Cast iron: the cookware that does it all

Cooking with fresh ingredients is all fine and good, but if you don’t have quality cookware, you just might be missing a significant part of the health and joy of cooking.  Everyone has their opinion as to what makes great cookware, the merits of each are all over the internet for you to make your own decision.  In our house cast iron is IT.  From the time I was learning to cook this has been my choice.  Hubby, never having cooked with it before meeting me, stepped up and excels at it.  Cast iron requires a bit of practice to understand how well the cookware holds heat and when to reduce the temperature to be sure your food doesn’t burn.  The biggest drawback is the weight of the pot or pan with food, the largest pans requires a Herculean effort for me to move them, but it is worth it!

Versatile, going from stove top to oven or grill and the perfect way to cook with a fire pit, making a main dish or dessert, means just a few pieces will go a very long way.  My first three cast iron pieces were old, well used and purchased at a flea market when my kids were very young: two wonderfully seasoned frying pans of different sizes and a deeper, long-handled pot that needed some TLC.  There were no lids for any of them but they were perfect to me (I still use them all).  And these are just the unclad (no enamel coating) pieces!

Silit pan on glass cooktop
Silit, enamel coated cast iron pots from Germany, are our choice of cookware.

Being foodies, when we married Hubby and I decided to replace the stainless pots that I brought to our communal home (they now reside with my daughter and are still used to make scrumptuous meals).  It took us a couple of years to find the just-right, we really want to cook in these pans.  Our choice? A line of German enameled cast iron pots, Silit.  Family and friends have Le CreusetLodge, and a myriad of off brands, but we really liked the modern, clean look of the Silit.  Do your homework and choose the pieces you are most likely to cook with as you don’t need a huge array of sizes and styles if you won’t use them.

Not sure cast iron can be used on a glass top stove? I have moved many times and used my arsenal of cast iron on each glass top range successfully.  Lifting the cookware rather than sliding, cleaning the glass surface regularly, and monitoring the heat of the pan so it doesn’t get too hot (yes, it can get red-hot); all things that should be done anyway to maintain the glass.

Cleaning enameled cast iron is, of course, normal soap and water cleaning, but ‘seasoned’ cast iron comes with a whole set of preconceived hurdles.  Iron rusts, minimize the exposure to water, dry the pan as soon as you finish cleaning it.  Scrubbing with salt, baking soda, or a scrubby pad; just make sure to get the food off of your pan (who wants microbes residing in the kitchen).  If you are truly camping (we glamp now), sand is an appropriate scrubbing agent.  Soap is even fine (we use it on occasion when we forget it is in the sponge already).  Rinse well no matter what you use and dry it immediately. Simple really.

Cooking sausage in a cast iron skillet
Cooking sausage, bacon or other fatty food helps maintain the seasoning on a cast iron skillet.

Seasoning a cast iron pan is not difficult or laborious.  If you cook fatty foods (cheesy bread or bacon anyone?) you are seasoning your pan as you cook.  Watch your heat though as fat does catch fire if too hot; keep a metal lid and baking soda within reach for emergency grease-fires.  Oh, don’t keep it over the stove as you don’t want to reach past the flames to get to your fire-retardant.  Needing to actually work at seasoning the pans? Turn the oven on to 350*, put a dollop of oil or fat in the pan(s) and set them in the oven to heat through.  With a hot pad remove one pan at a time, spread the now hot oil with a thickly folded paper towel all over the inside and top edge of the pan (if the bottom isn’t feeling nice and smooth, do the outside and bottom as well).  Put the pan back in and repeat until all of your pieces are seasoned.  Turn off the heat but leave the pans in the hot oven as it cools.  This should maintain the excellent cooking surface.

Frittata ingredients prepared before heating the pan.
Prep all of your ingredients before you heat your cookware.

Cooking in cast iron, as I said earlier, requires a bit of practice to get the pan hot enough (preheat) and then turn the heat down quickly enough during cooking to not burn your dish.  Of course, when you are searing a piece of meat, cooking cheesy bread (a family favorite), or stir frying you want the pan hot.  That is the beauty of cast iron: it holds that heat even when cold food is placed on it!  I prepare all of the vegetables, meat and seasonings before I turn the stove on as it allows me to focus on working with the pan and monitoring the heat.  Deglaze the pan with wine or vinegar or cook tomatoes in your dish, the cooking time with the acidic food isn’t sufficient to ruin the seasoning if you have kept it up.  Starchy foods (e.g. fried potatoes) will stick, that is the nature of starch, but if you are patient and careful, this food too shall come out truly yummy.  Use the utensils you have, use pot holders to grab handles as they heat up with the pan, use the best ingredients you can get your hands on and get cooking; use them!

Have you got a cast iron skillet you haven’t used?  This is one of our favorite cast iron skillet quick meals: a frittata.  I am basing the ingredients on a 12″ diameter frying pan for reference.  When my kids were little I would extend left overs this way, so feel free to use what you have handy:

Preheat the oven to 350*.  (I put the amounts of each ingredient below, prepare them before you heat the skillet.)  Pour a couple of table spoons of olive oil into the pan and preheat the stove element on high until the oil is hot (it begins to move in the pan).  Toss in 1/2 cup chopped onions and two cloves of garlic chopped fine, saute’ for two minutes before adding two small zucchini cubed, mushrooms cut to about 1/2″ pieces; continue cooking until the onion is clear and the zucchini browned.  Turn off the burner and remove from the electric element.  If the pan is almost dry, add additional olive oil at the edges of the pan and give it a quick stir.  Add a cup of shredded gouda cheese (or cubed precooked meat if you prefer), sprinkle a couple of table spoons of fresh thyme or a teaspoon of dry thyme and 10-12 eggs already shelled and gently scrambled with 1/2 cup of milk and salt and pepper to taste (I use water due to my allergies).    Place the pan in the preheated oven for 20-30 minutes.  Five to ten minutes before the pan should come out, spread 1/2 cup of shredded Parmesan cheese across the top. The frittata is done when the top is still a bit wiggly and the cheese is browned.  There you go, one pan of healthy, yummy goodness!

Frittatas are Italian, pair them with Barbera, Dolcetto, or Sangiovese, or focus on a strongly flavored ingredient and pair a wine with that ingredient in mind. I love taking left over frittata with me to work for lunch.  Cheers!

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