Chef Notes: Cast Iron Cookware

Chef Notes: Cast Iron Cookware

Nothing brings back more memories of both of my grandmothers than cast iron cook wear. They are a staple in every respectable “old school” home cook’s, not to mention all professional chef’s, kitchens.

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As I stood watching my mother making southern style green beans over the weekend I was reminded of cleaning blue lake green beans grown every year by my paternal grandparents. We would gather around the TV with the sound of the enormous window unit AC humming and Vanna spinning her magic on Wheel of Fortune, everyone with bowls in their laps snapping the stems off the beans. My grandmother always had a large garden and our summers were spent not only having fun but also helping with the canning and freezing of a variety of fruits and vegetables. Beans were one of my favorite dishes. She always cooked them in her cast iron Dutch oven with plenty of rendered bacon fat and maybe a ham bone, if she had one lying around, but definitely a few left over pieces of bacon or ham or sausage or a pork chop or two. You get the picture – pork. Sometimes she would throw in new potatoes and a roughly chopped onion, sometimes not. The fact is, it didn’t really matter. Her cast iron was so seasoned that the beans tasted about the same regardless. They were heaven on a plate. Pair them with a nice slice of Vidalia onion, a chunk of corn bread (also baked in cast iron), a couple slices of ripe Blunt County tomatoes, a seriously hot banana pepper or two and who knows what else and it was a meal you’d never forget, even though it was a meal you’d eaten a thousand times before and will eat another thousand times in your life. It was magic.

What made most of my grandmothers cooking so wonderful was of course the love felt for her family but also the fact that she was using cast iron for almost everything. Pot roast, beef stew, chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, hearty greens, fried green tomatoes, stewed squash, tomato gravy, pork chops, biscuits, corn bread, and spaghetti sauce just  to name a few were always cooked in cast iron. She even had a special one set aside for cobblers, fruit hand pies, and caramel frosting.  I’m proud to say that I have a skillet passed down from my great grandmother. The bottom is so slick from years of use that it is as nonstick and my Teflon omelet pan.  I also have a full complement of skillets; one is so heavy I can barely lift it, and a dutch oven of my own.

Cast iron is versatile.  You can use it on the stove top or in the oven. It heats evenly and the clean-up is super easy.  Also, you actually get a boost in your iron levels when you use cast iron regularly. How many pans can you say actually impart an important mineral into your diet?  The key to cast iron is seasoning and proper care.  Being a good southern girl I season mine with bacon grease. But if you are vegetarian, you can use vegetable oil. You only need enough to create a light sheen. Use a paper towel to rub it all over your cook wear. Then throw it in a low temperature oven for a couple of hours. To clean them after use simply wipe or rinse out. You should avoid using soap as it will remove the seasoning, but if you find that you really need a little soap just be sure to wipe it down with a little more oil. Always thoroughly dry your cook wear with a paper towel after cleaning.  If something sticks wipe out as much as you can, sprinkle some coarsely ground salt into the bottom and scrub until clean. Then rinse, dry, and wipe down with some oil. Never, never, never put cast iron into the dishwasher. That is a no-no and probably the only down side. Oh, one other thing, be sure that you have oven mitts handy. The handles get hot. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally grabbed one by the handle and almost thrown it across the room.  I finally got a few of the type that slide right over the handle.

As you use your cook wear it will become more and more seasoned. You’ll find that your dishes are more flavorful.

 

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