As the cold weather starts to approach, it’s time to break out the cast iron and get to cooking.
Some people will probably say “Cast iron?! You mean what grandma used to cook with?” That’s right. What grandma cooked with. Grandma always had the best cooking secrets, and it all starts with the right cookware. Restaurants everywhere have embraced cast iron and are serving everything from fajitas and queso dip to mac and cheese and cornbread in this dishware.
What to Look For
Here are some things to consider when purchasing cast iron:
- New or used?
- What’s your price point?
- Pre-seasoned or not seasoned?
- Single-purpose or
- multi-purpose piece?
- What brand?
There is nothing wrong with purchasing a used piece of cast iron from a garage sale. In some cases, great quality brands can be had at reasonable prices when they’re used. And used cast iron will have already been seasoned, which can be a good thing, but it may need to be touched up if you’re looking for truly pre-seasoned cookware.
Price is the biggest consideration for most cast-iron pieces. While brands like Le Creuset and Staub can be purchased for a premium, Lodge and Von Chef are just as reliable for a fraction of the cost. There are many single-use cast iron products out there, too — while they may be very attractive to the wallet, single-use pieces can end up cluttering the kitchen. When purchasing any piece of kitchen equipment, try to determine whether that piece can be utilized in multiple capacities.
Now, to get started in cast iron, start with the three most essential pieces: a 10-inch skillet, a griddle, and a Dutch oven. While other pieces have their specific uses, these give you the greatest versatility.
The 12-inch skillet provides a large surface area that is perfect for anything from frying chicken or bacon to baking cornbread or pizza. If I were to have only one piece of cast iron in the kitchen, this would be the piece. The Dutch oven is useful for soups, stews, and braised roasts, and it can even be utilized as a deep fryer if you pour in enough oil. Most cast iron griddles come as two-sided pans: One side is smooth, ideal for pancakes or bacon, and the other side has grills on it, which can be used to add grill marks to meat without having to start the grill and cook outside.
Using these three items, any home cook can prepare a variety of delicious meals that would be right at home in any nice restaurant.
Getting the Cooking Started
Before cooking can begin, consideration must be given to the state of the cookware. Pre-seasoned cast iron can be purchased from a brand such as Lodge (for a slightly higher price), meaning that the cookware is ready to cook on at the time of purchase. Older cast iron that has sat and rusted, or that has turned a grayish color from lack of seasoning, must be seasoned prior to use — same goes for new unseasoned cookware. Using the following method, new seasoning can be applied to unseasoned or degraded cast iron:
- Place aluminum foil on bottom rack of oven.
- Preheat oven to at least 400 degrees.
- Using hot, soapy water and a stiff scrub brush, scrub the pan or pot thoroughly.
- Rinse and dry with a towel.
- Apply a thin coating of a liquid oil, preferably something with a high smoke point like canola oil or vegetable oil.
- Place the cookware upside-down on the highest rack in the oven (prevents oil from pooling in the center of cookware).
- Bake the cookware for at least an hour. Be careful! This will likely result in some smoke, so a cool day when the windows are open is usually best.
- Turn the oven off, leaving the pan in the oven to cool down.
- Once cool, remove from oven and use.
Once the cookware has been seasoned appropriately, the cooking can finally commence. One of the most important tips to remember when cooking with cast iron cookware is to allow for plenty of time for the cookware to heat up. This is especially true when searing, roasting, sautéing, frying, etc. Because cast iron is thicker and heavier than most other cookware, it needs more time to get hot. When using electric stoves, you’ll want to allow for an even longer period of time for the pan to heat. Those using gas will want to keep a close eye on the heat, as cast iron tends to hold high heat better than most cookware, which may reduce the cooking time for certain recipes.
The hardest part of using cast iron is maintaining it and knowing how to recondition it when it does start to deteriorate. Everything else is straightforward. Not only is cast iron durable and long-lasting, but it’s also a lot of fun to cook and then serve dishes in — no need to dirty a serving dish and a pot or pan.
Favorite cast iron recipes from the author:
prep time: 15 minutes | total time: 25 minutes | servings: 24
- 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
- 1 large sweet onion
- 6 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 jalapeños, minced with seeds removed
- 2 cups of whole milk
- 24 ounces of white American cheese or Velveeta queso blanco, cut into small cubes
- 8 ounces of shredded pepper jack
- 3 Roma tomatoes, diced
- 12 ounces of roasted green chiles
- 3/4 cup of chopped fresh cilantro
- Kosher salt and black pepper as needed
Method of preparation:
- Place a cast iron skillet over medium heat and add oil.
- Add onion and sweat until soft (approximately 5 minutes).
- Add jalapeño and garlic and cook another minute.
- Add milk and stir.
- Add cheeses, stirring while adding.
- Stir in tomatoes, green chiles, and cilantro.
- Season to taste.
- Serve immediately with fresh tortilla chips.
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Skillet Shepherd’s Pie
prep time: 15 minutes | total time: 45 minutes | servings: 4 to 6
- 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter
- 24 ounces of ground beef, pork, lamb, or any combination of the three
- 1 sweet onion, finely diced
- 2 carrots, peeled and finely diced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 1/2 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tablespoon of flour
- 1 can of peas, drained
- 1 can of corn, drained
- 4 cups mashed potatoes (either Yukon gold or russet)
- 8 ounces of Irish cheddar, grated
- 1/4 cup of chopped fresh parsley
- Salt and black pepper as needed
Method of Preparation:
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Place 12-inch skillet over medium high heat and add butter.
- Add ground meat to skillet and brown, seasoning with salt and pepper and stirring frequently.
- Once meat is beginning to brown, add onion and garlic and cook for approximately 5 minutes.
- Stir in flour and incorporate well.
- Add Worcestershire sauce, parsley, peas, and corn to skillet and stir well.
- Spread mashed potatoes evenly on top of the meat mixture.
- Sprinkle grated cheese over the top of mashed potatoes.
- Bake the pie in the oven for 15 to 25 minutes until the cheese is melted and beef filling is bubbling at sides.
- Remove from oven and allow to rest for about 5 minutes before serving.
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Skillet Apple Crisp
prep time: 25 minutes | total time: 65 minutes | servings: 4-6
- 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
- 5 gala or Fuji apples, peeled, cored,
- and sliced
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons of dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons of corn starch
- 1 tablespoons of vanilla extract
- 1/2 lemon, juiced and zested
- 3/4 cup of all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup of dark brown sugar
- 1/4 cup of granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt
- 4 ounces of unsalted butter
Method of Preparation:
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- In a medium bowl, mix flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt using a fork or pastry cutter.
- Using a cheese grater, grate the butter into the flour mixture and mix until smooth. Set aside.
- Place a cast iron skillet over medium heat and add butter.
- Add apple slices and salt and cook for approximately 3 minutes.
- Stir in brown sugar, corn starch, vanilla, lemon juice, and lemon zest.
- Remove from heat.
- Use the crumb topping to evenly cover the apple filling.
- Cover with aluminum foil and bake for approximately 15 minutes.
- Remove foil and bake an additional 20 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown and crisp.
- Serve with whipped cream, caramel sauce, or Central Dairy vanilla ice cream.
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Chris Volmert is a classically trained chef with a passion for local, sustainable cuisine and a palate for fine food and drink.