Archive for the ‘Cooking’ Category
Jan Zita Grover is a long-time customer of The Pan Handler. She has kindly agreed to allow me to reprint some of her materials on cast iron cooking.
Jan Zita Grover teaches cooking techniques classes for community education programs throughout the Twin Cities. She has catered, run a professional kitchen, written about food and cooking, developed recipes, and taught private cooking lessons since the 1980s.
Jan Zita Grover
© Jan Zita Grover, 2014
Like processed foods, most American cookware is produced to serve manufacturers’ needs, not yours. Manufacturers’ official faith is that Americans want lightweight pots and pans with nonstick coatings. What do you know about those coatings? Their formulae are proprietary, so you can’t assess them, and no one without a degree in chemistry could make much sense of them anyway. Nonstick coatings give cookware manufacturers a comparatively free ride (lighter pans, lower materials and production costs) and the opportunity to sell you new pots and pans every few years. No one wants to cook in a pan that looks as if someone’s taken a router to it—so score another victory for Calphalon and Cuisinart!
Meanwhile, like those silent vegetables in the produce department, cast iron sits there, doughty and dusty, on hardware store shelves, sought out by few. After all: nobody needs to replace cast iron every few years—once you’ve bought it, it stays in your family until the family no longer produces any sensible, experienced cooks. At that point, off it goes to a church or temple rummage sale, there to connect with a grateful seeker. You can’t destroy it. You can always resuscitate it. How can you market this stuff?
Well, you can’t, much. You can change it a little, as Lodge did back in 2003, when it decided to preseason part of its annual production in response to younger buyers’ lack of familiarity with seasoning cast iron. But that’s about all you can do—cast iron is as basic as an onion, and a lot easier to understand.
Cast-iron cookware is made from pig iron. These days, it’s cast in sand molds robotically. After being removed from the molds, it’s blasted with superheated streams of soy oil, which bake on instantly, giving it its initial seasoning and black coloring. It’s heavy, black, traditional, and cheap.
But my—how it cooks! I’ve yet to work with a cooking student who hasn’t developed a deep affection for it. Often this newfound love for cast iron has forged new connections with family. In my classes, invariably one or two students come in the week after Thanksgiving proudly flourishing an old cast-iron pot or pan that they unearthed when they went home for Thanksgiving. Sitting around the family table, these new cooks told everyone how much they were loving the little 8-inch skillets they were using in class, and someone at the table, usually an elder, piped up, “There’s a whole box of that stuff out in the garage/up in the attic/down in the basement.” At which point a new generation can give that old cast-iron cookware a start on its next forty years of service. (Collective gasps and sighs of envy from the rest of us around the classroom table.)
Here’s the thing about cast iron as a cooking medium—something you cannot get from aluminum-clad cookware, much less from thin, nonstick-coated pans: once it’s heated up, it produces very even heat at every temperature. If you want to simmer beans overnight at 200° F. in the oven, cast iron will do it. If you want to pan-fry chicken in 3 inches of hot fat, cast iron will do it. If you get to Duluth and realize you left a cast-iron Dutch oven of soup on a burner at medium-low and you can’t find someone to go turn off the burner, cast iron will take care of the problem for you (I speak from experience; I have done this)—your soup will be very thick, but it won’t burn.
Over time, your cast-iron skillet will acquire a peerless, naturally nonsticking interior. That’s because iron pots possess deep pores, and the oils and fats you use in frying fill with those lipids, which polymerize, forming a slick, nonstick surface. You can speed up this process by faithfully cooking bacon and/or eggs in your new or reseasoned pan. It will stick a bit at first, but within a month or two of steady use, it will develop a bulletproof surface that only scouring (or going through a dishwasher) can damage.
Do’s of Using Cast–Iron Cookware
Washing. The pores in the surface of new cast iron are deep and unplugged, and to fully season your cast iron, you need to encourage oils and fats to trickle down into and stay in those pores. That means that until cast iron is fully seasoned, you shouldn’t use soap or detergent on it: these are surfactants, and they lift and wash away fats and oils—the opposite of what you want to achieve.
Preheating. Heat up your cast-iron pan on medium or medium-high before you add cooking oil/fat! This is the
folk secret to using traditional pans. Once the oil shimmers or the butter stops spitting, the fat is hot enough to cook with. Food does not stick to pans that have been heated first, then had oil/fat added and heated before food added. (Initially, meat will stick, but that’s because it needs to brown first. Once it has, the meat can be easily turned over.)
Searing. If you want your food to brown beautifully in cast iron, resist the temptation to keep moving it around. The temptation is great, I know, and it’s mostly propelled by fear that the food will stick if you don’t shovel it around. Have faith: the food must stick before it doesn’t stick, and the sticking is necessary to achieve a beautiful brown sear. Turn meat that you’re pan-frying only once—that means it’s going to sit there for a minimum of 3 minutes per side and probably much longer. Cast iron can do it!
Removing food from pan. Once you’ve cooked your food to perfection, remove it right away from your cast-iron pan: because cast iron holds heat extremely well, food in the pan will continue to cook and become overcooked.
