The virtues of cast iron cookware are several: It takes any heat, from very low to super high; it retains that heat, if necessary, for the recipe; over time, it develops a nonpareil non-stick surface; and it’s fairly easy to care for, by and large eschewing soaping and scrubbing. Backpackers often “clean” their cast iron Dutch ovens with gravel or river sand.
Cast iron cookware also lasts a lifetime — or more than a lifetime. George Washington’s mother “gave and devised” one-half each to her two grandchildren her “iron kitchen furniture,” her cast iron cookware.
So why is it that so many cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens while away their own long lives in the nether regions of the kitchen cabinetry?
I spoke to a few home cooks to find out why. “It’s not fashionable anymore,” says one; “too heavy,” says another.
One fellow doesn’t have “adequate ventilation” in his kitchen, believing that, for example, searing and then finishing steaks at the necessary high heat will trigger his smoke alarm. (Easily remedied or avoided, and to better end. See sidebar “Cast iron skillet steak.”)
And myths about cast iron persist: “I can’t reduce my (acidic) tomato sauce in it.” Or cook with wine or other acidic foods in it. Or, “cast iron is a pain to maintain.” Or clean, or keep from rusting.
As the first president’s mother might have said to these cast iron naysayers, “Pshaw!”
Cast iron’s non-stick surface, if lovingly established as the apex of a patina of any cooking metal, may not be as slick as fry-a-nude-egg Teflon, but nonetheless it will take higher heat than the latter, still be nearly as slippery and, to some folk’s minds, safer for it.
The key to cast iron’s patina and an answer to many of these complaints is what’s termed its “seasoning,” the polymerization (or to use a less techie term, “plasticization”) of the cooking fats or oils with which it comes in contact, both during cooking in it or caring for it.
Stove-top or oven (or even burning charcoal) heat breaks down these oils into large-chain molecules that then bond to the iron itself in a never-ending layering — if the dang pans are used, people — that becomes impermeable to (mild) acidity, makes the pan facile to clean and maintain, and resistant to rust and oxidation.
There. Several myths and prejudices busted.
In the end, it’s cast iron’s way with heat that selects it as a preferred ware for some cooking. It’s just common sense, when you think of it.
John Hinman, proprietor of Hinman’s Bakery and one of the region’s top pie-makers, answers his own question: “How often do you get a pie when the top is done but the bottom is still soggy? A lot.
“With cast iron, the fact is that when the pie is done, because the pan keeps so much heat, the bottom continues to cook. The pan nurtures and finishes the cooking, plus it continues to force moisture in the form of steam out through the top’s vents.”
Sounds like a win-win. Right, Mother Washington?
Reach Bill St John at firstname.lastname@example.org
Craig Claiborne’s Smothered Chicken
By Sam Sifton, The New York Times; serves 4
Craig Claiborne believed a cast-iron skillet to be essential for the authentic preparation of this dish.
- 1 chicken, about 3 1/2 pounds, spatchcocked (split down the backbone, breast left intact and unsplit)
- Kosher salt, to taste
- Freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 1⁄2 cups chicken broth, ideally homemade
Sprinkle the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Select a skillet large enough to hold the chicken comfortably when it is opened up, as for broiling. Fold wings under to secure them. Melt the butter in the pan and add the chicken, skin side down. Cover chicken with a plate that will fit comfortably inside the skillet. Place a heavy can, stone or brick on top of the plate to weigh it down. Cook over low heat, checking the chicken skin, until it is nicely browned, about 25 minutes.
Remove weight and plate. Turn chicken so skin side is up. Replace plate and weight and continue cooking for about 15 minutes more. Remove chicken and pour off fat from the skillet, leaving about 2 tablespoons in the pan. Add the flour to the fat, stirring with a wire whisk over medium heat. Gradually add the chicken broth and, when thickened, return chicken to the skillet, skin side up. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover with the plate and weight and continue cooking over low heat about 20 to 30 minutes longer or until the meat is exceptionally tender. Spoon the sauce over it. Cut chicken into serving pieces, and serve with the sauce and fluffy rice on the side.
