Cast Iron Techniques?
Recently I bought a cast iron skillet—a 10" Lodge Pre-seasoned. I've done research on the subject of cast-iron cookery for the last week or so. The bulk of the info that turns up explains how to season (which I've done numerous times) or wash the pan, and how much better food tastes in an iron pan. There is, however, relatively little info on how to cook in the damned thing.
So far, I've been cooking the way I always have with decent results, but I want to know more. Are there any cooking techniques that are specific to Cast Iron? What techniques simply do not work?—I know from lurking on these forums that deglazing is a controversial subject.
In other words: how do I get the most from my pan?
I'm a cast iron fiend. Since my husband and I moved in together his expensive All Clad skillet has hardly gotten any play because I prefer cast iron and do most of the cooking. I have a baby one, a 10" and a 12." One of them was free because the cashier at the church tag sale felt bad charging me for something so crusty! I also have an uncoated dutch oven I don't use much and two enameled cast iron ovens that I use all the time. I will probably buy a corn stick pan next time I see one at a flea market.
The most important thing I can think of is to use moderate heat since cast iron gets and stays hot.
Fun with cast iron:
Bake cornbread in a preheated and greased pan. It gets crisp and tasty.
Deep dish pizza.
Any stovetop to oven dish. Jerk pork tenderloin is my favorite.
Use it instead of a pizza stone for baking bread
Yummy scrambled eggs, fried eggs (be really careful with the heat for eggs and use enough fat)
Quick, effective veggie stir fry action
Dry toast nuts and spices
Use as grill weight, tofu press weight
Use as roasting pan. My 12" skillet is great for this.
Excellent meat searing
The only time I've used my uncoated dutch oven this year was to fry something. It's really good for frying because it maintains an even temperature. Frying is also good for the seasoning.
Pancakes take some trial and error in a new pan. Use lots of oil and a lower flame than you would think.
Cooking without any fat unless you're cooking something that will grease itself or toasting nuts or spices.
Cooking cold, straight from the fridge tofu or potatoes. They will stick like crazy. Cold starchy anything is a bad idea.
Making tomato sauce
Long, slow, wet stuff, especially in a new pan. It's not good for the seasoning. You can do it in a well seasoned pan but there are other pans that do it better.
Don't be afraid of a little lemon juice, tomato or vinegar in a recipe, just don't go crazy with the acid, especially not with a new pan. I make pan sauces in my cast iron and they turn out fine, although I prefer my enameled cast iron for deglazing and pan sauces.
When I need a lid I usually use a basic restaurant supply store style aluminum pot lid on my skillets and it works well.
Shallow pan frying comes to mind first.....then steaks for searing before finishing in the oven. I also like to cook potato pancakes, home fries and hash browns to obtain the best crispy crust. Corn bread with or with out Jalapenos.
Two dishes I only cook with cast iron....Chicken Fried Steak with Milk Gravy .....and, on a pan turned upside down heated cherry red, Blackened Fish.
Understand that pre-heating porous metal pans helps, as it tightens the pores and thus reduces the chance for sticking (this is also true for some non-stick cookware, btw, though you're not supposed to leave non-stick pans empty over heat for long).
So anything that might stick but that needs to start in a cold pan is not usually the best candidate for cast iron. For example, very creamy scrambled eggs.
One of the techniques I recently learned is perfect for your cast iron pan, after it has had a chance to season just a bit. This technique is in Rick Moonan's Fish Without A Doubt, so involves fish.
Place your pan in the oven on the rack closest to your broiler. Turn the broiler on and let the pan heat up for 15 minutes. [If you have a broiler that turns off, prop open the oven door to ensure that the heat source continues to fire.]
This is best done with skin-on fish, but skin off is okay too. Dry and then lightly salt/pepper the fillets. Melt one tbl butter per fillet and then cover the skin side and top of fillet with the butter. On the non-skin side apply some bread crumbs, with or without herbs.
When the cast iron pan is very hot, smoking even, carefully remove from the broiler. Gently place the fish, skin-side down into the pan. It will make a marvelous sizzle sound, and return the pan to the oven. Let the fish broil for approximately 8 minutes. Remove pan with fish from the oven and serve.
I don't know why this technique makes some of the best fish I have ever had, but it does.
Other things I like to make in my cast iron on top of the stove are potatoes sauteed in duck fat, potato or zuchinni pancakes [though they are almost fritter like], omlettes [after it is really well-seasoned]. In the summer, I make vegetable "cakes." Sauteé some garlic and tomatoes with onion. Then lay sliced vegetables (like summer squash, over the top, before sprinkling with a touch of cheese, Then I pop it into the oven for a simple side dish.
And of course, twice a year... fried chicken.
I've read that cast iron doesn't distribute heat as evenly and quickly as copper or aluminum, and the area right over the flame or burner will be hotter than further from the center. (Don't use cast iron myself.) Suggests that you'd need to pay pretty close attention to what's happening in the pan and perhaps move the pan or its contents to keep from over- or under-cooking any of it.
re: Karl S
Agreed. Preheating cast iron is incredibly important. I don't typically have hot spots but I take the time to preheat!