On the other hand, if you want to keep something like a casserole or braise or soup hot, you can turn off the stove, confident that your cast-iron Dutch oven will keep your food hot for at least an hour. (Try that with a lightweight aluminum pan!)
Don’ts of Using Cast–Iron Cookware
No dishwashers. Don’t put your cast iron through the dishwasher unless you want to reseason it.
Avoid sudden changes in temperature. Don’t put a hot cast-iron pot/pan down on a cool surface, like a granite countertop. Because cast iron has little thermal elasticity, it could crack. Similarly, don’t pour cold water into a very hot cast-iron pan.
Do the washing yourself. Don’t allow your friends to wash out your cast-iron pots/pans. With the greatest kindness, they may scour out your hard-earned seasoning. (I speak from sad experience.)
What You Get for All This Trouble
Awe-inspiring fried chicken;
Deeply flavored stews, braises, soups;
The best bacon and eggs you’ll ever eat;
Heavenly high-temperature–roasted chicken;
Fabulous grilled-cheese sandwiches;
A lifetime of faithful service; and
An opportunity to pass on your culinary traditions someday to a lucky young relative.
Some Dishes Made Special by Cast-Iron Cookware
These are dishes that turn out particularly well when cooked in/on cast-iron. If you don’t have a cast-iron griddle for stovetop use, you’re missing out on a versatile tool that not only cooks eggs, hashbrowns, and cottage fries splendidly but that also makes pizzas and scones far superior to what you can achieve in other cookware, provided that you heat up the griddle while you’re heating the oven.
Nothing simpler! To avoid spattering, you may want to consider a cast-iron chicken fryer, which is about 4 inches deep instead of the usual 2 inches, but either works just fine. Choose a small chicken (preferably under 3 lb.; 2 lb. is ideal), dredge it first in milk and then in seasoned (salt, pepper, perhaps some ground chipotle) flour in a paper bag, then put the pieces on a cooling rack to sit for about 30 minutes.
When you’re ready to pan-fry the chicken, add enough Crisco* to the pan to be ½” deep when the fat has melted. Wait until you can see a faint shimmer on the surface of the oil or when the temperature measures about 350°. Add several pieces of chicken to the pan, skin side down, and do not crowd them—if you do, they’ll steam rather than become crispy. Cook for about 10 minutes on one side, then use tongs to turn each piece over. Total cooking time should be about 20 minutes, but smaller, lighter pieces—for example, wings—will take less time. If you’re using a thermometer, you want it to read 165° when inserted into the thickest part of the meat. Remove meat from pan and allow to drain on cooling rack.
*Many people add a tablespoon or two of bacon drippings for even tastier fried chicken; others swear by peanut oil. So many choices, so many excellent ways to make fried chicken!
Cheesy Corn Bread
This makes a soft bread—a spoon bread with crusty edges, thanks to the cast-iron skillet. The canned green chiles can be replaced with fresh ones or 1 tablespoon of red pepper flakes. Note: Canned Hatch green chiles aren’t hot, just incredibly tasty!
Preheat oven to 400° F.
Set oven rack in the middle.
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup milk or buttermilk
1/3 cup melted butter, lard, or olive oil
2–4-oz. of canned green chiles, chopped (Note: these should say “green chiles” or “Hatch green chiles”—they’re mild chiles, not jalapeños. If you prefer more heat, use a half-can of canned jalapeños, or chop up fresh ones to use.)
¾ cup grated Cheddar or Monterey jack cheese
2 tablespoons of olive oil or butterCombine corn, cornmeal, eggs, salt, baking soda, milk, fat, chiles, and ¾ of the cheese. Melt butter or add olive oil to 8 or 9” cast-iron skillet. Place in oven until butter melts but does not brown, or oil is hot. Pour batter into the warm pan. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until top is bubbly and browned.
Jan’s Currant Cream Scones
There are scones and scones. Some people prefer them with a dry texture; others, with a creamy, moist interior. I am of the second camp, so I make my scones with cream, which contributes their pleasing moistness. Because a big part of the scones’ taste comes from the butter you use, buy a really good butter—after conducting tastings for a group of 12 people, I learned that almost everyone preferred the butter I use for baking: beautiful Hope Creamery butter, available at food co-ops throughout the Twin Cities. If you don’t like currants in your scones, you can use blueberries or dried cranberries, or you can make a purist’s scone, with nothing else at all except a bit of citrus zest. However, using currants gives you the opportunity to soak them first in brandy, port, or rum, and doing so imparts a subtle and beautiful flavor to your scones.
Scones are most tender when they are not overblended. For that reason, I recommend using a fork rather than a spoon to mix them up. Don’t use a stand or hand mixer: your scones will not become high and tender. The pan you cook the scones in makes a tremendous difference to their quality. Use a cast-iron griddle or big skillet that you’ve heated up along with the oven for best results.
Be sure, too, not to overpack your dry measuring cup with flour; instead, spoon in the flour gently.
Preheat oven to 425° F.
Oven rack in middle position; preheat griddle/skillet with oven.
