Saturday, April 18, 2009

Cast iron addendum

I just read an article praising cast iron cookware, which is a good thing. It talked about the durability and even heating of cast iron, which I was thrilled to see after reading the ill-informed bashing the Consumer Reports site gave it.

However, it then went on to say that cast iron also imparts iron into the food cooked in it, and said this was a good thing because we need iron to make red blood cells.

Well... We do use iron to make red blood cells. This much is true. However, since most of us are not anemic, and make red blood cells just fine, iron is not something we need to worry about supplementing. Women tend to use it more than men, because, of course, women need to regularly replace blood. But, most of us seem to get plenty of it from the food we eat without even having to think about it. We get it from plants and from meat, and some of us even get it in the water we drink.

However, an excess of iron in the diet can be a problem. Excess iron is not something that simply gets flushed out of the body like other water or fat soluble vitamins and minerals. Iron hangs around, and where it hangs around is in your liver, heart and endocrine glands. Where it basically acts like a bunch of iron filings that are being pushed against the surface of meat. Ever been filing a piece of metal, and gotten a sliver of it that was so tiny it was invisible to the naked eye stuck into the end of your finger? If not, ask someone who does that sort of thing. It can be quite painful and annoying. And that's just one little sliver.

Okay, I hope I don't have to paint a picture for you, aside from telling you that too much iron in your diet is a bad thing. Not "can be," or "might be," but IS.

And speaking of pictures, my friend Jack tells me there should always be pictures visible, and never just text. However, since I am currently writing about internal organs, and what is more, distressed internal organs, I rather think I will forgo the pictures at this point. I'm also rather hoping my readers will actually be readers. From what I gather, many blog readers don't much like reading, which is something I find a bit perplexing.

At any rate, before you run screaming in terror from your cast iron cookware, remember this: I told you how to season it. Seasoning your cast iron puts a coating on it which insulates the food from the cast iron, and vice-versa. And the more you (properly) use it, the thicker that coating gets. And that coating is a lot tougher than paint.

So, neither will you supplement the iron in your diet by using seasoned cast iron cookware, or have to worry about it. :)

I have to wonder, however, how many people died of liver disorders as a result of the Geritol commercials I used to see back in the sixties.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Okay, I was going to continue here with some tips on knife care and maintenance, but my friend Jack over at the "The Best Sauces," and "Cooking With Jack" blogs is holding up his video demo of how to season cast iron pans until I get this article done. Jack is really a great guy, and has several good sites, you can see them in my links section. Go take a look at his stuff, you'll like it. And if you came from his site, and merely want to know how to season cast iron pans, please feel free to skip down to the bottom of this article. However, if you elect to read your way down, you may find out some interesting stuff. :)

Anyway, if you are like the average person, you have probably never used a cast-iron pan, nor can you imagine why you would want to. Cast-iron is the Rodney Dangerfield of cookware these days. "I don't get no respect." And this is a shame. Believe me, I know. I used to think the same way.

Cast-iron is heavy. Cast-iron is black. Cast-iron is old technology. If you have a cast-iron pan, it is probably because your granny or great-granny handed it down, and you probably use it as a decoration rather than cooking in it. Or, perhaps you take it camping, and only cook in it over the campfire, or in the coals.

After all, you don't want your good avocado-colored aluminum pans to be blackened and disfigured by a cookfire, right? The ones with the teflon coating that would bubble and flake, and the aluminum body that would warp, and eventually melt? On the other hand, you don't worry a bit when you plunge your cast-iron Dutch oven into the red-hot coals. Why? Because cast iron is extremely tough and durable. If you inherited your cast iron from an ancestor, this is why. Can you imagine your grandchildren inheriting your teflon-coated frying pan?

And, no, I am not building up to saying that after reading this article you will want to get rid of your regular pots and pans and cook exclusively with cast-iron. More modern pans do have advantages in many situations. However, the thing that cast iron has over almost all other types of cookware is mass. The more mass a pan has, the more slowly it will change temperature, all else being equal. Admittedly, this can be a disadvantage at times. Those of you who cook on gas ranges probably know the joys of quick response; you turn the burner to high, and it is almost instantly as hot as it will get. Turn it back to low, and it is almost instantly as cool as it gets, with the only lag being in the heat of the metal that supports the pan, and the pan itself.

