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Cast-Iron Cooking: Better Tasting, Better for You

What’s old is new again, and the recipes are tastier than ever

Aside from giving me a decent education, what my college studies in gastronomically enlightened Berkeley — home to Alice Waters’ earliest locavore teachings at Chez Panisse — really did was nurture my inner foodie. So after graduation I decided to decamp for Paris, the Mecca of my newly discovered culinary world. If Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina could learn to crack an egg with one hand at Le Cordon Bleu and find her Prince Charming, so could I. Along with thoughts of becoming a chef in a charming auberge, I harbored romantic aspirations as well.

So I followed Hepburn's lead right to Le Cordon Bleu, where I learned a lot about food and how to prepare it. When I returned to the United States, I brought back with me not just cooking techniques but the battalion of heavy copper pots I felt were essential to my new livelihood. (There had been a fleeting romance with an actual prince, but that and a cooking career were mutually exclusive.)

By the mid-1980s, the foodie movement had hit the United States hard. Everyone was buying designer cookware and Cuisinarts, and making pâte à choux, thanks largely to Julia Child. In the New Jersey suburbs I was catering and teaching cooking classes out of my home when King’s Super Markets accepted my proposal to create a cooking school in their Short Hills store to capitalize on this growing foodie trend. Our roster of celebrity instructors, including Jacques Pépin and Martha Stewart, as well as fully booked classes of 12, required cookware close to professional grade (the chefs wouldn’t settle for anything less, and pots and pans of inferior quality couldn’t handle the demands of the kind of cooking we were doing). Heavyweight stainless steel was an ideal choice since it wasn’t as expensive as those gorgeous copper pots so beloved by the French (and moi). It was readily available and did the job well.

I still have many of those pans, but more recently I’ve fallen in love with the cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens of my mother’s generation. Because I mostly cook for two or four these days, I tend to reach for my 10-inch two-handled cast-iron skillet. It can do almost everything — plus I can lift and balance it by myself (cast iron tends to be heavy). Crusts for pizzas turn out great, steaks are juicy, oven-roasted vegetables are a revelation, and without much ado I can produce the best-ever fried chicken. (That’s not boasting. It has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the cast iron.) I love being able to transfer the pots from the stovetop or the oven to the table, and I serve it piping hot from the pan — always sure to wear my sturdy oven mitts.

A cast-iron history lesson

Cast-iron cookware has a long and colorful back story. The pans are said to have originated in China in the 4th century B.C. During the Middle Ages, tools and cookware cast in iron were so valuable they were listed as hereditary property in European estates; and in the 15th century, three-legged, dark gray iron cauldrons were common in hearths and fireplaces.

Fast-forward to early America, where colonists relied on the sturdy cast-iron cookware they’d brought with them from the old country. The first piece of cast-iron cookware made in Colonial America was a small kettle cast in 1642 in Lynn, Mass. By the mid-19th century, as pioneers lumbered west in covered wagons, black Dutch ovens were a fixture on the backs of chuck wagons. The ’49ers who camped en route to California treasured their cast-iron frying pans with legs almost as much as the gold they hoped to find.

Today, after generations of lightweight “modern” aluminum followed by an onslaught of nonstick pots and pans, the pendulum is swinging back, and those precious old cooking vessels are proving their mettle as the right cookware for our times and lifestyle. They're more efficient, because you can cook, bake and serve all in one pot or skillet. They cook food more consistently because the iron conducts and retains heat more evenly. They're inexpensive and last a lifetime (take care of them and they'll last many lifetimes). And for most people they're a healthier choice because the small amount of iron that leaches into the food (not harmful, per studies) actually helps prevent anemia. (Anyone who has hemochromatosis — iron overload disease — should avoid cast-iron cookware.)

An additional health benefit is for the planet. Since most disposed pots and pans wind up in landfills, nonstick ones present a special problem: As their surfaces degrade, they become a potential health hazard when their volatile organic compounds persist and, through ground water, find their way into our drinking-water supply. Not that cast iron winds up in the garbage heap, mind you, but if we choose them over nonstick ones, that problem will diminish.