Hinman’s Cast Iron Skillet Cherry Pie
Makes 1 pie
Baker John Hinman’s note: Using a high-quality European-style butter really improves the crust. While making the crust, make sure your butter is really cold – almost frozen – and that your water is ice water. The assembled balls of dough, well-wrapped, will keep in the fridge for 2 days or in the freezer for months.
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, very-cold, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 6 to 8 tablespoons ice water
- 5-6 cups (2 1/2-3 pounds) fresh or frozen tart pitted cherries
- 1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 4 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3/4 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoon milk
- Sugar in the Raw
For the dough: In a mixer, combine flour, sugar, salt, and butter. Mix on medium speed until the butter is broken down into pea-sized shapes. Add cold water. Turn up the speed on the mixer a few times until dough just comes together. Turn out on the table, press dough together with your hands and divide into two equal portions. Wrap them in plastic wrap until ready to use. (It’s a good idea to leave them overnight in the refrigerator.)
For the filling: Cook the cherries in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. When they start to juice, add sugar and cornstarch. Cook until thickened, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and add extracts.
For the pie: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Split the dough in half. Roll 2 9-inch circles and press one into the pan. Pour the cooked cherry filling into the pie shell. Whisk together egg and milk to create egg wash. Brush wash around the crust rim of the bottom pie shell. Put the top crust on, and pinch together around the outside. Using thumb and forefinger, crimp the crusts together. Put in the fridge or freezer for 45 minutes. Cut 8 star-shaped vents in the top and brush the top crust with egg wash. Sprinkle Sugar in the Raw on top and bake 15 minutes at 375 degrees and then 30-40 minutes at 325 degrees.
Sweet and Moist Northern-Style Cornbread
Joshua Bousel on seriouseats.com
- 1 cup yellow cornmeal
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 cup sour cream
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 2 large eggs
- 3 tablespoons melted butter, cooled slightly, plus 1 additional tablespoon for pan
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- Cast iron skillet
Place a 10-inch cast iron skillet on middle rack in oven and preheat to 425. In a medium bowl, whisk together cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together sour cream, buttermilk, eggs, 3 tablespoons melted butter, and canola oil. Pour wet ingredients into bowl with dry ingredients and whisk until completely combined. Using pot holders, carefully remove hot pan from oven. Place 1 tablespoon butter in skillet and swirl to completely melt and coat inside of pan. Pour in cornbread batter and place in oven. Bake until skewer inserted into middle of cornbread comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Let bread cool in pan for 5 minutes, then carefully turn out to wire rack and let cool an additional 10 minutes. Serve immediately. Reheat any leftover cornbread before serving again.
Notes: Preheating the pan and coating it with butter creates a dark crust with a light, nutty flavor. Using sour cream along with buttermilk increases the mild tanginess and overall flavor of the bread. Adding a little oil to the batter results in a more cake-like moistness.
Okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancake)
From “Will It Skillet?” by Daniel Shumski (Workman, 2017)
- 10-inch cast iron skillet
- 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 3 scallions, green and white parts, finely chopped separately
- 3 1/2 cups shredded cabbage (about half a small head)
- 1/2 cup water
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon neutral-flavored oil (such as canola or peanut)
- 6 strips bacon
- Toasted sesame seeds, chopped scallion greens, Okonomiyaki Sauce (recipe below), and mayonnaise, for serving
Preheat oven on its lowest setting. (This allows you to keep the first okonomiyaki warm while you finish the second.) In a large bowl, combine the flour, white parts of the scallions, and cabbage. In a small bowl, combine water, eggs and salt. Add the wet ingredients to the flour and vegetables and stir gently, only enough to bring everything together.
Place the skillet over medium-high heat, add oil, and heat until hot but not smoking, about 2 minutes. Add half the batter and push it down with a spatula to flatten into a thick pancake, leaving about 1/2 inch of the pan visible around the battler. (This will give your spatula room to slide under later.) Turn the heat to medium and cook until the underside is browned, about 4 minutes.
