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Getting Old Fashioned with Cast Iron

I love cooking in cast iron pans. I’ve had one around for my entire adult life and these days I suppose I have too many: two 9-inchers (one which lives in the camping box), the big 12-incher, and the extra-deep 9-incher with a lid which doubles as yet another pan.

I found my first cast iron pan in a box of assorted junk in my parents’ garage, where it sat for years when I was growing up. Mom had an enameled cast iron soup pot but no un-coated cast iron pans in the kitchen. When I moved out on my own to live in a little storefront painting studio on Ossington Avenue here in Toronto, I needed a pan and remembered the one in the garage, unloved and in need of rescue.

 It was dirty and rusty but with nothing to lose, and not much budget to buy housewares, I tried to clean it up. I soaked it in hot soapy water and scrubbed off the rust with steel wool. After drying it off with paper towels, I rubbed in vegetable oil, which I cooked into the pan in a hot oven. I did this a couple more times until the surface of the pan took on a thoroughly seasoned finish.   That was maybe 35 years ago and I still use that pan today.

Some people think cast iron pans need lots of regular care, but the little bit of care they do require is quick and easy. Dry your pan well after washing, and now and then re-season it with that happy combination of a little vegetable oil and some heat. Easy-peasy. In a normal indoor environment, it won’t rust, and the more you use it the better it gets.

For a few years, I lived in a painting studio in what was once an old casket factory, divided up and rented out to artists and musicians. The fact is that none of us were supposed to live there, but most of the tenants did just that. Every now and then the Department of Buildings and Inspections decided it was time to go in for a look and they would make an appointment with the building management. The superintendent of the place would send around a notice, saying The City would be looking for stoves and beds and he was confident they wouldn’t find any. As a result, I had a need for portability, so my cooking station consisted of a two-burner hotplate and a toaster oven. Perfect for the cast iron cook.

By necessity, in those days, I did a lot of one-pan cooking. Here’s the way I went about it. Brown a couple chicken thighs well, then take them out and set them aside. Toss some onions in the pan and cook them until they start to caramelize, then add a few mushrooms, a potato, maybe a chopped up carrot or whatever else is the fridge. Don’t forget salt and pepper and whatever herbs you like. Herbs de Provence works well and is wonderfully aromatic. Return the chicken to the pan. Splash in some of the beer you’ve been drinking along with a little water and let the whole business simmer away.  By the time the chicken is ready, the liquid will have cooked down to a sauce, and the whole concoction will be yummy.

Sometimes I would use a pork blade steak or some tough cut of beef instead of chicken, and add more liquid and increase the cooking time. Other days I’d skip the potatoes and use my second burner to cook some rice. By changing up the dry herbs or by adding plenty of fresh herbs in season, or using different combinations of vegetables, the possibilities were endless.

The cast iron pan is what gives skillet cornbread its unique character.  I use half cornmeal and half self-rising flour (or all purpose flour + baking powder), milk or buttermilk, salt, melted butter or vegetable oil, and a couple eggs to make a batter. I don’t use an electric mixer for this. A wooden spoon works just fine. Just mix the stuff together enough to make a batter, no fuss,no muss. One thing you absolutely need is a very hot pan. You could add a little oil to the pan or a combination of oil and butter or you can go deliciously crazy and cook up some chopped up bacon in the pan then put it in a hot oven for a few minutes to heat up the entire pan. Then add the batter and bake it up. The resulting cornbread will be a bit crispy on the bottom and will separate perfectly from the pan. Oh, and it is unspeakably delicious.

 My deep pan, the one with the lid, is the only cast iron pan I bought new from a store. The best place to get them is garage sales or even at antique markets. There is usually a glut of old cast iron around, and they are often available for a song. I bought the deep pan new, though, for bread baking – although I use it for many things. I make no-knead sourdough and for a long time, I baked it in an enameled Dutch oven. The idea of the Dutch oven within an oven is to keep in the steam. After a half hour baking with the lid on, I remove the lid and bake for another 15 minutes. However, the high temperature I use for baking bread (500 F) eventually took its toll on my Dutch oven and chunks of enamel were popping off. Now I use my deep cast iron pan for baking bread, and no, the loaf does not stick to the pan.

Let me dispel some myths. Cast iron skeptics will tell you with a smirk, oh you can’t cook eggs in a pan like that. In fact, as long as your pan is well seasoned you can. There are two conditions to meet to do this successfully. The first is to heat up the pan well before cooking. This takes a few minutes and I know in today’s insta-world, taking the time to do this is unbearable for some people. The other condition is you need to cook your eggs using a little bit more fat than you would in “non-stick”pan.

A second myth is you can’t cook tomatoes in cast iron. Some people say the acid in the tomatoes will react with the pan, adding iron to your food and giving it a metallic taste. The truth is that once your pan is well-seasoned, you can cook tomatoes in it without any issues or effect on taste.

The third myth is that you can’t wash cast iron pans with soap. I’ve heard this one since I was a child. I’m not sure how people who perpetuate this myth think these pans can be cleaned with no soap. I use dish soap and water, and if necessary I soak my pan in hot soapy water for a while before washing. If you have to really scrub your pan, re-season when you’re done. In all cases, dry your cast iron pan really well.

There is something enduring about cast iron. I like that it’s old technology. Cooking with cast iron encourages you to take your time, and I like that too. OK, I’ll confess I’m also a guy who can’t imagine why anyone would use a gas bbq when charcoal is available, and it’s true we have never had a microwave in the house. We don’t own a crock pot or a fancy pressure cooker either. I’ll take my old cast iron any day.

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