Iron Chef: Cast Iron Is the Original Nonstick Surface

Devotees of cast-iron cookware are fond of calling it “the original” nonstick pan. But it wasn’t until I lived in Alabama that I came to appreciate the hardworking charms of a humble cast-iron skillet. Southern home cooks are particularly attached to their cast iron, which is often passed down from their mamas and which years of cooking have endowed with a gorgeous dark seasoned patina that’s an amazing stick-resistant surface.

cast-iron-cookwareCooks prize cast iron because it heats slowly and evenly and retains heat better than just about any other material. It’s great for high-heat cooking, to sear a steak or scallops, for instance. A deep skillet is ideal for frying chicken.

If you happen to have a cast-iron skillet languishing in the back of your cupboard, now’s the time to rescue it form obscurity and re-season it. If your mom didn’t pass along a family skillet, get one now. It’s a small investment (about $20) for an heirloom-quality piece of cookware. You can find cast-iron pots and pans at any housewares store and many hardware stores, or online. Most new cast-iron pans come preseasoned and ready to cook. But even those will need occasional re-seasoning when you notice  food starts sticking to the pan.

There are nearly as many ways to season cast-iron cookware as there are cooks, and everyone swears theirs  is the One True Method. Some cooks swear by animal fat (i.e., lard) for seasoning; others say you should never use animal fat. Some sources say you must bake the oiled pot in a high oven; others advocate a low oven. This is the method an Alabama friend shared with me:

  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  • Generously coat a clean skillet with fat (I like canola oil, which has a neutral flavor). Rub the pan with a paper towel to blot up any excess oil.
  • Bake the pan the oven for about an hour.
  • Remove the pan from the oven. Let it stand until it’s cool enough to handle. Reapply oil and bake again. You can repeat the oiling/baking process several times, if you like.

If you use, clean and store your cast-iron properly, you’ll rarely need to re-season it:

  • Always preheat the pan and add a little fat to it before adding any food.
  • While the pan is still warm, but cool enough to handle, clean it by rinsing it with hot water (no soap necessary) and (if needed) scrubbing it with a stiff brush. If any food does cling to the surface, sprinkle it with coarse salt, and scrub it off. Some people say you should never use dish soap, though the folks at Lodge say it’s OK. In any case, never put a cast-iron pan in the dishwasher. Dry the pan immediately and thoroughly to prevent rust.
  • Apply a thin layer of oil to the pan’s interior, and store it uncovered. If you need to store a lid with it, or stack other pans on top of it, place a clean folded paper towel in the pan to allow a little air to circulate.

If you’ve got an old cast-iron pan that needs restoring, here’s an easy method from Lodge (yes, it’s not exactly the same as the method above, but remember, there’s room for variation):

And don’t forget to use your pan often. The more you cook with it, the better seasoned it will be and the less often you’ll need to re-season it!

MacGyver Moves in the Kitchen

By Alison Ashton

Remember the TV show “MacGyver,” in which the hero adapted whatever was at hand to save the day like using a paperclip to diffuse a bomb? At NOURISH Evolution, we’re all about making full use of ingredients, and the same goes for equipment. Nothing brings out your culinary MacGyver like working in a professional kitchen, as Jennifer Schaertl, learned as a chef in four-star restaurants, where kitchens typically are cramped, and there never seems to be enough equipment to go around. Many strategies common to the restaurant kitchen can help space-strapped home cooks, too, and Shaertl shares her tips in her new book Gourmet Meals in Crappy Little Kitchens (Health Communications).

macgyver-postShaertl puts a practical, cheerful spin on cooking in “CLKs” (crappy little kitchens), and her strategies can help even if your kitchen isn’t so tight. A well-organized CLK is a remarkably efficient and pleasurable place to cook–everything is close at hand, and you have less crap to clean up at the end.

The key is to pare down your equipment and choose items that can multitask. For example, Schaertl says you only need three knives: A good-quality 6- to 8-inch chef’s knife, a serrated bread knife, and a paring knife. (Though Kurt contends–and I agree–a boning knife is nice, too, but it’s optional.) One of Shaertl’s favorite tools is an easy-to-store stacking 12-quart stockpot with a strainer and steamer basket, which you can use to make stock, cook-and-strain pasta, and steam vegetables. The pot’s steamer basket also can double as a colander.

In the CLK spirit, here are five specialty tools you can easily improvise with items you probably already have:

Microplane/mandolin. A four-sided box grater as a versatile tool that can stand in for both a microplane and a mandolin, says Schaertl. Use it to grate cheese or veggies for slaw, as well as finely grate lemon zest, garlic, ginger, and chocolate, or thinly slice mushrooms. The more often you use it, the more uses you’ll find for it.

Meat mallet. This is one of Shaertl’s space-wasting “CLK Saboteurs.” Instead, pound that veal cutlet for scallopini with the bottom of a heavy skillet or saucepan, and use a fork to tenderize meat.

Panini press. These things are terrible space hogs. If you love panini, make them on the stovetop in a grill pan or regular skillet and weigh down the sandwich with another heavy skillet, saucepan, or Dutch oven.

Sifter. “This thing is the epitome of the one-trick pony,” Shaertl writes. I agree, and use the $5 fine-mesh strainer I bought years ago at Walmart to sift flour, sift powdered sugar over baked goods, and strain sauces.

Double boiler. This is a gizmo in which one pan nests inside another; the larger pan holds simmering water to gently heat whatever is in the top pan. It’s just a fancy version of an old-school bain-marie (water bath) that you can create with any saucepan and heatproof bowl, as we do here with our Kitchen MacGyver Lemon Curd.

Now that I think of it, making better use of fewer tools instead of cluttering the kitchen with lots of random gadgets is the very spirit of sustainability. How do you make your kitchen equipment pull double, triple, or even quadruple duty? Let us know!