Cooking with Cast Iron

frittata or pizza

I do not consider myself a chef.

Well, not really. I’m still learning. Like many men, I got my start in cooking by boiling water. Then came popping popcorn on the stove and eventually I graduated to bacon and scrambled eggs. In college I played with the great-in-theory George Foreman, but was constantly frustrated as it left my meats dry and was a total pain to clean. Settling back into a lazy routine, I resorted to making salami sandwiches innumerable with the occasional package of Ramen (Or even Zatarains!)

Marriage opened up new possibilities and I found myself frequently manning the grill. I like the grill for its cleaning ease. Grilling is an art I hope to one day perfect — is there any accomplishment for a man more envious than that of a seasoned grillmaster? Sure. Like killing a grizzly bear with nothing but your wits and bare hands.

One day.

In the meantime, my cast iron skillet is my the primary weapon in my cooking arsenal — I use mine daily and continually find new uses for it.

For those unfamiliar with the wonders of a cast iron skillet, they have great heating properties thanks to the material: heat is well distributed by iron, which makes for a relatively even cooking surface. The heavy duty nature of cast iron skillets makes them heavy beasts. My Lodge 12 incher tips the scales at over 7 lbs. They often come pre-seasoned giving the skillet a blackish color rather than the dull gray of raw iron.

What’s the deal with seasoning a skillet? Cast iron is porous. Being iron, its also susceptible to rusting if exposed to the elements. Seasoning a skillet is getting a layer of oil and fat into the porous iron and between the iron and everything else. You want the fat layer, which is why you do not use soap to clean your skillet! You read right. And I know what you’re thinking: how can you clean anything without soup?

With the cast iron skillet, you learn to accept soapless cleaning. Most of the time, I just use a brush and hot water to get my skillet clean. Other times, I might boil some water on the skillet and then scrub it clean. The beauty of the oil/fat coating on the skillet is that it makes clean-up a pretty painless process. Once you scrub the skillet clean, you just dry it off. If the skillet looks too dry, you will want to rub some oil onto it.

And this brings me to an important tenet of cast iron cooking — an admonishment you might not find in too many other places — that is that you should avoid cooking with vegetable oil at all costs, specifically when using a cast iron skillet. Despite the many good reasons to avoid vegetable oils, the main one I’m concerned with is that vegetable oils are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which due to their abundance of easily broken double-bonds, lead to the production of unnatural byproducts when repeatedly heated. In other words, if you’re leaving the oils on your skillet, you want those oils to be robust enough to handle repeat heatings. Vegetable oils just aren’t up to the task.

Olive oil, having a lot of monounsaturated fatty acids, is a better choice. However, I’ve found that it tends to smoke at lower temperatures. And MUFAs still have at least one easily broken double-bond, which makes the fat molecules prone to deteriorate over time from reheating/reusing the skillet.

Luckily there are some good alternatives. Cook some bacon. The grease that remains is high in saturated fats. Let that skillet soak it up! Though I’m not the biggest fan of reusing bacon grease, I have re-used it intra-day; in other words, if I had bacon for breakfast I’ve reused the grease later that day to cook pork chops or steak in the skillet.

Since fresh bacon grease is hardly handy all the time, I was happy to discover coconut oil. Coconut oil must be one of the greatest unsung heroes of the oil kingdom. I’ve blogged about the apparent goodness of coconut oil before (here and here). Now that I’ve been using coconut oil on my skillet for a good month or two, I’ve got nothing but praise for it. I find my skillet easier to clean, less prone to smoking, and coconut oil to make for an excellent medium. It is, without a doubt, the cast iron oil of choice.

With all of this talk about using a cast iron skillet, the question that remains unanswered is: what are you cooking?

I’m still finding new things to cook on mine all the time. Going forward, I hope to share some of my favorite cast iron dishes. For now, here’s a list to get your juices flowing:

  • Bacon. Is there anything more cast iron basic than that?
  • Spinach. Particularly at the end of cooking some meat — drizzle some olive oil on it if you want.
  • Pork chops. Having grown up eating plenty of grilled pork chops, I was convinced that they were doomed to being the other dry white meat. I’m happy to report that the skillet delivers a mean, juicy pork chop!
  • Steak. Wowie this is good one that draws on searing the steak and using an oven or grill to round out the cooking.
  • Fish (i.e. salmon). Fast, easy, flavorful and creating a nice crispy crust.
  • Broccoli/Cauliflower. A brief sautee makes for a tasty side.
  • Bratwurst. Faster than the grill – just as delicious.
  • Flank steak fajitas. Need I say more?
  • Taco meat. Ground beef plus diced jalapeno peppers. Mmm.
  • Meatballs. “You like-a my spicy meat-a-balls!”
  • Cornbread. My dad’s recipe. It cannot be beat.

In short, though I’ve a ways to go to being a chef, I’ve made it leaps and bounds thanks to my trusty cast iron skillet. Its versatility, ease of use, and the quality of food it produces is unmatched. It’s also great in that it doesn’t require firing up a grill or oven to make great, quick meals for one to four people. For would-be-chefs like me, learning to cook with cast iron is a blast.

This post should serve as an introduction to my favorite piece of cookware. Going forward, I’ll be able to jump right into explanations of how to cook specific delectable dishes with cast iron.

Stay tuned!

3 Responses to “Cooking with Cast Iron”

  1. Scott Kustes July 11, 2008 at 8:27 am #

    Good stuff Justin. I love my cast-iron skillet. Like you, I found the Foreman to be good in theory, and perhaps good enough for the family just needing a way to cook something very quickly, but it just didn’t get the food done the way I like. Perhaps it’s something about letting all of the juices drain away…

    As for grilling, you are right that there’s nothing better than manning a grill (or at least not in the culinary world). You should check out this book that I just reviewed: The Farmer And The Grill by Shannon Hayes. I learned quite a few tricks and have cooked the best steaks ever in the last couple weeks. My steak last night was so good I nearly called a meat connoisseur friend just to tell him how awesome it was now that I know how to cook it.

    Also, you might consider allowing link tags in your comments so I can make that link a bit prettier next time.

    Cheers
    Scott Kustes
    Modern Forager

  2. Justin July 11, 2008 at 11:50 am #

    Scott – thanks. Yeah links are off by default, which theoretically helps with spam.

    But I just prettified it for you :)

    I’ll have to look into that book.

  3. Rick Mansfield July 15, 2008 at 1:55 pm #

    Justin, love the picture of the steak in the skillet. Hey, I’ve added a link to this post in our newest “Cast Iron Around the Web” entry at http://www.cookingincastiron.com

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