Cast Iron Cooking: Black magic in the kitchen

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Sift magazine’s fall issue features a love story (with recipes) from us to the glories of cast iron cooking. It’s our pleasure to share it with you here.

Paired with the right recipe, there’s no more salt-of-the-earth cookware than cast iron. From bacon and eggs to the perfect pie crust, it’s the right tool for kitchen tasks that call for even, steady heat.

Cast iron cooking gives a perfect sear on a steak or chicken breast. It’s simple to bake a no-knead bread in your oven, or preheat a cornbread pan for the ultimate crispy crust.

We know cooks who treasure skillets from their grandparents, and beginning bakers who scour yard sales and flea markets to get their collections started. When it comes to cast iron, there’s no better friend in your kitchen or at your campsite.

cast iron cooking via@kingarthurflour.comSourdough Popovers are ideally suited to cast iron. Perfect, steady heat for the pop, and an ideal way to use some of the discard that sourdough bakers are continually generating. Shower them with powdered sugar for breakfast, or add some herbs and spices to the mix for supper.

cast iron cooking via@kingarthurflourThis tasty Pepperoni and Cheese Beer Bread is the essence of simplicity. It mixes up in minutes, and while baked in our cast iron loaf pan for this shot, the batter is just as happy to be a savory muffin (even quicker), or baked in the 9″ x 5″ loaf pan you already have in the cupboard.

To every pan, there should be season

Cast iron is porous, and to reach its full cooking and baking potential, it needs to be sealed, or seasoned, with oil. No matter how ratty a pan may look at the bottom of that pile in a barn, cast iron can almost always be brought back to life.

Wash the pan well, scrubbing away rust with fine steel wool. Dry thoroughly, either over low heat on the stove, or in a 300°F oven.

To season your pan, rub it all over with peanut oil or vegetable shortening, until it’s completely coated. Bake for 90 minutes in a low oven (300°F), then wipe off any excess oil with absorbent paper. Or, if you happen to have access to a restaurant fryer, just drop it right in and leave it in the 350°F oil for half an hour.

A well-seasoned pan is very non-stick, and can be moved with ease from stove to oven to campfire. After each use, wash with water and a scrubbing pad only (some purists scrub only with a mixture of kosher salt and oil). Be sure to dry the pan thoroughly, wiping it lightly with oil afterward to keep it from rusting.

cast iron cooking via@kingarthurflour.comCrisp at the edges, moist and just-so crumbly inside, Maple Cornbread is the perfect motivator for baking beautiful wedges in your trusty cornbread skillet. For ultimate crunch, preheat the skillet as you preheat the oven, butter the wells, and enjoy the sizzle when you drop in your batter.

What to look for on a cast iron hunt

The best cast iron buys are often found in barns, attics, and garages; the rattier it happens to look, often the better the price. Avoid pans that are:

  • deeply pitted
  • cracked
  • chipped

Don’t be afraid of:

  • rust
  • spider eggs
  • cobwebs
  • leaves

No other cookware marries highfalutin’ and haute cuisine results like cast iron. For a perfect example, we give you…

cast iron cooking via@kingarthurflour.com…this pie. We love it so much, it’s on the fall cover of Sift.

Gingered Plum Streusel Pie is as tasty as it is gorgeous, and like most pies, lends itself beautifully to being baked in your trusty skillet.

We hope you’ll try these amazing recipes, and keep an eye out for cast iron cooking treasures on your next flea market or antique shop adventures. At our new magazime Sift, we want to share the magnificent, myriad ways to live, breathe, and most especially, bake.

Susan Reid
About

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.

comments

  1. Rachel M

    I have been using cast iron for maybe 3 years now, and I would never go back. I have 3 skillets; 8″, 10″ and 12″. I have used them for eggs, bacon, pancakes, hamburgers, steaks, fried rice, cornbread, pizza, apple crisp, and pot pie. They are some of the cheapest pans out there, and are by far the most used pans in my kitchen. Plus, it’s *iron*- I figure it’s one of the more environmentally friendly pan materials out there.

    Reply
  2. Jen

    I grew up using a cast iron skillet. I have inherited that one and have several others of my own as well now. I use them all, the chicken fryer, several dutch ovens, griddle…

    Cast iron is the proper place to fry up bacon in the morning for breakfast.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid , post author

      Jenny, we don’t have subscriptions, but you can get a copy of it from us (no shipping) here. The Holiday issue is on newsstands and in bookstores now, as well as available from us, here. Susan

  3. waikikirie

    It’s the cleaning part of the pan that always gets me. I always want to soak/soap. I need to re-season my pans, and then cook some bacon it them. (Even though I “bake the bacon”). It would add to the seasoning as well. Thanks for the post.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid , post author

      If you’ve had a chance to check out the Fall Sift issue, we show one of my favorite cast iron cleaning toys: it’s chain mail, which does a nice job of scouring without compromising the pan’s finish. Not very expensive (less than $15) at Amazon, and goes right in the dishwasher. Easy Peasy. Susan

    2. Kathy

      Avoid soaking your pans for more than a few minutes. An easy way to keep them seasoned is after each cleaning wipe them with some vegetable oil then heat on the burner until almost smoking. Turn heat off and let the pan cool. Doing this after each cleaning really keeps them in good shape. I have a nice chicken fryer that my mother bought in 1945.

