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Cast Iron Cooking For Dummies
By Tracy Barr
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-3714-8
Chapter OneWelcome to Cast-Iron Cooking
In This Chapter
* Cozying up to cast iron
* Reviewing the cooking benefits
* Caring for your cast iron
Cast iron has a nostalgic appeal. Watch reruns of old TV Westerns or pick up any book chronicling America's past, from colonial times to the settling of the West to more modern portrayals of cowboy round-ups, and you're bound to find at least one domestic scene that features a cook, a fire, and a cast-iron pot. If you're into history, the idea of cooking the same way that your ancestors did may persuade you that cast iron is for you.
Most cooks today, however, want a few more incentives than the rough-around-the-edges charm that cast iron brings. They want cookware that's conducive to healthy eating; that's easy to use and care for; that can be used for a wide range of cooking methods; and that can withstand the abuse and use that occurs in a busy kitchen.
Cast iron offers all these qualities. Easy to use and easy to care for, cast iron lasts practically forever, and you can use any cooking method to cook anything in it. And most cast-iron cooks will tell you that food cooked in cast iron tastes better than food cooked in anything else. But like any well-crafted cookware, cast iron does require some care, and what you cook in it can turn out better if you know a few tricks.
In this chapter, I introduce you to basicinformation about cooking in cast iron, explain its benefits, and tell you what you need to know to use it successfully.
Coming Down on the Side of Cast Iron
Most modern-day cooks have never cooked in cast iron, many have never (knowingly, anyway) tasted a cast-iron dish, and even fewer have probably ever cared for a cast-iron skillet - beyond hanging it on the kitchen wall and dusting it periodically. If you're one of these people, you may not realize the culinary wonder that cast iron can be.
Plain and simple, cast iron is a great cookware. In terms of heating properties, economy, usefulness, and health benefits (yes, even health benefits), cast iron has much to offer. And that list doesn't even begin to touch on the area of taste!
So what's so great about cooking in cast iron? Plenty. Cast iron, with the proper seasoning and care, offers all the same benefits - and then some - that more modern cookware offers, and it has a history and longevity that these others lack.
'Til death do us part
Cast iron isn't just a descriptive term. These pots and pans are actually made from iron that has been melted and formed in pan-shaped molds or casts. (If you're interested in the details of how cast-iron pans are made, see the sidebar "A pan is born.") Made from the same base material that's used in engine blocks and building girders, cast-iron pans can last forever. Well, maybe not forever, but pretty darn close.
Cast iron's longevity is one reason why it can be so easy to find and relatively inexpensive. You don't have to buy it new. Many people inherit their cast iron or buy it at garage and yard sales. Even old pans that have been abused can be reborn with a little work. (Chapter 4 tells you how to save a worn cast-iron pot.)
If cared for properly, cast iron is extremely tough and can last generations. It won't scratch, chip, or melt. (Well, at least not below 2,500 degrees. And I'm guessing that you're dealing with temperatures slightly below that mark.) The handles don't fall off, and cooking in it won't kill your pet parakeet. (Believe it or not, some other nonstick pans actually release a fume that's deadly to birds; see the sidebar "Keeping Tweety safe" for details.)
In fact, few things can harm a cast-iron pan. The two biggest dangers to cast iron? Cold water on a hot pan and a trip through the dishwasher. Head to Chapter 4 for care instructions.
Growing old gracefully
If you've ever found yourself examining (and cursing) the bottom of a nonstick pan for scratches and peels, you may come to appreciate that cast iron doesn't wear out with age; it actually gets better. The reason is that every time you cook in the pan, you're actually seasoning it again, filling in the microscopic pores and valleys that are part of the cast-iron surface. The more you cook, the smoother the surface becomes until, lo and behold, you have a pan that's the envy of cast-iron cooks everywhere.
New cast iron is a gunmetal gray. This color darkens with the initial seasoning. (See Chapter 3 for seasoning instructions.) It grows darker with every use until you reach the patina (the dark color and slight shine cast iron develops over time) that's the mark of well-used and well-seasoned cast iron. (See Figure 1-1.)
Of course, not all old cast iron has been taken care of, and some old pans look their age. Your cast iron may have enough rust spots, cooked-on gunk, and pitted surfaces to earn a place on the junk pile.
