The past few years I’ve been working on learning how to use an old tool. This tool is one that generations of a our forebears before us have relied upon for durable cookware – whether over a campfire, on a cook stove, or with a newfangled electric range.
I’m talking about cast iron. I am a new convert to this old school tool, but I am gradually discovering the joys. And building up my forearms in the process.
I acquired a couple enamel coated Dutch ovens 3 or 4 years ago as I learned to bake round loaves of bread (including sourdough). But I’m still fairly new to the seasoning and care process of plain black cast iron cookware.
We had one antique cast iron pan in the house when I was growing up. it was my father’s and only he ever used it. Otherwise I learned to cook with stainless steel and teflon. Thus, my need to learn “now” how to use this old reliable cooking method.
Learning how to cook with cast iron isn’t really that hard, it’s just a little different. A pan takes longer to heat up, but retains the heat and cooks more evenly once it does. I discovered this when learning to make and can homemade jam. A cast iron pot holds the heat and keeps the jelly and jam from cooling off too quickly while you are ladling it into jars to put in the canner. Homemade jam is a lot harder to pour it once it starts to gel. My jelly kettle was enameled cast iron, so I didn’t have to worry about clean up. But plain cast iron requires special care.
Seasoning cast iron
Besides its weight, bare black cast iron has one big drawback – it requires more care and attention to “seasoning” than modern cookware. But there are those who would argue that once a good season is accomplished that cast iron is very easy care and will last for generations.
Basically, “seasoning” involves building up a multilayered coating of polymerized oil on the surfaces of the iron. This not only serves as a barrier to moisture and rust, it also makes the cooking surfaces fairly non-stick. A well-seasoned cast iron pan is a treasure, and the fastest way to get written out of grandma’s will is to put such a pan in the dishwasher.
Cleaning cast iron
The enemy of well-seasoned cast iron is soaking in soap and water. Thus, it requires a bit of kitchen re-training to learn how to properly clean cast iron without ruining the season. Those of us who grew up with “squeaky clean” as the gold standard of dishwashing need to change our perspective. The trick with cast iron is to remove any stuck-on food without removing the polymerized oil protective finish.
There are many opinions on how best to accomplish that task, and many videos on the internet. Likewise there are many YouTube videos on how best to properly season a new (or refurbished old) cast iron pan. Thus, I won’t go into that here, as I am still learning my own “best practices”. But I encourage you to do some searching and figure out which method and which seasoning (from flaxseed oil to bacon grease) works best for you.
Cast iron versatility
Granted, the weight of cast iron means that you can’t take it on a bug-out on foot. But a car bug-out is not out of the question, and sheltering-in-place is a perfect opportunity to use your ferrous treasures – because it doesn’t matter whether you use it on the house stove, a camp stove, on the grill, or over a backyard campfire. You can’t always say that about modern cookware. Thus, barring backpacking treks, cast iron can be your best choice for a wide variety of situations and heat sources.
Vintage vs New
Cast iron aficionados will tell you that there is nothing like the good old smooth antique and vintage cast iron pans. Since they are nearly indestructible, even rusted ugly old flea market finds are likely to clean up quite nicely with some TLC. But beware antique dealers and collectors because they usually know what they have and will charge you an arm and a leg. Estate sales and thrift shops might be your better bet. Or you can just buy new. Lodge is a “Made in America” company and has been in business for generations, but some of the imported brands seem to work just fine as well. I have two vintage/antique pieces in my kitchen but the rest are new.
You can buy virtually any style of cast iron you can imagine. They come with lids, without lids, with legs, without legs, flat top, dome top, large, medium and small. And then there are the cute little options like corn shaped cornbread pans if you want to go wild.
But you don’t need to go wild to get started. One skillet and one Dutch oven with a single lid to fit both should serve almost all of your cooking needs in a “bare necessities” type situation. You can even buy them in camping sets for that purpose. With that outfit you should be able to stew, fry, sautéed, steam, and even bake bread or a pie. With cast iron you can also go from stovetop directly to oven without blinking. A couple of accessories that I would also recommend are a silicone handle cover and a chain mail scrubber.
So far my own cast iron adventures have only taken place in a modern kitchen. I don’t have a fireplace in my home, but I would like to learn some hearth cooking techniques. So I’ll be lighting up the outdoor fire ring in the new year, watching YouTube videos, and seeing what I can accomplish.
I’ll keep you posted.