Once you go black…

“O boy, what in the hell does Grant have cooked up this week”  I can already hear you saying it, and with a title like that I can’t hardly blame you.  This week I want to go off topic on something that is definitely on topic…

Cast Iron Pans! You remember them, your parents (or grand parents) probably owned a few of them, the came in a ton of different configurations, but they all weighed about 1500 pounds and they always had a sexy black sheen on there cooking surface. Just the thought of fish sizzling away in bacon grease makes my mouth water (and my cholesterol spike a bit). I absolutely love cast cookware,  I personally have 4 pieces that I hold in truly high regard: one 12″ skillet, one 8″ skillet, one 7 1/2 qt. (12″) dutch oven with basting lid, and a 16 3/4″ x 9 1/2″ double sided griddle that has one ribbed and one smooth side. The skillets being  hand-me-down’s from my mom (I would estimate the pans to be from the 50’s or 60’s), and the other two being new productions (made by Cabela’s and Lodge respectively.) Cast fell out of favor sometime in the 60’s or 70’s due mostly to the fact that new Teflon coated “non-stick” pans hit the market in hordes, the non-stick was appreciated by homemakers for two real reasons: It was Non-stick obviously,and the pans were considerably lighter, due to the fact that the finish was usually applied to aluminum pans. Light pans are easier to wield around the kitchen. Since the actual metallurgy is conducive to quicker heat times the standard black cast pans, less time had to be spent in the kitchen preheating to cook… Sounds like a  door to door propaganda sales pitch to me. There is a reason why cast pans have been in use for over 2000 years, (they were first used in the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD)) Because they work awesome, and they retain heat. Basic science has told us a lot of things, and we can use big words to explain them, but it all comes down to one thing… Everything  has a balance point, and there is no such thing as a free lunch. So what does that mean? Well what its saying is that a pan that can heat up quickly, will also cool quickly. “O great news, I can cook an egg and the pan will be cooled down enough to wash in 5 minutes”. To that point you are right, but what about if you want to get a good sear on a $25 rib eye steak? The light-weight, non stick pan will heat quickly, but when that fillet of room temperature heaven hits the pan, it will instantly zap the temperature from the light weight pan. ( Aluminum has a thermal conductivity (there I go with big words) of around 118,  which is pretty much a fancy way of saying aluminum is super efficient in transferring both heat and cold. That being said, it is very sensitive to temperature change. When that 500 degree pan, hits a 68 degree steak, the pan will instantly absorb as much of that 68 degrees that it can, drawing the temperature of the pan down considerable as it goes.What you end up with is a steam and not a sear, and no one has ever tried to get perfect steam marks on there steak.) On the other hand you have good ol’ cast iron, Cast iron takes forever to heat up (not only because of the material, but because of the  weight of the pan.) that being said as it “absorbs” the heat slowly, it retains it deeper, it cannot transition the heat out as quickly. So once you have reached a good searing temp, (say somewhere between 450 degrees and the temperature of the sun) and you drop your steak in, the pan has enough mass and density to keep the temperature high, and get that caramelized protein crunch that we all love.

“But cast iron is hard to take care of, and I can’t put it through my dishwasher”. Nope you don’t want to run your perfectly seasoned cast iron pan through your dishwasher, that would be a counter productive measure. Your goal with cast is to get the cells of the pan to absorb oil, thus making them (dare I say it) “non-stick”. So if you want to clean your pan, its pretty simple. Don’t use dish soap, a little water is OK, but I prefer to keep it simple. Grab a paper towel and wipe the pan out once it has cooled down, but isn’t cold (pretty much when you can pick the pan up by the handle without an oven mitt.) That’s it. the residual oil in the pan will help seal in your seasoning, and keep rust at bay. “But what if I already washed my pan with soap and everything sticks”.All is not lost, the process of “seasoning” a pan  takes some time but it is worth it.

  1. Clean the inside of the pan, scrub until your little heart is content. Just make sure that you have gotten all of the “little bits” off of the cooking surface.
  2. Warm the freshly cleaned (or new) pan in an over set at 200 degrees for 15 minutes. This opens up the “pores”of the steel.
  3. Remove the pan from the oven, set on a surface that wont burn, and add 1 tablespoon of flaxseed oil to your pan. Using a pair of tongs and a paper towel coat the whole inside of the pan with the oil. Wipe excess oil off with a second paper towel.
  4. Into a cold oven, place your pan cooking side down (upside down) on the wire rack. Then turn your oven up as hot as it will allow you to go (don’t use the “Clean oven” setting or it will effectively clean all of the oil out of the pan too, and that’s not what we are looking for.) once the oven has reached maximum temperature let it bake for 1 hour. Turn heat off, and let the pan rest for at least 2 hours.
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 five more times. it is time consuming but the final product is amazing. You will know that it has been treated well when the inside cooking surface of the pan starts to have a dark smooth matte finish to it.

“OK, but this is the “Post World Patriot” blog not better homes and garden,.What the hell does this have to do with anything?” Keep your tactical vest on, and don’t get your shoulder holster straps in a bunch. When the first settlers came across the united states they had to move as quickly as they possibly could, often times sacrificing creature comforts to “lighten the load” if you will. They didn’t have the ability to purchase things at there final destination (No bed bath and beyond or IKEA, how boring) so they had to take things that would last. Every cook shack had a kettle for boiling water, a skillet and a dutch oven… And they were all made of cast iron, and I bet that those same pots and pans are probably in museums, and if you dusted them off, and threw a dollop of bacon grease in them, you could use them to cook dinner tonight. No special utensils needed or anything. How many times have you spent a fair amount of money on a nice nonstick skillet, then after a couple of “wobbly pops” your friends decide to make some mac and cheese. Next thing you know their over there using a fork to stir the cheese  into the noodles. Pan gets washed, and you forget about it….Until the next time that you go to cook. Now the bottom of your $90 Calphalon skillet looks like Edward Scissorhands was playing with a spirograph in the bottom of it. Then its just a matter of time before it starts to flake, and your non-stick skillet becomes a mostly stick skillet. You can use to concrete trowel to flips eggs in cast and and it wont miss a beat.