Professional kitchens make good use of the responsiveness of their gas ranges by using aluminum pans. Aluminum is very low in mass, comparatively speaking, and so it heats and cools very quickly. Cast-iron, on the other hand, is high in mass, and so it heats and cools very slowly.

You may be wondering at this point where the advantage might be in using a pot or pan that heats so slowly, and holds on to its heat for so long. So I will ask you this: have you ever cooked something a batch at a time, and discovered that the first batch cooked in a certain amount of time, but then the second batch took longer, and so on? Perhaps somewhere down the line you burned a batch, because you just couldn't seem to get the hang of the rhythm of the temperature variations? This happens often with modern pots and pans, because they heat and cool so quickly. You get a pan hot, put cold food in it, wait 'til it is done, put the next batch of cold food in, which cools the pan, so you turn the heat up, wait 'til the second batch is done, put the third batch in, burn it, turn the heat back down...

Cast-iron is a wonderful medium in such cases. It gets hot, and stays consistently hot with very little variation. It is especially good for deep-frying, because once you get the pan and the oil up to temperature, it laughs at the comparatively small masses of food you put in it to be fried. Do this in aluminum, and the temperature of your oil will be yo-yoing all over the place.

But, the key here is "once you get the pan and the oil up to temperature." I recently read something on the Consumer Reports site that said that they weren't even including cast-iron in their revue of pots and pans because it cooks so unevenly compared to modern cookware. And, it does, if you don't understand cast-iron. The problem is that the Consumer Reports people apparently lack patience. They should have preheated their pans.

You see, if you were to hold a blow-torch to the middle of the bottom of a 12" cast-iron frying pan, and hold the pan by its edge, chances are you would begin to see a red-hot spot on the opposite side of where the torch was applied long before the edge of the pan became uncomfortable to hold. Do the same thing with an aluminum pan, and it would soon sear your fingers.

Put the same cast-iron frying pan on a burner, set the burner on high, and the pan is going to get very hot in the middle before the edges get much more than warm. So, for instance, bacon cooked this way is going to be crispy in the middle, and nearly raw on the outside.

So how do you get around all this? By pre-heating the pan, or in the case of deep-frying, by pre-heating the pan and the oil. Preheating the pan is easy; just put it on the burner and let it heat for awhile. Learning to preheat the pan and oil can be a bit tricky, but in most cases, if you know where to set the burner on your stove so the oil will be hot enough in an aluminum pan, but will never get to the smoke-point, the same setting will hold true for the cast-iron pan. And if you do know this, just set the burner at that setting, and let the whole thing warm up for twenty or thirty minutes. Only after both the pan and the oil are at optimal temperature can you reap the benefits of cast-iron.

This may sound like a huge pain to you, and it kind of is. The thing is, though, if you don't cook huge batches of things very often, and especially if you don't fry or deep-fry things often enough to warrant buying a fryer, but want to occasionally make southern-fried chicken, or deep-fried fish, or calamari, or even french fries, cast-iron is the way to go. Dedicated deep-fryers are expensive, and a cast-iron pan that will do the same job is pretty cheap, by comparison.

But, before you can use a cast-iron pan, you need to know how to properly season it. Many cast-iron pans these days come "pre-seasoned," but I have never seen one that was really done properly. Most of the time they have a very thin coating of oil, and if you look closely, there will be round spots of bare metal where the oil bubbled and then disappeared.

Here are the proper steps to season a new unseasoned cast-iron pan:

1) Fashion a “drip tray” out of aluminum foil that is larger than the pan you are going to season, and place it on the bottom rack of the oven. The top rack should be at middle height, with the bottom rack just below it. (DON'T use a sheet pan as a drip tray, as many people recommend. The oil WILL drip onto it, and bake onto it, and make a coating of burnt oil, which will ruin your sheet pan.)

2) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

3) While preheating the oven, soak the pan in hot, soapy water for about five minutes, then scrub well, rinse, and towel dry. (Omit the soap if your pan is pre-seasoned.)

4) Put the pan in the oven just long enough to dry completely. Any water left will result in incomplete seasoning, so make sure it is completely dry. (but be careful not to burn yourself when you remove it.)

