Why You Need Cast Iron in Your Kitchen (And How to Clean it)
BY JULIE VAN ROSENDAAL, DINNER WITH JULIE
Jan 20, 2017
Cast iron has become the kitchen tool of choice these days, as old things become new again. Cast iron is affordable, durable and actually improves with age, if it’s cared for properly.
If you’re just starting out, it’s important to know the difference between raw and enamel-coated cast iron. Seasoned raw cast iron pans are smooth and black (although they may start out rough and grey) — Lodge is one of the main manufacturers in North America. Enamel-coated cast iron is smooth and often brightly coloured — think of those beautiful heavy pots made by Le Creuset. I use enamel-coated cast iron for stews and braises, and well-seasoned cast iron pans on the stovetop and for roasting things in the oven when I want the heat to circulate around the piece of meat, like a whole chicken.
If you’re lucky, you may come across well-seasoned cast iron pans at garage and church sales, although prices are starting to go up at antique and thrift stores as demand increases. Cast iron is making a comeback as cooks come to appreciate its durability — it has amazing heat retention and distribution properties, can go from stovetop to oven and, once seasoned, develops a non-stick coating that’s perfect for cooking anything from pancakes to fried eggs.
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The seasoning part is what tends to intimidate people, but all that's required are heat and fat. If you’re just starting out with raw cast iron and need to develop that smooth seasoned surface, lard is inexpensive and works well; cover the inside of the pan with a thick, even coat and place it in a 450˚F oven for half an hour. Take it out and let it cool. Repeat, adding more lard as needed as it starts to turn black, or simply keep the skillet on the bottom rack of your oven as you go about baking muffins and making dinner, pulling out your cast iron once in a while to grease it up. Roasting a few chickens will help too — the heat and drippings have the same effect, and cast iron makes a perfect roasting pan. Bonus: while the chicken rests, you can make a quick gravy with the drippings that are already in the pan.
Once you’ve achieved that smooth surface, be gentle with your pan — wipe it out with a paper towel, and if it needs to be scrubbed, use coarse salt. You don’t need to baby it, but if you do use water, make sure the cast iron is well dried before being put away to prevent rust spots.
Once you have a few cast iron pans in your kitchen, you’ll find a ton of uses for it, from skillet cornbread, to cakes, to deep-dish pizza (you can preheat the pan, getting it super hot in the oven, just like a pizza stone). Here are a few other ideas:
Yes, a quick batch of granola works on the stovetop in a skillet! Put 1 cup old-fashioned oats, 1/4 cup sesame, pumpkin or sunflower seeds, 2 tbsp each of butter and honey or maple syrup, plus a pinch of cinnamon in a large cast iron skillet set over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring often, for about five minutes, or until the granola is well-coated and golden. Set aside to cool and stir in raisins or dried fruit.
Press drop cookie dough (chocolate chip works perfectly) into a cast iron skillet and bake at 350˚F for 20 minutes, or until golden. Cool and serve in wedges, or serve it warm topped with ice cream and chocolate sauce, if you like.
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This is a great use of leftover cooked meat and veggies — even baked potatoes or boiled pasta — or you can start with raw veggies and sauté them in the skillet before adding egg and sliding it into the oven.
Set a nine-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Warm leftover cooked meat and veg, or add a drizzle of oil and sauté chopped peppers, mushrooms, asparagus — or whatever other veggies you like or have on hand — until they soften and any excess liquid has cooked off. Whisk together 5 eggs and 1/2 cup grated cheese — cheddar, gouda, or even crumbled feta or goat cheese — and pour overtop. Let cook until the egg is set around the edges, then transfer to a 350˚F oven for 20 minutes, or until the top is golden and set. Sprinkle with an extra handful of cheese, if you like. Serve it hot, at room temperature, or cold.
Preheat the broiler. Distribute cubes of meltable cheese evenly in a small cast iron skillet, scatter with thinly sliced garlic, thyme, and rosemary and drizzle with olive oil. Broil for 5-6 minutes, until the cheese is melted and bubbling and starts to brown. Serve with crusty bread or baguette.
Also known as a Dutch baby, a dramatically puffed pancake is easy to make, amazing to see and can be a vehicle for all kinds of things, from fresh berries to sautéed apples — whatever’s in season. You can even serve it for dessert, with scoops of ice cream in the middle, and caramel or chocolate sauce drizzled overtop. Or because it’s like a giant Yorkshire pudding, try filling it with roasted meat and gravy for a crowd.
This ratio of eggs-flour-milk is perfect for a nine or ten-inch skillet; if yours is smaller, try a ratio of 2 eggs, 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup milk.
- 3 large eggs
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup milk
- oil and butter, for cooking
- icing sugar or maple syrup, for serving
Preheat the oven to 450°F.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, flour and milk; don’t worry about getting all the lumps out. Set a nine or ten-inch cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, add a drizzle of oil and dab of butter and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. When the foaming has subsided, pour the batter into the hot pan and immediately put it into the oven.
Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the pancake is puffed and golden. Cut it into wedges and serve warm, sprinkled with icing sugar and drizzled with maple syrup, or with any other additions you like. Serves four.