Goshen News, Goshen, IN

February 12, 2014

Cast iron cooking makes a difference in flavor

By MARY ANN LIENHART-CROSS
Purdue Extension director

---- — From time to time I will write my column and make reference to cooking in a cast iron skillet and the difference I believe it makes in the flavor. I use cast iron skillets on the stove top and also in the oven all the time. Sometimes, depending on what I am cooking, I use a cast iron Dutch oven. We also use cast iron to cook over a wood fire.

Two of our favorite foods in the cast iron skillet are the Parmesan-seasoned baked potato sticks that I wrote about last week and nachos. These are really made more flavorful and healthier because they are baked and not fried and the flavor is extra tasty as they are enhanced in the hot oven. A number of people have asked me questions about cast iron so I am going to try and provide some cast iron information.

I am no expert on cast iron, I just grew up in a home where the skillets were used all the time. What I learned is that if the cast iron is seasoned properly and you learn to use a medium or medium high heat you can cook in them without using much oil.

I will admit one of my favorite childhood memories is at a friend’s house. Her family owned a poultry house in downtown Gary and every Wednesday they had fresh chicken fried in a very deep cast iron skillet. I have learned one of the parts that made this chicken so good was that it was seasoned and floured and placed in the refrigerator for several hours before frying.

Bare cast iron vessels have been used for cooking for hundreds of years. Cast iron pans were used as early as the Han Dynasty in China (206 BC to 220 AD) for salt evaporation. Cast iron cauldrons and cooking pots were treasured as kitchen items for their durability and their ability to retain heat, thus improving the quality of cooking meals.

Before the introduction of the kitchen stove in the middle of the 19th century, meals were cooked in the hearth or fireplace, and cooking pots and pans were designed for use in the hearth. This meant that all cooking vessels had to be designed to be suspended on, or in, a fireplace. Cast iron pots were made with handles to allow them to be hung over a fire, or with legs so that they could stand up in the fireplace.

In addition to Dutch ovens, which were developed with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, a commonly used cast iron cooking pan called a spider had a handle and three legs used to stand up in the coals and ashes of the fire. Cooking pots and pans with legless, flat bottoms were designed when cooking stoves became popular. This period of the late 19th century saw the introduction of the flat cast iron skillet, and I am sure glad!

Cast iron cookware was especially popular among homemakers and housekeepers during the first half of the 20th century. Most American households had at least one cast iron cooking pan. Brands including Griswold and Wagner Ware were especially popular, although both of these companies folded in the late 1950s and the brands are now owned by the American Culinary Corp.

The Lodge Manufacturing company is currently the only major manufacturer of cast iron cookware in the United States, as most other cookware suppliers use pots and pans made in Asia or Europe.

Most bare cast iron pots and pans are cast from a single piece of metal in order to provide even distribution of heat. This quality allows most bare cast iron pans to serve as dual-purpose stovetop fryers and oven baking dishes.

Many recipes call for the use of a cast iron skillet or pot, especially so that the dish can be initially seared or fried on the stovetop then transferred into the oven, pan and all, to finish baking. Likewise, cast iron skillets can double as baking dishes. Cast iron’s ability to withstand and maintain very high cooking temperatures makes it a common choice for searing or frying, and its excellent heat retention makes it a good option for long-cooking stews or braised dishes.

Because cast iron skillets can develop a “non-stick” surface, they are also a good choice for egg dishes. Other uses of cast iron pans include baking, for instance for making cornbread, cobblers and cakes.

Cornbread in particular is seen as a food item that is best prepared in a cast iron skillet. The iron pan is heated beforehand in the oven, the ingredients are first combined and mixed in a mixing bowl, then added to the heated pan, and the skillet is then placed directly into the oven for fast baking. Cast iron is a very slow conductor of heat and forms hot spots if heated too quickly, or on an undersized burner, however, it has excellent heat retention properties and the entire pan will eventually become extremely hot, including the iron handle or handles.

I suggest making some great tasting chili to go with that corn bread baked in a cast iron skillet.