It’s not the old west—forget what you think you know about cast iron. If you grew up in a home where people cooked, which isn’t a given any more, there was a cast iron skillet shrouded in mystery and ritual, some of it useful and some not. Cast iron, like carbon steel knives, are different. They require different care and can do different things.
Getting that Smooth Finish
Aged cast iron is one of the great standards of a traditional kitchen or campfire. Dutch ovens, griddles, or skillets all rely on aging and seasoning properly to work well. The traditional way of seasoning a new skillet is to coat the inside with oil and put it in the oven on a low heat for a longish while until the surface begins to bronze.
This method works well but still leaves the skillet a little rough to the spatula. That smooth glassy surface your grandmother had comes with time. Use it for a couple of weeks and see the difference.
Sautéing onions (or mirepoix) on a low heat or cooking loose hamburger are great ways to help build up a good finish on the skillet. Either way, proper use over time is what gives you an over-easy-egg finish. For a Dutch oven, as long as you don’t burn it, popcorn works well and will help with the finish on the walls and lid.
Cleaning and Upkeep
If you want to ruin the seasoning on a favorite skillet no matter how old and perfect it is, it only takes a few minutes. Having something stick to the bottom is not the end, however. A little water or chicken stock or other clear liquid will deglaze the skillet and is a very useful skill for gravies and sauces. This technique is also useful for a skillet that has something really stuck and you just want to make it easier to wash. It is true, pouring liquid into a cast iron skillet will shock and offend your grandmother.
The problem is, cold water on a hot skillet will instantly crack the skillet. This is true only if the skillet is too hot, or rather if the difference in temperatures is too great. This is a horrible tragedy, especially in the old west, where you had to send back to Sears Roebuck in Chicago and have one shipped on the next Wells Fargo wagon. Now that you can go to your nearest Wal-Mart, or better yet military surplus store or yard sale and replace it. You’ll probably crack one only once in your life, but it makes a great learning experience when it happens. Remember a skillet is a tool, it works for you or it’s not worth having.
Once I broke one I really liked. It split from side to side, held only by a thin isthmus on the rim. I have lamented its loss for years. I never replaced it. But I did use it as an excuse to buy a newer, bigger skillet that can cook up to five pounds of chicken thighs at a time, and a second one that is just smaller than his fallen comrade. There is also a standing option on an exact replacement should we find one. My wife understands my loss.
Yes, it Builds up Some Muscles
Some people complain about the weight of cast iron. It’s not for the old and feeble. That weight, however, is one of the great virtues of cast iron cooking. Especially at low heats, it cooks evenly and turns loose well. One of my favorites is cornbread baked in a skillet, but it works for pasta, casseroles, or pot pies.
Always dry your cast iron after washing and never let it soak over night!
A Quick Recipe
Cast iron also has versatility. Really nice bass fillets, for example, like to be cooked both on the stove top and in the oven. Pour a little good olive oil in the skillet and warm it to a medium heat. Lay the fillets out to completely cover the bottom of the skillet and sear the bottom for just a few minutes. Sprinkle the top with cubed cold butter, cracked pepper, kosher salt, freshly grated parmesan or fontina, the juice and pulp of a large lemon, and a sprinkling of fresh chopped basil and halved cherry tomatoes.
Don’t turn the fish! As soon as everything is in place stick the whole thing under the broiler on high just long enough to lightly brown everything. It will cook perfectly, lift out cleanly, and look and taste great—best fish ever! Serve it with a little fresh pesto or bruschetta and crostini.
by Bob Aldridge