Place 3 strips of the bacon atop the pancake (cut or bend it to fit). Flip the pancake so the bacon is touching the skillet. If it comes apart when you flip it, don’t worry; use a spatula to herd any stray parts back together. (Don’t be tentative with the flipping; one swift and fluid motion is best.) Cook until the bacon is crisp (lift edge of the pancake with a spatula to check) and no uncooked egg remains, about 5 minutes more.
Place the finished okonomiyaki on a plate and move it into the oven to keep it warm while you make a second pancake, using the steps above. Because of the bacon fat, you may not need to add more oil, and may in fact have to pour some off.
Cut the okonomiyaki into quarters, top with sesame seeds and scallion greens. In Japan, the sauce and mayonnaise are often drizzled with a squeeze bottle in a zig-zag pattern over the okonomiyaki, or it can be served on the side.
From “Will It Skillet” by Daniel Shumski (Workman Publishing, 2017)
Yields about 1/3 cup
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 1 teaspoon ketchup
- 1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
In a small bowl, combine all of the ingredients and mix well with a fork.
Ricotta, Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna
From “Will It Skillet?” by Daniel Shumski (Workman Publishing, 2017)
Many recipes call for frozen spinach to be drained, but in this case the liquid from the spinach is all part of the plan. It helps to hydrate and cook the noodles. Editor’s note: We prefer cooking the noodles ahead and draining the spinach in this recipe; the noodles just didn’t seem to soften enough using the no-boil version.
- 10-inch cast iron skillet
- 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for greasing the skillet
- 8 ounces white mushrooms, sliced
- 1 clove garlic, cut in half and crushed
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped, or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
- 1 cup ricotta
- 1 large egg
- 3 cups marinara sauce
- 4 ounces no-boil lasagna noodles (see editor’s note)
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees with one rack in the middle. Preheat skillet over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the olive oil to the skillet, allow it to heat 1 minute, then add the mushrooms, garlic, thyme, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms soften, about 10 minutes. Taste to check for seasoning and add salt and pepper as necessary. Remove and discard the garlic. Pour the mushrooms and any liquid into a bow and set aside.
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the spinach with the ricotta, egg, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Rub a coating of olive oil on the skillet and then layer the ingredients in this order: 3/4 cup of the ricotta mixture; 1 cup of the marinara sauce; half of the mushrooms and their liquid; half of the noodles (break them as necessary to cover the whole skillet); 3/4 cup of the ricotta mixture; 1 cup of the marinara sauce; the remaining mushrooms and any liquid; the remaining noodles; the remaining ricotta mixture; and the remaining marinara sauce.
Sprinkle the Parmesan evenly across the top of the lasagna. Cover the skillet tightly with aluminum foil and place in the oven. Bake until the mixture is bubbling and the lasagna noodles are tender, about 45 minutes.
Remove the skillet from the oven and transfer it to a rack to cool slightly, about 10 minutes, before serving hot.
Potato-Crusted Ham Quiche
From “Will It Skillet” by Daniel Shumski (Workman Publishing, 2017)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/4 cups diced white or yellow onion (about 1 medium-sized onion)
- 8 ounces white mushrooms, sliced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 5 ounces baby spinach
- 1/2 cup diced cooked ham
- 2 medium-sized russet potatoes (about 1 pound total)
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 6 large eggs
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 cup shredded mild cheese (Fontina, Gruyere or Swiss)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees with one rack in the middle. Add 2 teaspoons of the oil to the skillet and heat over medium heat until the oil is hot, about 2 minutes. Add the onion, mushrooms and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened and the mushrooms are cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add the spinach in two batches, cooking and stirring each time until the spinach wilts, about 30 seconds.
Drain off as much liquid as possible and scrape the vegetables into a large bowl. Add the ham and set aside.