Keep in mind, however, that looks can be deceiving. Many battered and beaten cast-iron pieces can be reclaimed, rejuvenated, and restored to life. (Chapter 4 provides details.) With a little work, you can restore most old cast iron to cooking condition. And many consider cast iron to be a collectible, so you could end up with a pan that has value beyond how well it bakes biscuits. (For a word or two about collectible cast iron, see Chapter 2.)
Making dollars and sense
Cast iron is rugged and heavy. It isn't fancy cookware, and it doesn't have a fancy porcelain surface or come in a variety colors that match your kitchen decor. Of course, it has other positive features: It's nonstick when seasoned and, as a rule, it costs much less than other types of nonstick cookware. Add the longevity of cast iron (explained in the preceding "Growing old gracefully" section), and the savings are even greater. Table 1-1 gives you an idea of the cost difference between new cast iron and other nonstick cookware. As you read this table, keep the following in mind:
If you're buying new cast iron, buy preseasoned if you can. Preseasoned pans are only slightly more expensive, and the preseasoning eliminates the need to season your pans before use.
As a rule, cast iron is inexpensive if you buy it new or as an antique. It's not uncommon to hear of someone buying a cast-iron dish from a rummage sale or farm auction for $1 or a set of cast iron pots or pans for $15. For information on what to look for, whether you buy new or used cast iron, head to Chapter 2.
Cast iron is economical in another way. Cooking with cast iron uses less heat. Cast iron absorbs and retains heat so efficiently that you use less fuel when you cook with it. If you cook daily in cast iron, over the course of the average life span, you may save enough to actually make up the cost of the $10 skillet you're using. Okay, so it's not a huge savings, but it's a savings nonetheless (well, less, actually). Chapter 5 explains the heating properties of cast iron and how these affect the way you cook in more detail.
Offering versatility and variety
As plain as it looks, cast iron offers plenty of variety regarding what you cook and how and where you cook it.
This one probably goes without saying, but you cannot use cast iron in your microwave. If you do, you'll ruin your pan and your oven, and the fireworks display won't be worth the cleanup and replacement costs.
The Pilgrims brought cast iron from the Old World to the New, and the pioneers took it westward. Heavy, dark, and rustic, cast iron has a nostalgic appeal that modern-day cookware lacks. It's the cookware of choice for countless outdoor enthusiasts, and no cattle drive would be complete - even today - without a cook, a cast-iron pot, and campfire.
Although you can cook just about any highbrow dish in cast iron, down-home favorites and comfort foods are what cast iron built its reputation on. These are also the foods that many modern cast-iron cooks still like to prepare in their black iron pans. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a better pan for many traditional favorites, such as cornbread, biscuits, and muffins. (Chapters 11 and 12 have several scrumptious recipes.)
This book contains several nontraditional cast-iron recipes, but if you like the old standards - the foods that your ancestors may have been inclined to make - head to Chapters 14 and 15, where you can find outdoor dishes and game recipes.
Here's to your good health
Cast iron gets a bad rep because it's often seen in the company of comfort foods and down-home country cookin' - the kind with plenty of fat and butter. And you can't beat it for frying eggs and potatoes - dishes that aren't the centerpiece of any heart-healthy diets that I've heard of.
True. All true. But it's not the whole story. Cooking in cast iron can actually be part of a healthy lifestyle.
Well-seasoned cast iron is virtually stick-free, requiring less or no oil - a characteristic of many heart-healthy recipes. You can cook any of the dishes that you would normally cook in any other nonstick pan in a cast-iron skillet. Cast iron isn't just good for heavy comfort foods; you can also use it to cook healthier, lighter fare. The trick is to keep your cast iron well seasoned. (Chapter 3 tells you how.)
Cooking in cast iron also boosts your iron intake. Trace amounts of iron get absorbed into the foods you cook.
The World Health Organization (WHO) considers iron deficiency to be the most prevalent nutritional disorder in the world. People at high risk of iron deficiency or anemia include women of childbearing age, pregnant women, older infants and toddlers, and teenage girls. Also at risk are those who suffer a significant or ongoing blood loss, due to a trauma or a disease. After you're diagnosed with an iron deficiency, you can't take in enough iron from the food that you eat to make up for the iron you lost.
Excerpted from Cast Iron Cooking For Dummies by Tracy Barr Excerpted by permission.
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