Cast Your Dice for the Right Cooking Equipment
By Melissa Conroy
My parents own a cast iron Dutch oven and skillet set that have served our family for more than three decades. While we have shattered glass cooking pots, warped aluminum frying pans, melted the plastic handles off electric skillets and scratched stainless steel pans, our cast iron set has remained indestructible, dependable and indispensable. Over the years, we have called upon our Dutch oven and skillet to produce hundreds of chilies, stews, soups, casseroles, cornbreads and desserts. They’ve been propped over campfires, left out in the rain, used to crack nuts, brought to church picnics, accidentally dropped, abandoned in the fridge for weeks and banged on by bored children, yet they continue to serve our cooking needs and will likely do so for many years to come.
As cold weather descends upon us and you start thinking of warming soups, hearty chilies and comforting roasts, consider investing in a set of cast iron pots and pans. Cast iron should be a staple part of every kitchen because it has so many wonderful benefits.
Cast iron is generally formed from pig iron and other scrap iron and scrap steel which is melted, then poured into a mold. Cast iron cookware has quite a long history: The Chinese people discovered how to make a fire hot enough to melt iron as early as 500 B.C., but it took Europeans until the 12th century to figure this out for themselves. Aside from a hot-enough fire, cast iron is quite simple to make and quickly became popular as a form of cookware because of its many advantages.
Cast iron is extremely durable and can take quite a bit of abuse without cracking, warping or breaking. It can cope with extremely high levels of heat which is why it is so popular to use over an open fire. Because of its excellent heat-diffusion ability, cast iron cooks foods evenly and is terrific for long simmers and slow-cooked items. When food is cooked in cast iron, small amounts of iron are released into the food, particularly if it has a high acidic content like tomato sauce does. Also, cast iron imparts a rich, satisfying flavor to food. Chili, for example, is much better when allowed to simmer in a cast iron pot. For excellent flavor, nothing beats a stew or chicken and dumplings cooked in cast iron over a campfire. Properly cared for, cast iron will last a lifetime, if not more. It is entirely possible that you can pass down your beloved cast iron cookware from generation to generation.
All cast iron really needs from you is a little attention and it will continue to perform. In fact, the more you use cast iron, the better it gets. However, a brand-new cast iron pot or skillet requires some preparation before it is performing at optimal rate. Cast iron needs to be seasoned, meaning it needs to be given a coat of fat and oil. While cast iron is shiny and smooth right out of the box, it performs best when it is black and slightly sticky. Seasoning protects the cast iron from rust and makes a stick-free surface. When you fry in a seasoned cast iron pot, you generally don’t need to add oil because the seasoning makes it nonstick.
To season a new cast iron pan, first scrub it with soap and water because it usually has a protective oil coating which needs to come off. Then dry it by placing it on a burner and heating it dry. It must be dry before seasoning it. When it has cooled off, rub it inside and out with a generous amount of Crisco, vegetable oil, bacon fat or lard. Put an extra layer of the grease on the bottom of the pan and shove it inside the oven at 300 degrees for at least an hour. If you have a lid for your pan, it needs the same treatment also, so make sure to season it too.
There is some debate about the best way to wash dirty cast iron. Some purists insist that cast iron should only be rinsed out and wiped with a paper towel, but a good chili or rump roast can leave a lot of gunk behind. Other people say that if you use soap on cast iron, you should always re-season it afterwards. Personally, I generally use mild soap and water on my cast iron and it works just fine. Also, if you wash your cast iron before the food in it starts drying out, a quick scrub in plain water is often sufficient to get it clean. However, don’t wash hot iron in cold water as there is a chance you could damage it. Also, you really only need to worry about cleaning the inside of the pan. Since the outside does not come in contact with food, it just needs a rinsing unless it is really dirty. Lids only need a rinse since they don’t normally have contact with food. Dry your cast iron thoroughly after washing to prevent rust.
If you notice rust, if your food starts sticking to the bottom or you over-scrubbed your cast iron with soap, all you need to do is re-season the pan. Keep it clean, seasoned and well-used and over time, your cast iron will build up a wonderful coat of black that imparts its own unique flavor and smoky goodness to your cooking. And it’s versatile, for everything from frying up homemade French fries to making corn bread for a chili feed. Enough singing the praises of cast iron; here is a recipe especially suited to it.
Mom’s Famous Pork Chops
1 lb pork chops
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can water
1) Brown pork chops on both sides in either a cast iron Dutch oven or cast iron skillet
2) Pour mushroom soup and water over them, cover
3) Let simmer an hour or until tender
4) Serve over rice