The Culinary Charm of Cast Iron
By Marc Bouchard
Fiddlehead Contributing Writer
After years of hiding in the closet, cast iron cookware has emerged as the darling of the culinary world. Forty years ago, all the iron manufacturers in the Lower 48, but one, had closed shop. Now, suddenly, there is a surge of artisan workshops producing state-of-the-art iron cookware, which rival the antiques of a century ago.
Why the sudden surge in interest in this archaic tool? Aren’t modern pots of mixed aluminum, steel and Teflon infinitely better? Aren’t we supposed to be cooking everything in our instant pots?
I ask myself that question on a regular basis. I’ve lost count of how many pieces of cast iron I’ve owned; 25 seems to be the best estimate, most of them antiques at 50 to 70 years old.
Are they the best pans in the world? No. Are they easy to care, store and maintain? Ha! Are they inexpensive? Sometimes, but not always; a 100-year-old Griswold will cost you as much as a brand-new All-Clad or Le Creuset.
So why do I use them?
Because cast iron pans have personality. In an age of mass-produced uniformity, each pan that I own is unique. Before I tackle a recipe, I don’t just consider the proper size pan that I need, but the different weights, thickness and even the “feel” of each pan. Most importantly, food looks better in cast iron; the crusty black rim lends an air of authenticity to every gumbo, jambalaya and braise that I make.
Indeed, certain styles of cooking are almost unthinkable without a cast iron skillet. Barbecued beans, short ribs, southern fried chicken and the entire oeuvre of Cajun and Creole cooking don’t taste the same when prepared in stainless steel.
You literally can’t get the proper crust on a cornbread without iron. Even soups seem to take on a deeper flavor when simmered in a cast iron Dutch oven.
If you’ve just been bitten by the bug, a good starter pan is the 10-inch Lodge skillet, available for $15 to $22 in stores like Things Are Cooking in Concord and Board & Basket in Lebanon.
Lodge products, made since 1896 in Tennessee, are rugged, cheap, available in dozens of sizes and styles and, best of all, pre-seasoned. (A “seasoned” cast iron pan has a thin, impermeable layer protecting its surface.) If you need another recommendation, for decades Lodge has been the pan of choice for the America’s Test Kitchen.
If you want to up your game, move to either antiques or one of the new artisan makers. Many of the modern manufacturers emulate the thinner construction of the antiques, but the prices are higher. A 10-inch Field will run you $100 more than a comparable Lodge. There are a lot of great deals to be had online for individual items and sets. One site to keep an eye on is Gear Patrol.
Make Mine Steak
Ask any professional what cast iron is good for, and steak is always near the top of the list. Why? Because absolutely no process gives them that perfect crust that enhances the aroma and seals in the juices and flavor.
This works for all types of steak, including beef, pork, lamb and even seafood. Here are two easy recipes to make the most of your skillet.
Swordfish, cut a half-inch to an inch in thickness, cooks very quickly in a hot pan. The classic blackening recipes of Paul Prudhomme call for an insanely hot pan, which create a somewhat burnt crust and lots of kitchen smoke.
I prefer a somewhat lower heat, which yields a golden to dark-brown exterior and sweet, juicy meat. Works equally well for tuna, mahi, salmon, catfish and mako.
The next recipe features umami-rich miso, sweet potatoes, ginger-flavored oil, flash-fried steak and a sweet-and sour sauce. What’s not to like?
Do your prep while the sweet potatoes are roasting, and the steak, because it’s cut into pieces, takes just about five minutes to cook.
This dish is a riff on a Jamie Oliver recipe. As noted in the miso comments the marinade can be upgraded with more ingredients. But one of the joys of this dish is the minimal number of ingredients.
Miso soup is on the menu of every Japanese restaurant and can be found in almost every supermarket in America. But otherwise miso is one of the forgotten great ingredients of the cooking world.
What is miso? It’s essentially a paste of fermented soybeans, with traces of rice or barley added. What makes it special? It combines a super-umami flavor punch with the health benefits of natural probiotics. It’s a legitimate superfood.
There are many varieties of miso, ranging in color and flavor from a mild, slightly sweet pale blonde to an intense, rich Burgundy red. Within the paste is some salt, a sensually funky aroma, and a ton of flavorful glutamates that enhance whatever it touches.
It makes a savory, and healthy, addition to soups, stews and sauces. I’m using it “straight” as a marinade, but you could add chopped garlic, herbs, hot peppers, sesame oil and soy sauce for a marinade with more zip.