If you are in the market for Cast iron cookware, you are in luck, because there is still one manufacturer casting right here in the USA. Lodge Cast Iron has been crafting top notch cookware in South Pittsburg Tennessee for over 120 years, and there are retailers all over the country selling there products. But if you are a little worried about spending $50-ish on a pan you don’t know if you will like, you have an option… Yard sales. A lot of times you can get awesome deals on cast iron (skillets especially) at your local garage sale or swap meet.  People buy a camp trailer or camper and the previous owners will have left pans in them, they pull “those old junk pans” out and sell them for a couple bucks a piece. Who cares if they have a little rust, now you know how to clean and refurbish them. With 3 pans (kettle, skillet, and dutch oven) you can comfortable cook for your family in any situation, electric stove top, camp wood stove or directly upon the camp fire. But what good is it to know about cast iron, and how to “season” them, if you don’t know how or what to cook with them? I have a couple recipes that are great to start with, and will give you a pretty good feel for your new obsession.

Crusty Bread (A La Dutch Oven).

Ingredients.

3 cups bread flour.
1 tsp active dry yeast.
1 1/2 tsp salt.
1 1/2 c ups warm water.
Directions.

 

1. Whisk flour, yeast and salt in a 3-4 quart bowl with a tight fitting lid. I like to use my trusty Tupperware. If you don’t have a bowl w/lid use plastic wrap on a bowl. Add the water and stir with a wooden spoon until the dough is mixed well. The dough will be quite sticky and shaggy looking, but that’s OK. Cover the bowl and set aside for 12-18 hours,(up to 24) overnight is fine.

 

2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place a cast iron Dutch oven with the lid into the oven while preheating and heat the pot/lid for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, scrape the risen dough from the bowl onto a heavily floured surface. (Dough will still be very sticky.) With floured hands, gently shape the dough into a round loaf, making sure there’s enough flour on the surface so dough doesn’t stick. let the dough just sit there until you’re pot is preheated.
3.Take the hot pot from the oven and gently place the dough into the pot. Cover with the lid and return to the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lid at that time and return the pot to the oven for another 10-15 minutes. Gently shake the loaf onto a cooling rack and enjoy the beautiful aroma. Give it a chance to cool before cutting into the loaf.
Bourbon steak with cream sauce (A La Cast Iron Skillet)
Ingredients.
Steak (your choice of cut, but just about anything with a bit of marbling works well.).
2 tbs oil (or bacon grease if you have it).
Salt & pepper (to taste, fresh ground pepper and kosher salt if available).
3/4 cup beef stock (a lot of times I will cheat and use better then boulion).
1 cup whiskey (2 ounces for you, and 6 ounces for the sauce).
3/4 cup heavy cream.
1 medium onion finely chopped.
3/4 cup mushrooms chopped (unless you are using really good mushrooms like morel’s, in which case leave them identifiable, you earned it.)
2 green onions. (chopped)
Directions.
1.Get your skillet onto the stove and get the heat going. Add your oil and wait for a slight smoke to be visible. While your skillet is heating dry your steaks off and season with your salt and pepper.
2. When your oil is up to temp ( slight smoke) put your steaks into the skillet. (There will be a little popping and crackling going on, so watch out!)  Cook your steaks (2 minutes per side = rare, 3 minutes =medium rare, anything past that is sacrilege ) Remove steaks from skillet and place onto a cookie sheet covered with aluminum foil to rest.
3. Saute onions until semi-translucent (about 3 minutes), then add your mushrooms. Saute for an additional 3-4 minutes.
4. Deglaze pan with your broth, whisking until all of the “brown bits” sticking to the bottom of the pan release. Simmer uncovered for 4-5 minutes.
5.(Now the fun starts) Move the skillet away from the flame, and add 3/4 cups of whiskey to your skillet (reserve the last 2 oz. of whiskey for later), SLOWLY. Return your skillet to your stove and whisk gently together, then do the unthinkable. Use your BBQ lighter to set the top of your pan on fire.( As the alcohol starts to evaporate the vapor is extremely flammable, it burns red hot and you will look like a flambe boss) let the flame burn until it goes out naturally, at this point all of the alcohol has burned out, but all the whiskey flavor is still there.
6. (If you didn’t burn down house with your Fire Marshal Bill flambe, I would say that you can probably have that shot of whiskey now.) At this point you can add your heavy cream to your sauce and simmer on low heat for 5-6 minutes, just until all the flavors meld together.
Plate it up! Steak on the plate, sauce spooned over the steak, and add the chopped green onions over the top of the sauce. Add a baked potato, a field green salad, and the bread recipe above and I guarantee you will never look at a non-stick pan the same way again. Cast iron is super tough, it’s adaptable, and its old school. If you step away from Teflon, and open your eyes (and heart ) to cast you will see that there is a reason why chefs all around the world hold there cold black cast iron skillet in such high regard…After all once you go black, you never go back right?
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