I have an electric range and I can say that I prefer to cook with cast iron on a gas range -- it seems to ameliorate the hot-spot issue and take less time to heat evenly.
Agree. Cast iron cookware response slowerly for two reasons. One is what you have mentioned, thermal conduction. Two is that most cast iron cookware are made much much thicker and heavier than copper and aluminum cookware, as such there is greater heat capacity and further lengthen the heat response.
Cornbread, cornbread, cornbread. Preferably sweet.
Despite what advocates will tell you, cast iron _does_ have a central hot spot stove-top (especially gas), so I prefer it in the oven or for a steak or something else centrally located (unless I actually want to cook something around the edges more slowly--which does happen from time to time).
Frittatas. My god, they're delicious in cast iron! I've made them forever, but this summer--having become a vintage cast iron addict--I started using my Griswold, and the results have been insanely good: just a little crispy on the outside, puffed almost like a souffle..and there's almost no clean up involved.
Corn bread: always fine.
Dutch Babies: the name still cracks me up. ;-) Likewise, clafoutis..
Roasted asparagus (just tossed in olive oil and placed in a sizzling hot skillet in a hot oven till tender and started to char)
Pork roasts are made for cast iron dutch ovens: just cook them, as my mama used to say, "till they fall apart and you can't resist."
Surprisingly <g> the best recipe I've found was in the fairly new cookbook, The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook: Recipes for the Best Pan in Your Kitchen, by Sharon Kramis and Julie Kramis Hearne. I've got a few of these "specialty" cast iron cookbooks, and most aren't worth the paper they're printed on...but this one is pretty nice, with a few very unusual recipes and quite a few reliable versions of standards.
I don't know if I can post the entire recipe here (copyright violations?) but I can list her ingredients and temperature. Maybe you can take it from there?
2 TBS butter
4 extra large eggs
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup milk
(I added a pinch of salt)
The butter goes in the skillet. The rest goes in a blender...the temp. is 425.
IF you want toppings, she suggests:
3 TBS butter
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup powdered sugar
Maybe this is too obvious, but one thing that I learned when I started using my cast iron (and carbon steel) frying pans is to let the food cook undisturbed in the pan for a couple of minutes before attempting to move it. Unlike non-stick, cast iron is kind of "stick then release". If you try to move the food too soon, it may still be in the "stuck to the pan" phase and not release cleanly.
re: tanuki soup
I like that: "stick then release." I think you're right. I think cast iron has a strange way of holding fond when you're braising meats while still being able to let go of scrambled eggs. In my Enamel-coated steel pans, fond sometimes will not deglaze easily—but I've not had a problem deglazing cast iron yet.
The real problem I have is getting fond to stick to the pan in the first place. Perhaps I keep the pan on too low a flame with too much oil. The seasoning has gotten halfway to where I want it, so I guess it is more "non-stick" than I realize.
One thing to keep in mind: while Lodge and the others sell cast iron that is pre-seasoned, it is not well seasoned. Your cast iron will continue to develop seasoning all it's life. The majority of my cast iron was my great-grandmother's. She got it when she married in 1910 and it's been in continual use ever since. I have a round griddle, 2 Dutch ovens, 6" skillet, 8" skillet, 10" skillet and chicken fryer. (The chicken fryer is a deep skillet.) I also have a 10" square skillet that was a wedding gift to me 32 years ago. These are my most treasured kitchen possessions.
Because I grew up with cast iron, I almost have a hard time thinking of what not to use it for. Mine are used to cook bacon, eggs, hash browns, searing just about anything that needs it, make pancakes, marinara sauce, chili, roux, cornbread, fry tofu or chicken or quail or fish, make gravy, sauté the trinity, roast beets and other veggies, bake stuffed onions, peppers, squash, tomatoes or mushrooms, toasting nuts, and numerous other things. And I've used them for pan sauces, though not too often when using wine. My g-grandmother also used them to fry round steak or venison, then make an gravy and finish off in the oven. (We don't eat red meat, so I don't use them for that.)
By sizing the skillet to the size of the cooktop eye on an electric stove, I don't have a problem with hot spots. One of the beauties of cast iron is that once it is heated, it is better at maintaining an even temperature than pans made of other metals. I have used all levels of heat from the stove, depending on what I am cooking. But I do prefer cooking on a gas stove.
Enjoy your new skillet. It should become a valuable piece of equipment.
Pic of soup (in a Staub pot) and cornbread in a 10" cast iron skillet.
I did check the lodge website for tips. They say that (1) cold food is prone to sticking and that (2) I should always preheat a pan slowly (both of which I thought applied to all cookware). Their website, however, contains mostly recipes, and I'm looking for specific *techniques* that I might apply to all of my cooking.