5) Remove pan from oven, and use a paper towel to coat it entirely with vegetable oil. Don't forget to do the entire outside, and the handle. Go over it twice to make sure you haven't missed any spots.

6) Put the pan back in the oven, upside-down in the center of the top rack, directly over the foil. Allow it to cure for an hour with the oven set to 350, then turn the oven off.

7) Let it stay in the oven until it is cool, remove it, (this will take a couple of hours) wipe any excess oil off with a paper towel, and store the pan.

A couple of points, here. First, a new pan that is not pre-seasoned will usually come with a coating of food-grade wax,and any wax left on the pan will prevent the oil from sticking. What's more, in the oven during the seasoning process, the wax will essentially evaporate, leaving a bare spot behind, which will eventually rust. This is why you must soak the pan in hot water, then scrub thoroughly.

With the pre-seasoned pans, they say you can go ahead and start cooking with them right after the initial rinse, but this does nothing to add to the thin seasoning they've applied on the outer surfaces and the handle. And since in my experience the factory pre-seasoning often leaves bare spots, it is a good idea to go ahead and season it yourself. It will certainly not hurt anything, and will prevent rust spots from developing later.

Second, if the bottom of the pan is not perfectly flat, (and it often isn't, especially on import pans) the oil will pool in the low spot, and polymerize there. Which means it will basically turn into plastic, which will be next to impossible to remove. This is why you must put the pan in upside-down.

Third, ideally, the entire cooking surface of your pan should be a rather shiny black. Any dull spots are going to be places where food may stick. Also, when you see pictures of "well seasoned" cast iron that look like they have rust spots on them, they are not well seasoned at all, merely used, and what's more, misused. Your pans should be uniformly black, with no rust-red anywhere.

As far as continued maintenance goes, whenever you are done cooking with the pan, get any crud off the bottom by deglazing with some water, then pour the water and residue out, and dump in a handful of salt and a little oil, scrub with a paper towel, wipe it clean, and store. A little common sense is in order, here. People tell you to never put cold water in a hot cast iron pan, and they are right, within reason. If you suddenly fill a very hot pan with ice water, chances are it will crack. Small amounts of cool tap water added slowly won't hurt anything, however. You needn't boil the water first like some paranoiacs suggest. Often, if I have been frying with oil. I will simply pour out the oil, give the pan a good wipe with a paper towel to remove any excess, and then plunk the pan right back on the burner for a few minutes over medium heat. This, of course, only adds to the seasoning inside the pan. Don't use the salt if you are doing it this way, and do make sure not to leave any excess oil that might pool in any low spots.

Regarding the salt, don't use expensive salt for cleaning, you're using it as an abrasive. Kosher salt will do fine. Save the sea salt for when you want its flavor. Don't wash your pan with soap, and most certainly do not put it in the dishwasher. You want that "burnt on" oil on the surface, and you don't want to subject your pan to anything that might remove it. A well-seasoned cast-iron pan can be as slick as a greased weasel, as long as you don't do anything to screw it up.

They say not to cook acidic things in cast iron, but I have found that after the pan is well broken in, it really is not a concern. Every time you cook something fat or use fat in the pan to cook, you are adding to the seasoning, and after a few uses you establish a coating on the surface that is pretty impervious. Acidic things will react with the metal, but not with the oil coating. I probably wouldn't marinate something in vinegar for hours in a cast-iron pan, but on the other hand I wouldn't be afraid to cook tomatoes in it. If acidic foods actually removed the seasoning from cast iron, as many claim, you could easily remove the accumulated grunge on a misused pan simply by soaking your pan in vinegar for a week or two. This, obviously, is not the case.

If you have a cast iron pan in your kitchen arsenal, give it a try the next time you need something that will keep the temperature even over many batches. And, there is no substitute when it comes to frying chicken, believe me. Want to sear a bunch of steaks? Get a cast iron pan rockin' hot, and go for it. You can even sandwich a steak or two between two hot cast-iron pans, and cook them that way, using only the heat already present in the pans. Quartered duck works especially well in cast-iron, and you can fry up a bunch of the greens in the duck fat afterwards, in the same, still-hot pan. In short, there are many things you can do with cast-iron. It just takes a little imagination, and the knowledge that it will stay hot. If that is what you want for your application, cast-iron is the way to go.