The Riddle of Iron


Some of my collection of cast iron cookware. The red Le Creuset dutch oven is about forty years old and was passed down from Zak’s Grandma to me. In the lower right hand corner are the cornstick pans, the comal and the tortilla press.

So, I was going through my cabinets earlier this week, and putting things into boxes, when I realized, that for all of my command of culinary techniques, for my insistence upon throwing French terms into my speaking and writing about food, for all that it is obvious that I attended culinary school by my insistence upon the neat and tidy set up of mise en place, I don’t really have a lot of high-end fancy pots and pans.

And the ones that I do have, I don’t use very often.

As mentioned previously, I have my Gram’s 1940′s Revereware copper-bottomed stainless steel set, which is pretty much what I use when I need to boil something, like pasta or rice or water for steamed vegetables or buns.

The rest of my kitchen is equipped with a mish-mash of pieces, some of which get used all of the time, while others are set aside for special moments when nothing but a whole salmon will do. (That moment will come–you will see. Actually, if it were up to me, I would have cooked one by now, but as Zak can take salmon or leave it, that leaves me to eat the entire salmon myself, which means I would have to channel my inner grizzly bear, which is dangerous on many levels. Along with the bear-sized appetite comes the bear-sized temper, and we don’t need that.)

What I noticed while digging through and packing some utensils and leaving others, was that I have a whole heck of a lot of cast iron, both bare black and clad in brilliant shades of enamel.

The Le Creuset was passed down to me by Zak’s grandmother who had become too frail to lift it. It was all too heavy for Zak’s sister to lift (she is a tiny elf-like lady), so it was passed on to me, sturdy wench that I am. Which is fine–I love the stuff. The Dutch oven comes out when it is time to make risotto, or a nice flageolet and lamb stew or even Sichuan red-cooked beef with turnips. Whatever I cook in it can come to the table, brightened by the warm crimson enamel which not only looks good, but keeps the cast iron easy to clean.

My tiny green Le Creuset skillet is mainly used for toasting spices such as cumin, coriander and Sichuan peppercorns. That seems like I don’t use it for much on the face of it, but the amount of spices that get used in my kitchen makes the wee green pan one that is nearly always in use. I also use it for toasting dried chiles, if I am only doing a few. If I am doing many, I go with yet another piece of cast iron, like the lid to the Lodge chicken fryer–which is a deep frying pan with a lid that doubles as a shallow crepe pan.

I have a great deal of Lodge Logic cast iron, as well as a few traditional pieces of Lodge that I seasoned myself.

I don’t know what kept the Lodge folks from figuring out that they would sell a lot more cast iron if folks who hadn’t grown up with it weren’t forced to season it, but they seem to be doing very well for themselves. All sorts of folks really like the stuff, including Alton Brown. A recent Chicago Tribune article detailed a contest of skillets where the author tested a bunch of different varieties in the kitchen, and liked the least expensive, the twelve-dollar Lodge pre-seasoned pan. All the pans were tested by caramelizing onions, frying an egg and sauteeing a chicken breast, and the cheap cast iron beat out the pricey All Clad and Calphalon at all three tasks.

Mind you–I, or any mountain mamma cook from the Appalachians could have told the author that would be the case, but then, there is nothing wrong with someone proving us right after all these years. We hillbillies have been passing down cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens from grandma to mother to daughter for hundreds of years, and we know that for all that it is inexpensive and it isn’t pretty, cast iron pans are the gold standard for Southern Applachian cooking.

Cast iron kicks ass. Period.

I like to use mine to cook steak in the winter when it is too cold to go out and grill. It is simple, really–I use a dry rub on the steak, heat up the cast iron until it starts turning grayish, and slap the meat down on the hot surface. I use the vent for this–lots of smoke erupts from the meat. I sear it nicely on one side, flip it over, and either continue cooking stovetop, or I pop it into a really hot oven to finish cooking. That is it. No mess. No drama. Just steak cooked with a really flavorful browned crust and a moist and juicy interior.

Almost as good as the steaks we cook over hardwood charcoal in the summer.

I have cast iron cornstick pans, for baking corn-cob shaped cornbreads. You heat them up in the oven, then carefully pour batter into the wells and bake them for about ten or fifteen minutes, and when they are done, you have the best corn muffins ever. They are golden crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. I like to make different batters with different colored cornmeal–I use yellow for the spicy muffins with bits of green and red chile pepper, blue for the sweet muffins flavored with cardamom and cinnamon, and red for cornbread flavored with bacon and onion slivers.

I have a cast iron comal for cooking tortillas, and a cast iron press for shaping them, both from Mexico. Since I started making my own corn tortillas, I have noticed that all of my Mexican and Tex Mex recipes taste better; the corn flavor in freshly made tortillas is so superior, I cannot imagine going back to the store bought kind.

