the old reliable (lard). Obviously, I have some research to do. :-)

  9. For what it’s worth, you are only using the Crisco for seasoning of the pan to form a protective coating. I wouldnt’ think the grease built up on the pan would come off in the food, but maybe it does. The amounts would seem incredibly small. I’ve noticed Crisco does the best job of anything I’ve used so far, but once my order of pig fat comes in later this month I’ll start using lard.

    I’m not really freaked out about trans fats in this instance but I’ll use lard because it’s natural and that’s what people used for a long time. It must work good or they wouldn’t have used it so long.

    For what’s it’s worth also, I think vegetable oil does a crappy job on the pans. I think the ability to harden as an oil must be important because Crisco seems fine, although it’s all vegetable oil, but the liquid ones never work very well. There must be something to the “hard” oils that make them work better. We’ll see if lard’s the same way soon hopefully.

  10. Bart says:

    I originally used vegetable oil since that’s what Lodge recommended using, but it would smoke up horribly. The Crisco was another possibility, and that has worked better.

    Matt brings up an interesting point in that since we’re baking the stuff on to the metal as a coating versus using it as an ingredient in a dish, that perhaps not much if any of the trans fats in the shortening will make it into our systems.

    I may get a small block of lard and try that.

  11. Dan says:

    I’m not so sure about your trans fat reasoning. If the iron from the cast iron pans leeches into the food even with a patina, then I would also assume that the trans fat from the Crisco would also leech somewhat into the food. But don’t take my word on it, I’m not a doctor, I just play one on TV.

    Regardless of using oil, Crisco or lard for seasoing, it has to be better for you than using any Teflon/Teflon equivalent pan for your cooking. I am slowly replacing my non-stick cookware with cast iron and quality stainless steel.

    Matt, where did you find the lard? I contacted a local butcher shop asking about finding some without all the preseratives found in the store bought brand and they didn’t know and told me to contact their meat locker. I think I want to try lard for my cast iron seasoning.

  12. Bart says:

    Good discussion!

    I’d have to do more research to figure out whether or not trans fats would make it into the food from the coating… I think the normal answer is ‘it depends,’ since acidic foods (anything with a tomato base, for example) will take some of the coating off the pot.

  13. I might have found another source. Coconut oil. I bought some this weekend to try after reading the book by Sally Fallon called Eat Fat, Lose Fat. Anyway, it’s highly saturated which makes it solid at room temperature and it melts easily. I think the saturation to make it solid at room temperature is the key. You might try that one also.

    Incidentally, the coconut oil is great on popcorn and sauteing diced veggies for a rice dish (the two ways I used it this weekend). There is a just a small hint of coconut flavor and it works really well. I like it a lot.

    Lard–I called the pig farmer I buy my meat from and they were going to arrange it. The meat locker should have it also. Meat lockers are way better than butchers. Check out localharvest.com for a list of possible farmers in your area who might sell pork products directly to consumers and call them too. And if you call a locker ask them for some names of local farmers you could talk to about ordering pork products. Better to pay them retail than the grocery store.

  14. Also, wanted to add that I used the coconut oil on my grill pan and it left it looking very nice and shiny so I think we might be onto something here.
    :-)

  15. Bart says:

    Thanks, Matt… from what I’ve been reading, everyone uses a different method to season their cast iron. The main thing is that it’s important to use a saturated fat that is solid at room temperature, for the liquid ones will go rancid pretty fast.

    So, Crisco, lard, coconut oil, etc., are all good candidates for coating your pieces after use. As far as which one’s the best, well I think it comes down to a certain amount of picking one’s poison. Crisco has some trans fats in it, lard you can pick up at the store has other stuff in it, I don’t like the taste of coconut, so that’s not high on my list…. I may try the coconut oil anyway, but I’m pre-disposed against it if it’s got a coconut flavoring to it.

    The local meat locker is an idea… I’ll have to see what I can find.

    Again, this is a great discussion.

  16. I absolutely hate coconut, but coconut oil has barely any coconut flavor or smell. I was shocked frankly. Don’t let that scare you off. I found it to be kind of refreshing in the small amount of flavor that you get from the oil.

  17. Robert says:

    Here’s a good seasoning tip I found with a purchase of a French carbon-steel pan. Should apply to cast iron too.

    Clean pan with soap and water to remove any oily residue then add a cup or so water and “potato-peelings”. Bring to a boil and simmer a while. Then season as per previous threads. Don’t know what the chemistry is with the potato peelings but this gives a much more robust seasoning. The occasional use of soap won’t hurt. Hey, the French are good for something!

    Oil with high smoke-point is best – coconut, palmoil, stuff that’s naturally solid at room temp and not your hydrogenated criscos. Aside: if you really hydrogenate veg-oil you can get a solid lump of stuff that’s window-breaking hard.

    Here’s another good set of seasoning instructions, applies to cat iron too – note medium-low temp:

    Seasoning a Carbon Steel Fry Pan
    1 Wash the fry pan in hot water with a small amount of liquid detergent and a
    scrubber (such as a stainless steel sponge or pad). The exterior of the fry pan
    can be scrubbed with the scrubber and an abrasive cleanser. Do not use the
    abrasive cleanser on the inside of the fry pan.
    2 Rinse the fry pan and dry thoroughly.
    3 Place the fry pan on high heat.
    4 Move the fry pan, turning it and tilting it up to the rim and back, until the metal
    turns a bluish-yellow color.
    5 Remove the fry pan from the stove element. Turn the heat down to medium-
    low.
    6 Add a thin film of oil (about 11⁄2 teaspoons) over the entire inside surface of the
    fry pan. There are several ways to do this. One is to use a paper towel to rub
    the oil over the surface. You may want to use tongs to hold the paper towels.
    Another way is to use a basting brush for barbecues or any other heat-proof
    brush to brush on the oil.
    7 Heat the fry pan on medium-low heat for about 10 minutes.
    8 Wipe off the oil with another paper towel. There will be black residue on the
    towel.
    9 Repeat steps 7 through 9 until no black residue comes up on the paper (about
    3 times). The fry pan is now ready to use.

  18. Bart says:

    Thanks much for the tip, Robert!

  19. Robert says:

    One other thing, in doing say a 12″ pan I’d suggest a good couple of handfuls when it comes to the potato peelings.

  20. Liz says:

    I have a cast iron frying pan that is over 100 years old. My grandmother to my mother to me 40 years ago. To my knowledge it has never seen soap since it was seasoned originally. It is still in wonderful condition and used on a regular basis. I am now seasoning a new cast iron grill pan. Rub with veg oil and put in 250 degree oven for about 4 hours. Let cool in turned off oven and rub with oil again. If the pan is a bit on the rough side to begin with you may have to repeat the steps. If the seasoning seems to be wearing after uses repeat at any time.

  21. John-David says:

    fatguyonalittlebike had an interesting link, but they’ve apparently changed their url. It’s now http://www.localharvest.org/

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