1/3 cup currants
2 cups (240 g.) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon sea salt
4 tablespoons (2 oz., or half a stick) unsalted, cold butter
1/3 cup heavy cream
zest from 1 orange
2 tablespoons heavy cream
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
If currants are dry, put them in a small bowl with just enough very hot water, brandy, or port to cover them. Cover the bowl and allow currants to rehydrate for 30 minutes, then drain.Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in mixing bowl. Cut butter into flour mixture with two knives until butter is well coated and in shaggy little pieces. (You can also use your fingers to do this. The pieces do not need to be uniform in size at all, and they do not need to be any smaller than, say, a dried bean.) Mix in eggs, one at a time, with a fork. Do not overstir. Add cream. Zest one orange and add zest to dough. Add drained currants to dough. Lightly flour a mixing board and turn dough onto board. Knead gently for 2 minutes, until smooth. Roll out or pat dough into a round about 3/4 inch thick. Score the dough in half, then in quarters, then in eighths. Use a pastry brush to coat the top of the dough disc with heavy cream, then sprinkle sugar over the top from about 12” above (this ensures that the sugar will be evenly and lightly distributed). Place the scones on the preheated cast-iron griddle.
Bake for 15–20 minutes, until tops are browned and sugar has glazed.
Citrus Olive Oil Cake
This heavenly little cake cooks beautifully in an 8- or 9-inch cast-iron skillet. Baking it in cast iron causes the sides, top, and bottom to form delightful crusts—a tasty contrast to the almost pudding-like consistency of the crumb. Because it’s made with almond flour, the cake remains exceptionally moist for a long time: you can keep it for weeks in a closed tin. I like to brush the cake with my homemade marmalades while it’s still hot in the skillet.
Start with a cold oven and an oiled 8- or 9-inch cast-iron skillet.
1 c. extra-virgin olive oil*
zest of 1 lemon and 1 navel or Valencia orange
2 c. sugar
3/4 c. whole almonds, skin on or off, then ground, or 2 c. almond flour
1 tsp. baking powder
*My current favorite for baking is California Olive Ranch’s Everyday Olive Oil, available at Target.
** Pricey but useful, because ground nut-based cakes are light and rich. Keep the flour in the freezer to avoid its becoming rancid.Beat eggs until ropey and yellow; add olive oil and incorporate. Add citrus zest and sugar, then the ground almonds and baking powder. Whisk until combined; pour into greased 8-inch cast-iron skillet. Place in cold oven and turn oven to 400°; bake until straw in center comes out clean, roughly 50–60 minutes, or until center is fairly firm. At about 50 minutes, start checking. (It’s difficult to overbake this cake because of its high oil content, but you don’t want its crust to toughen too much.) Set skillet or pan on cooling rack and while cake is still warm, anoint top with marmalade or your favorite jam. Cut and serve right out of the skillet once the cake has cooled to lukewarm. Or leave until entirely cool before removing cake from pan—if you can wait that long! The center of this case is never going to firm up the way a non-oil, wheat flour-based cake will—it’s always going to be soft and almost gooey.
I was recently cast iron hunting and picked up a few pans. As is often the case, the woman from whom I purchased the pans had a conversation with me about cast iron cooking. She told me that she had recently heard on the “Dr. Oz” show that cast iron cooking was an easy way to add iron to your diet. I knew about some of the health benefits of cooking with cast iron cookware, of course, but hadn’t heard anything from Dr. Oz. I haven’t seen his show and don’t know much about him (okay, I don’t know anything about Dr. Oz…), but I did some googling to find the information provided to me.
Wow, what a lot of information came up!
Dr. Oz’s website recently posted an article addressing fatigue and iron deficiency. According to Dr. Oz, there are 5 particular signs of fatigue caused by iron deficiency:
1. Feeling fatigued for over a month;
2. Always feeling cold;
3. Particularly pale skin;
4. Inability to focus; and/or
5. Substantial hair loss and brittle or “spooned” nails.
To address fatigue caused by iron deficiency, Dr. Oz recommends sautéing vegetables and other foods, and simmering tomato-based sauces, in cast iron. Experts state that people who regularly cook in cast iron are rarely iron-deficient. Dr. Oz’s article states “Acidic foods with high moisture content, such as tomato sauce, will absorb the most iron from these cooking pans. In one study, the iron content in spaghetti sauce tripled after it had been simmered in a cast iron pot. Sauté vegetables and other foods this way as often as you can to rev up iron intake.” It also suggests restricting coffee and tea intake for three hours before an iron-rich meal, to assist with iron absorption.
I am a big fan of chicken pans. I use the term “chicken pan” loosely; to me, a “chicken pan” is just about any skillet that is extra deep. Some extra-deep skillets are specifically referred to as fryers or chicken pans; some are not. In any event, my Iron Mountain (made by Griswold) chicken pan is my most-used cast iron pan. From my perspective, a chicken pan can often be used instead of a dutch oven. They are a great versatile depth; perfect for sauces. I also like it because it goes from range to oven – I recently gave pan-seared steaks a try, and the chicken pan worked wonderfully! When I make a big batch of spaghetti sauce, it’s my chicken pan that does the duty. It’s a bonus to know that my use of cast iron cookware is providing healthy benefits to me and my family!