Cast iron is a favored material for cooking vessels in the Far East, as well. As you know, I have two cast iron woks–one from China, which is the one I use every day, and another from Lodge that I am waiting until we move to break out and use. The Chinese one, which is traditional except for its flat bottom, which makes it much more usable on American stoves, came from The Wok Shop in San Francisco, and it works beautifully. I have been able to get it consistently hotter and keep it hotter than the carbon steel woks I used previously. The “wok hay,” or as I called it so unpoetically for years, “the wok taste” is very strong from this wok, and the speed and ease with which I can stir fry are incomparable. I will likely only use my carbon steel woks now and again after seasoning and cooking in the cast iron for a bit over a year now.

In Japan, sukiyaki and other nabemono dishes–simmered stews, essentially–are traditionally cooked in an iron pot with wooden lids that was hung over a fire or a brazier. I don’t have one of those, or one of the Chinese iron casseroles; I tend to use my regular iron and enamelled dutch ovens for the dishes that would require those pots. On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t refuse such a pot as a gift, if one should come my way. They are quite aesthetically pleasing in addition to being good conductors of heat.

In Japan, teapots are also made of cast iron. Tetsubin, as they are called, were used originally to boil water, but evolved into being used to brew tea as well. I think that they are beautiful works of art, and while I have yet to pick one up, I do love the graceful shapes and designs in which they are crafted. Someday, I mean to get one, but as yet, I still make tea in my old reliable glass teapots.

In addition to my lust for Asian cast iron kitchenware, I am dreaming of some pieces of enameled cast iron from Staub, particularly the teakettle and maybe a pretty green fondue set. Staub, a French company, makes enameled cast iron that is similar to Le Creuset in many respects, but also differs in design somewhat. The lids contain dimples or hobnail designs on the inside so that the condensation that collects there from the steam drips back into the food, keeping it moist. As I haven’t cooked with them side by side, I cannot really compare Staub and Le Creuset’s performance, but what I can tell you is that I like the colors of Staub better (the green is a nice forest color instead of the leprechaunish Le Creuset green, and they have purple–what else need I say?), and many of the designs have way more “oomph” than Le Creuset’s.

Interestingly, even Lodge is starting to dabble in the enameled cast iron market–just this winter, they released a few pieces including some apple-shaped pots that are clearly meant to compete with Le Creuset’s apple and vegetable shaped pots. Again, the Lodge designs are more aesthetic than the Le Creuset ones, though I am not certain that the electric lime green is an improvement over the “leprechaun frolicking in the clover” shade used by Le Creuset.

I guess that enameled cast iron is becoming more popular as people realize that they get many of the benefits of cooking in cast iron, with less of the worries about cleaning up and care that one gets with seasoned cast iron. I don’t think that taking care of bare cast iron is such a chore, but I know that a lot of people get squigy if you tell them that you never use soap on seasoned cast iron. I guess that they figure you are going to let bacteria grow or something. But if you heat up your cast iron as hot as you are need to to dry the wash water out of it, you needn’t worry about bacterial growth. If a bacteria can survive that, and then breed in an environment where it has nothing to feed on, then this is no ordinary bacteria and it is poised to take over the earth anyway. A little soap is not going to make much of a difference to such a critter.

So, in my kitchen, cast iron rules the roostIt it is often inexpensive (You can get Le Creuset cheaply by mail order at Caplan Duval–ooh, look, they are having a big sale–Damn. If I bought it now, I will only have to leave it in its box and not play with it…grrr) , it cooks like a dream and it will last more than a lifetime if it is properly cared for.

I intend to leave mine to my daughter and grandkids. When she gets around to having them, I mean. Not any time in the near future, though.

I’ll still be cooking in them for the next forty years or so. Or at least, so I hope.

3 Comments

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  1. I have been thinking abt cast iron pan for a while and now after reading ur article i have decided to get it.Thanks for the links! I have iron skillet to make indian roti, i got it from india, only if i had known abt the different varieties available here i wouldn’t have got it from india.
    Nila

    Comment by Nila — February 2, 2006 #

  2. Nila–I am glad that you found my blog and this post to be useful to you. Cast iron is my favorite cooking material–so much so that my new stove is made of enamelled cast iron, too.

    Thanks for commenting–I hope you come back sometime!

    Comment by Barbara — February 2, 2006 #

  3. I love cast iron, especially for making cornbread and such. And now I definitely need to get a cast iron wok. I hadn’t thought about it, but it makes sense that cast iron woks are around and about.
    Also, I find it interesting that you said you cook nearly everything in your wok, but you included risotto in the dishes you make in your dutch oven. I use a wok for risotto–it’s one of the many things that cooks down wonderfully in a wok.

    Comment by Jasmine — June 28, 2010 #

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