Wipe the skillet clean. Use a paper towel to rub 1 teaspoon of the oil into the skillet. Using the coarse side of a box grater or food processor, shred the potatoes. (You should have 3 1/2 cups.) Squeeze the potatoes in a clean kitchen towel until they’re as dry as you can manage. (Immediately rinse the towel to avoid discoloration.)
In a medium-sized bowl, toss the potatoes with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper. Press potatoes into the skillet in an even layer across the bottom and all the way up the sides. Bake until the potatoes are golden brown at the edges, about 30 minutes. Remove the skillet from the oven and set the temperature to 325 degrees.
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, mustard and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.
Drain the ham and vegetables. Distribute the cheese evenly atop the potato. Spread the ham and vegetables in an even layer over the cheese. Pour in the egg mixture.
Bake until the eggs are set at the edges (the center may still jiggle a bit), about 30 minutes. An instant-read thermometer should read 170 degrees in the center.
Remove the skillet from the oven and transfer it to a rack to cool slightly, about 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Cast iron skillet steak
“I really prefer my cast iron skillet to cook steaks,” says Jack Yara, assistant butcher at Oliver’s Meat & Seafood Market in Denver. “It’s how I usually recommend to people that they cook theirs, too.
“Cast iron is the most consistent cooking surface for that (surface) caramelization that is the difference between a well-cooked steak and a poorly cooked one.”
Here is Yara’s step-by-step method of “grilling” steaks indoors on a cast iron surface.
“For a one-and-half-inch thick steak, take it out of the package and let it get to room temperature. Salt it before cooking it; that draws out moisture from it. People think the moisture is blood, but it’s really just water that’s retained by the muscle. Getting rid of moisture means that it will brown (in the pan) instead of just steaming.
“Oil a 12-inch (cast iron) skillet generously; I prefer canola oil because of its higher smoke point. When it just starts smoking, sear the steak three to four minutes on each side and then place the pan, steak and all, in a (preheated) 350-degree oven and finish it to your desired temperature.”
The oven placement is key to finishing the steak’s cooking slowly; you cannot cook a steak that thick — even merely to rare, much less medium-rare — without burning, not browning or caramelizing, its exterior. Just use an instant-read thermometer to reach the interior temperature that you desire (for instance, 140 for medium-rare), being sure to let the steak rest for a minimum of five minutes before tucking into it to allow the juices, as Anthony Bourdain puts it, “left undisturbed and unmolested, to redistribute through the resting meat in a lovely and rewarding way.”
How to care for your cast iron
Some tips on caring for cast iron cookware:
- The best care that you can give your cast iron cookware is to use it. Over time, cooking fats and oils will form “seasoning,” a slick, nonporous, non-stick, impervious, hydrophobic patina, the breakdown and plasticization of the oil molecules into stronger molecules that bind themselves to the iron itself. Once the seasoning is set, so are you.
- It is OK to cook with ingredients that are lightly acidic — or, if highly acidic (such as lemon juice or tomatoes), quickly — if the seasoning is solid and present.
- Clean up cast iron by merely wiping it with paper toweling or a stiff, nylon brush or nylon scraper under hot, running water. (Metal brushes and pads aren’t overly harmful — unless they contain soap or detergent — but by and large aren’t necessary either).
- Reinforce the seasoning by drying the cookware in a warm place (the turned-off, cooling oven is ideal) and then, when the pores on the cookware are dried out, wiping a fine film of vegetable oil over all (avoid any animal-based fat). Finally, once again wipe clean or gently buff with dry toweling and store in a dry cupboard or cabinet.
- Really stubborn, burned-on foods can be removed by simmering some water in the the pan or pot, to cover, then brushing or scraping away.
- Contrary to common thought, because cast iron heats well though unevenly (and even sports its share of hot spots), if using on stovetops, place the cookware on a burner nearest in size or diameter to the cookware itself.
- Be sure to have plenty of insulating oven mitts, thick kitchen towels or silicon heat pads on hand when using cast iron anything. It’s easy to forget that a handle on a piece of cast iron cookware can be severely hot.
- Yes, old, rusted cast iron (yay, flea markets!) can be rescued. Go online and follow recommendations.