By Maria Noël Groves, RH (AHG), Registered Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator
|My two fave pans.|
I grew up in a cast-iron family. My mom always had one on the stove or in the oven, and my grandmother regularly whipped hers out to fry up potatoes to go with my grandpa’s steaks. One of the very first kitchen supplies I ever purchased was my own set of big and little cast iron pans (this was before they came pre-seasoned, and I was surprised to learn they start out grey!), which I still use daily. And I bought my husband a set of cast iron pans on our first Valentine’s together as a couple. It’s not unusual for us to have three of them going at a time – on the stove, in the oven – they’re such versitile, classic cookware! So, I forget that most people consider cast iron a foreign concept. Half of those who have the pans love them, but the other half regard them as a sort of nebulous kitchen decoration. I’m here to help you get over that confusion and fear and put your iron in the fire…
Why Cast Iron?
Cast iron pans are the ultimate indestructible cook pan (they will literally outlive you), and they’re made with an all-natural material that actually benefits your health when it leaches into your food. When you cook in a cast-iron pan, the food you eat will have increased iron content, particularly if it’s acidic and/or cooked for a longer period of time. How much more iron? This varies widely, but according to one study, the increase ranged from about .5 to 5 mg more iron per serving. Applesauce jumped from .35 to 7.38 mg, but I don’t know anyone who actually makes applesauce in a cast-iron pan. Most adults need just 8 to 15 mg of iron in the diet daily (menstruating and pregnant women need much more than men). While it is possible to overload on iron – particularly with dietary supplements – and people who have excess iron in the blood should avoid cast iron, most Americans would do well to cook more with these durable pans. Adequate iron levels help build the blood and make us feel more energized. Other benefits of cast iron? A well-seasoned pan surpasses any other pan for sauteing and roasting. It’s much less apt to stick than stainless steel and aluminum and doesn’t pose the dangerous leaching carcinogen tendencies of nonstick pans like Teflon (though I do keep my Ecolution pans from the Co-op on hand for crepes and omelets). Cast iron also gives an unsurpassed browning effect to food and is a lot easier to clean, IMHO.
Purchasing & Cleaning Basics
If you don’t already have a cast-iron pan and are considering purchasing one, you have the option of buying pre-seasoned or unseasoned pans. They are available at most stores that sell kitchen products – you’ll spend more at a fancy kitchen store and less at hardware stores for the exact same thing.
Purists may prefer the unseasoned pan. You season it by washing it then coating it with vegetable oil (Crisco is classic, but I prefer the organic palm oil shortening from the Co-op and unsalted butter works well, too… you can use any vegetable oil that doesn’t oxidize easily and can take some heat – saturated fats that are solid at room temp are best), then heat it for several hours in the oven. Unfortunately, this process – which bakes the oil seasoning into the pan, darkening it over time – also oxidizes the oil on the pan, making a nasty smoky mess in your house. You may want to do it outside on the grill, or just buy the pre-seasoned pans.
For regular maintenance, want to wash the pan with a stiff bristle brush and dry the pan immediately after use, then coat it with a thin layer of oil (shiny but not sticky, explain the experts at Lodge Cast Iron). I like to reheat the clean, dry pan on the stove to fully dry it, then rub the oil in the hot pan (carefully!) with a paper towel. Soap is generally not recommended or necessary because it will eat away the seasoning you’ve worked so hard to build. But if you must, use mild soapy water and be sure to dry and oil it right away.
Avoid the urge to leave pans soaking or filled with food for hours – they will eventually rust. If this happens, you can reclaim your pan by scrubbing away the rust with steel wool and then do a thorough re-seasoning.
If your cast iron has been sitting for a long time (months? years?), you may find that the finish has a sticky consistency and rancid oil smell – it’s worth giving it a thorough scrubbing – possibly with soap – and re-seasoning before cooking in it or that off taste may get into your food.
Don’t let all these instructions freak you out. Cast iron takes no more time to keep clean and in good condition than any other set of pans. Regularly used pans just need a quick scrub, dry, oil – maybe two minutes of work, tops!
|Multitasking an autumnal dinner of roast squash and chicken.|
What Can You Cook In Cast Iron?
Technically, anything, but cast iron really shines for sauteing and roasting of any sort, on the stove top or in the oven. You can buy cast iron lids if you want to cook things covered in the oven. If you want a lid for stove-top work, you can just re-purpose whatever other pan lids you have on hand. I have a flat-bottomed dutch oven that is *awesome* for roasting free-range chickens from the Co-op. I cook it covered for about 20 minutes at 550 degrees, then turn the temp down to 350, take the lid off, and cook for another 30 minutes or so until my thermometer tells me it’s done, the skin is browned, and the juices run clear. Consider regular shallow-bottomed cast-iron pans for baking quiche, too. Another thing that lidded cast-iron dutch oven pans have become famous for are making no-knead round loaves of homemade bread that rival those of fancy brick ovens. Here’s a short list of my favorite things to cook in cast iron:
|Enameled cast iron is great for soups and stews|
- Scrambled and fried eggs
- Roasted potatoes (in the oven) and pan fries (on the stove top with a lid). Ditto for match-sticked or tiny cubes of beets or sweet potatoes.
- Roasting chunks of winter squash or a whole winter squash that has been cut in half
- Roasting Brussels sprouts after a quick steam with water or wine
- Sauteing kale, arugula, or other greens and making kale chips
- Baking quiche and cornbread that looks very fancy on the dinner table served in the pan
- Roasting chicken
- Making soups that start with sauteed ingredients (though I prefer enameled cast iron for this, regular cast iron sometimes lends an off flavor)
- Baking bread, with or without a lid (enameled pans smoke less at high bread temps)
- Sauteing rice pilaf, corn dishes, and other grain dishes, stir fries, etc.
- Making skillet “baked” beans on the stovetop
- Poaching eggs in hashbrowns or greens
- Pan-frying (particularly in butter) choice cuts of wild game or grass-fed meats, fish, etc. for a special night’s dinner. Yes, it’s also great for seasoned cubes of tofu, too!
- Pan-frying seasoned eggplant, veggie burgers, croquettes, etc.
How do YOU like to use your cast-iron pans?
Let us know in the “comments” section!