  4. Rosemary

    i have been using cask iron pans forever. Have my mother and aunts pans Also. On the stove and in the oven. Love love them.

    Reply
  5. Nancy @ HungryEnoughToEatSix

    It took me a long time to give cast iron a try (so ashamed) but now I love to cook with it. I still only have my one pan but I definitely want to find some loaf pans. And the cast iron pans that have little corn-shaped cornbread molds! Great article with beautiful photos. Thanks!

    Reply
  6. Kay

    I accidentally rusted my cast iron pan because I used it as the water-pan for KAF’s no-knead bread. Whoops! A good scrub with steel wool gets rid of the rust, and I’m trying to nurture it back to glossy glory. Last night I cooked bacon in it and tonight I’ll give it a nice bake with oil.

    Is there any other pan that’s safe to throw boiling water into a such a hot temperature? I like using my cast iron pan but it isn’t worth the effort of having to recondition it each time I make no-knead bread.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid , post author

      I totally get it, Kay. I just got through a massive binge of sourdough baking, and used my smallest all-clad frying pan for my steam bath. Since cast iron is so reasonable, sometimes folks will dedicate just one, sometimes chipped or pitted cast iron pan to only making steam in the oven. Susan

  7. barbara n

    The easist way to oil after wiping w/ a paper towel is spraying with pam while the pan is still warm. This is what lodge recommends. Been doing it this way for years.

    Reply
  8. JP Garrison

    Here in the mountains of North Carolina, we’ve all used cast iron forever. I treasure my late Mama’s set and use it frequently. One of her cleaning tips was to put it in a self-cleaning oven (rarely needed if properly cared for-easiest way to clean a flea-market find) and run the ‘clean’ cycle, then re-season. Her fried chicken was unequaled: sadly, I was never able to learn her secret. What I’d really like to know is, how does one “season” an iron teakettle? I have one actually meant for heating potable water, made in Ohio by Wagner Ware back in the 1980s. Mama said the ones her mother used were never seasoned with oil (for obvious reasons), but had a whitish coating inside, possibly from minerals in the water, building up over the years. Any ideas?

    Another tip: it is possible to overheat a cast iron pan on a stovetop. My dad accidentally cracked one by turning on a stove eye on “high” one morning, then going off to shave. A loud “crack” sounded in the kitchen and Mama was heartbroken to discover an almost red-hot skillet (given to her by her mother) had split open. Also, never dump cool water into a hot pan, since thermal shock will break it. Cast iron will stand a lot of heat, only if it’s evenly and slowly heated.

    My ambition is to learn to cook an entire meal on my wood-fired range, like my mother and those before her. Those who learned to cook on wood-fired ranges were unparalleled cooks and bakers!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We have tea recipes that include tea brack, tea ring, tea cookies, tea tarts, tea sandwich bread, fruited tea buns, but sadly no tips about cast iron tea kettles. As you suspect, the white coating is likely from minerals in the water. Best to you in your search for that fried chicken quest as well as the wood-fired range meal. Irene@KAF

    1. Susan Reid , post author

      You have to be prepared for the fragrance, but one of the easiest ways to do this is put the skillet in your oven and run its self-cleaning cycle. You’ll need to reseason the inside after, but you’ll get pretty much a spanking-new pan. Susan

  9. ssmith

    For baked on food on the interior of unseasoned cookware, fill the piece with water and a few drops of dish soap. This works beautifully on Le Creuset and Staub enameled cast iron. Bring to the filled cocotte to a simmer—— as soon as it comes to a boil, turn the burner off. Do not leave unattended as it will foam. Cool.Then the cast iron will clean very easily with soap and water with no scrubbing needed. If the piece is black with no emamel, wipe all moisture and lightly season with a little oil, wiping away all residual. Use parchment paper as a liner for cast iron cooking in the oven for seasoned ribs, pork loin,roast, baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, lemon seasoned chicken with NO WATER and the LID ON in the oven. Remove the lid in the last 15-20 minutes to brown if desired. The steam, vitamins, color, and flavor remains in the food, as no other cooking method can achieve.Chef John Folse has many recipes for cast iron cooking, as does Michael Ruhlman. Love cast iron and have an Enclume Cast Iron Tower of pans used on a daily basis. Love, Love, Love the King Arthur Flour Bread recipe!

    Reply
  10. Candace Edwards

    I have a large skillet that belonged to my mother. It must be almost 60 years old! And it’s still going strong. The trick to keeping cast iron for ages is to season it. And season it well and often. Love all my cast iron pans!

    Reply

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