May 5, 2014

Grill Sergeant: Cooking with Cast-Iron Cookware

Since I have written several articles about chuckwagons, early American and Pioneer cooking, it would be good to discuss cast-iron cookware.
I like Lodge brand cast iron cookware, mainly because it comes pre-seasoned, which is important when first obtaining your cast-iron skillets and dutch oven. At the Lodge website it gives you good information about how to properly clean and take care of what could end up a family heirloom; if the trend to return to old style cooking continues.

If you do not purchase Lodge cast-iron cookware and need to season them, here is how …
Coat the skillet or Dutch oven with cooking oil and bake in an oven at 350°F for one hour. It will take some use before you get that shiny surface familiar with seasoned iron skillets, pots and ovens. Every time you heat oil in the skillet (pot or Dutch oven) you will reinforce its nonstick coating. Of course, you can hasten the process by performing the cooking oil and baking treatment several times before using. After it cools, wipe off any excessive oil with a paper towel.
Cast-iron cookware is not for the person who likes to set aside dishes soaking in water or soapy water for later. It works well for me because I like getting the chore of washing dishes right away, especially before it drys on dinnerware and cookware.
For cast-iron skillets, pans and Dutch ovens, rinse with hot water immediately after cooking. If there happens to be burned-on food, scrub with a mild abrasive like coarse salt (do not use Bar Keeper's Friend or any other soap. A nonmetal brush is best. Back in the day a rag was wrapped on the end of a hardwood stick and coarse salt was used to scrub stubborn food particles.
If your pan gets a sticky coating or develops rust after a time, scrub it with steel wool, rinse thoroughly and re-season it. Putting a light coat of cooking oil on the surface after drying thoroughly will help prevent this. Cover the pans that do not have a cover with a paper towel to protect it from dust.
The cast-iron skillet is the most versatile of the cookware line. Cast-iron cookware comes in Dutch ovens, pots, and even cornbread pans with shaped molds. Of course, there is the old standby, the cast-iron stove-top/campfire griddle for cooking eggs, bacon and pancakes (or Johnnycakes/Hoecakes).
Cast iron takes a bit longer to reach temperature than cookware you are used to made out of aluminum, but the heat retains well and most importantly it diffuses evenly. It also remains hot longer, after removing from the stove/fire, so remember not to grab it with a bare hand – use a thick towel or mitt. When camping I use heavy leather/canvas work gloves especially for that use, something you will see Cookies using at their chuckwagon. I have a pair strictly for the camp kitchen. Welder's gloves are best.
Designate a kitchen towel for drying cast-iron cookware so you won't stain your whole collection.
Another thing about cast-iron cookware is that it increases the iron content of food, the longer the food is in the skillet, the more it absorbs. Which brings us to another topic and to dispel urban myths …
Some people wonder or think that cast-iron cookware is not safe to use.
Researchers have found that cooking in an iron skillet increases iron content in foods. Acidic foods have a higher moisture content, absorb the most iron. … Food cooked for longer periods of time absorbed more iron than food that was heated more quickly. … Hamburgers, corn, tortillas, cornbread, and liver with onions didn't absorb as much iron. … So, if you're looking to increase your dietary iron, use a new cast iron skillet … the iron in cookware is no different from the iron in our bodies – except we have much smaller amounts.
Iron cookware does NOT produce carcinogens (cancer-causing stuff). If you are an older person or a female, it certainly would help to add iron to your diet. You probably won't need to spend the extra money to purchase vitamins with extra iron in it by cooking with cast iron. However, people with hemochromatosis (iron overload, bronze disease) should not use cast iron cookware. If you are anemic than it will benefit you.
Dakota Chuckwagon: cost = $35,000 with all accessories
If you are wondering if by not cleaning with soap or worried about it, remember that cookware is 400°F in four minutes on medium heat and is sterile at 212°F – so soap is not necessary. Never put your cast iron in dishwasher, use strong detergents (Dawn is mild, if you really insist on using soap), and metal scouring pads – all of these removes the seasoning coating. If you use mild soap, like Dawn, use the original without the scented stuff and THOROUGHLY rinse! Dry with a towel and re-season. The extra work is really not necessary, so just don't use soap.
If you are wondering what oil to use, common vegetable oil works just fine. It is not necessary to purchase more expensive olive oil or peanut oil for the seasoning process; but encouraged to use to cook with. My practice is to cook with olive oil (good for you), but when baking breads or oil cooking a turkey, or baking anything beyond meat – I use peanut oil. Not cheap, it runs between $25 and $35 a gallon.
So, cleaning is not that hard:
  1. Clean skillet immediately after use, while still warm. Do not soak if you do not want rust.
  2. Wash skilled using hot water, sponge and/or stiff brush. No dishwasher, not soap, or steel wool.
  3. To remove stuck food, scrub pan with a paste of coarse salt, like sea salt, and hot water. You can also remove stubborn food residue by boiling water in the pan and then clean as usual.
