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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cooking with cast iron

Cast iron panImage via Wikipedia
Cast iron can cover just about everything that you need it to in the kitchen. There are a few things that are better suited for other utensils but that's why you have a few big, stainless steel pots under your counter as well as a bunch of cast iron.
So what do you want to avoid cooking with your cast iron? If it needs to be boiled then grab a stainless or aluminum stock pot. You can probably get away with boiling in a well seasoned cast iron pot but boiling is a good way to get the seasoning to break up and get nasty. You have better options when you want to boil something.
If it calls for vinegar or wine then you should use something else. Vinegar breaks up that cast iron seasoning very efficiently. Especially when you cook with it. So does wine. You might be able to get away with it every once in a while but with regular use you'll start to see chunks of black in your food and bare metal in the bottom of your cast iron pan.
So what can you use it for? Everything else, really. If the recipe calls for oil then it's probably OK. The oil will reinforce the seasoning and ensure that nothing that you're cooking sticks to it too badly. The same goes for any kind of butter or fat. Anything that needs to be fried, grilled or roasted can be cooked perfectly in cast iron.
You can also bake in cast iron cookware. Obviously, tossing them in an oven is the easiest way to ensure a reliable, consistent temperature but you can also bake with them on a stove or over a campfire if you know what you're doing. That's why they call them "dutch ovens". It takes a little bit of finesse to bake in a dutch oven over a campfire but it's not exactly rocket science. Try it a few times and you'll be amazed at the results.
The properties of cast iron are what make it so good to cook with. It's porous so it absorbs fat and that fat is then cooked and carbonized on the surface. At normal cooking temperatures this carbonization holds up very well and is almost as effectively non stick as teflon only much healthier. Cast iron is also extremely thick and heavy so it retains heat very well. Once you get it hot it will stay hot for a while. Quite often I just heat my pan up then turn off the stove and cook whatever it is that I want to cook. Another good characteristic of it is that it's extremely durable and can last virtually forever. If you maintain it you'll be passing it on to your grandchildren's grandchildren. If you know how to season it, maintain it and you use it to cook what it's meant to cook then you'll probably find yourself using it a lot.