  4. Thoroughly DRY skillet – or you can dry it on the stove on low heat.
  5. Use a cloth or paper towel and apply a light coat of vegetable oil or melted shortening inside the skillet or pan or oven. Some folks, like myself like to oil outside as well; if so, buff to remove excess oil.
  6. Store in a dry place and if there is not a cover, cover it with a cloth or paper towel to prevent dust forming.
Grill Sergeant
Now the interesting part, or boring part, if you do not like history …
Starting with cast-iron cookware in general, it has been used in various forms and methods over the centuries. [Dutch Oven Chronicled, John Ragsdale, 1991]
Cast iron pans were used as early as the Han Dynasty in China (206 BC – 220 AD) for salt evaporation.
Wikipedia entry:
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. (having long handles on skillets and heavy wire handles to hang at hearth) … Cooking pots and pans with legless, flat bottoms were designed when cooking stoves were popular; otherwise they had three legs to stand above the coals. ...during the first half of the 20th century – Most American households had at least one cast iron cooking pan, like a Griswold or Wagner Ware. …they are highly sought after by antique collectors and dealers. 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. I like Lodge cast iron cookware because: (1) made in the USA, (2) comes pre-seasoned.
Signature Series skillet
Lighter aluminum and Teflon-coated cookware developed in the 1960s and 1970s caused iron cookware to begin to disappear in the American kitchen.
Camp Chef makes a Cast-Iron Conditioner, which I have not tried yet; but if you do first, let me know how well it works. If you plan to get a collection of various iron cookware, it will not be cheap; however it will last a lot longer than your Teflon-coated aluminum pans – and I think food cooks and tastes better in iron cookware. You can find a wide selection of seasoned iron cookware at the Lodge Mfg. Site. A large 13-inch skillet, for example, costs $60 without S/H cost. A 17” diameter skillet is $105. Considering I saw a stainless steel large frying pan for almost $200 at a gourmet cooking specialty shop here on the Peninsula – I guess that is a good price. If you like a glass cover on your seasoned skillet, Lodge has a 12-inch skillet with glass top for $63.
Lodge History:
Lodge Manufacturing is located in South Pittsburgh, Tennessee alongside the Cumberland Plateau of the Appalachian Mountains. It established as a foundry in 1896 by Joseph Lodge, originally named The Blacklock Foundry after Joseph's friend and minister. It was successful until it burned down in 1910. Three months later and moving three blocks south of the original location, the company was rebuilt and became Lodge Manufacturing Company.
The CEO and President today are great-grandsons of Joseph Lodge. Other competitors in the United States have disappeared, but the family-owned company continued by expanding beyond cookware, making cast iron gnomes and animals; which helped keep their employees working in the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In 1950, the foundry was converted from a hand-pour operation to an automated molding process in order to meet the demand of its orders. It also led to a safer and more efficient manufacturing. Lodge updated its foundry again in 1992 by replacing the coal-fired cupola furnaces with an electro-magnetic induction melting system, which earned them a Tennessee Governor's Award for Excellence in Hazardous Waste Reduction.
Too hot in summer to cook inside
In 2002, the Lodge Logic line of pre-seasoned cookware was introduced, which customers like myself appreciated. Lodge also broadened its variety of cookware by importing Porcelain Enameled Cast Iron from China, after several years of researching Chinese companies for the right partner who produced equal quality. The Lodge line of cookware has received positive reviews from magazines like Good Housekeeping and Fine Cooking.
In 2007, the Lodge Signature Series was introduced: cast iron vessels with stainless steel handles. It was an industry first and also won two design awards among thirteen categories.
The popularity of iron cookware is returning with people realizing that those aluminum frying pans don't last long, and the iron cookware can be used at the home kitchen or the campfire. Lodge reports that the demand is exceeding foundry capacity, considering they sell their products worldwide; so they are expanding their South Pittsburgh plant – which is good for those in the area to obtain employment.
If you want to really go pioneer, an iron wood kitchen stove will cost thousands of dollars compared to less than $400 in an 1800s Sears & Roebuck catalog that does not include shipping. To get the stove out West, it first went by train and then freight wagon. Imagine unloading that heavy contraption from a wagon and setting up in a home kitchen!
The cost has risen for several reasons like cost of iron, employee wages and other things. From $400 to $10,000 is just the cost of progress; but it will last a generation or two at least; especially since the new ones have a stainless steel water jacket instead of the old iron ones that rusted away through the years. A Heartland Classic Deluxe model costs $8,500 without shipping; depending where purchased. I believe, so far, one of the best quality stoves are produced by the Elmira Stove Works. They not only make great kitchen stoves, but other antique style appliances as well if you are into a period kitchen. The company is in Canada, but sells a lot in the United States.

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