The care and seasoning of cast iron

Unlike cheap, lightweight metal cookware, cast iron only improves with age and use. The surface becomes more stick-resistant, and generally all you have to do is rinse to wipe it clean. Should the surface get abraded, it can still be saved — something I found out the hard way. My husband thought he was doing me a big favor once when he decided to clean up my nasty old skillet. After I got over the initial shock of witnessing him aggressively scouring the inside of my perfectly seasoned, beloved skillet, it only took a little time to re-season it (see below for instructions).

David Smith, aka The Pan Man (www.panman.com), has collected and sold cast iron for more than 35 years and helped write the seasoning and care section of my Cast-Iron Cookbook: Delicious and Simple Comfort Food. Even if the label says pre-seasoned, he says, it’s a good idea to season a pan the first time you use it. Start by washing it in mild, soapy water, then rinse and dry well. Apply a thin layer of solid shortening, like Crisco, with a soft rag and place the pan in an oven preheated to 225 degrees F for 30 minutes. Remove the pan, then wipe off any pooled shortening, leaving the piece still shining wet. If left too long, the shortening will begin to thicken. Return it to the oven for 30 minutes more, remove, cool for 15 to 20 minutes, then wipe to a dull shine. Once you’ve cooked in a seasoned pan, never use a detergent or scouring pads on it (listening, dear?). They will ruin the surface.

So hang on to that black pan you inherited from your mother or grandmother! If yours is stashed away in the attic or garage, fish it out. But if you ditched yours in favor of some fancy designer pans, no problem: Lodge’s 10 1/4-inch skillet, rated as one of the essential tools in the home and kitchen by Martha Stewart Living in February 2008, retails for under $20. A chef’s name on the pan only bumps up the price. And if you are into tag sales and flea markets, there are plenty to be had for less. So revive an old family tradition or start a new one. I’m doing both by passing down my mother’s cast iron skillets to my kids — just not quite yet.

Vegetarian deep-dish pizza

Serves 4 as a main course
The toothsome whole-wheat crust in this pizza plays against broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes, olive and artichokes and is topped with mozzarella and a final shower of basil leaves. It’s my idea of comfort. 

1 pound whole-wheat pizza dough, defrosted in the refrigerator, if frozen
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced crosswise
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 cup tomato pasta sauce
2 cups small broccoli florets, cooked until tender and drained
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil, blotted on paper towels and thinly sliced
1/3 cup pitted oil-cured olives, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano, crushed
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
2 cups (1/2 pound) shredded, low-moisture mozzarella
1 (6.5-ounce) jar marinated and quartered artichoke hearts, drained and blotted on paper towels
3 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons julienned fresh basil leaves

  1. Remove the dough from the refrigerator about 1 hour before preparing the pizza. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees F and position the rack in the lower third of the oven.
  2. Heat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil along with the onions and sauté until onions are limp and golden brown, about 3 minutes; stir in the garlic, cook 30 seconds, and remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl. Wipe out the skillet and brush the bottom and sides with a little oil.
  3. On a lightly floured workspace, work the dough into a circle measuring about 12 inches in diameter, pressing from the center outward with your fingertips and gently stretching it. Transfer it to the skillet and gently push it up the sides, taking care not to tear it. If the dough extends over the edges, trim it even with the pan. The sauce will help hold it up.
  4. Ladle on the sauce, spreading it with a spatula to within 1 inch of the edge; add the reserved onion and garlic, broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes and olives followed by the oregano, pepper flakes and mozzarella. Bake for 15 minutes. Add the artichoke hearts, sprinkle on the Parmesan, reduce the heat to 400 degrees and cook until the cheese is bubbling and golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes.
  5. Remove the pizza from the oven and cool for at least 15 minutes. Shake the pan to loosen. Using a metal spatula, slide the pizza onto a cutting board; sprinkle on the basil and, if desired, brush the crust with the remaining oil. Slice and serve.

Mom’s mac ’n’ cheese with bacon

Serves 8
Growing up, I remember a wickedly cheesy-creamy sauce laced with onions, paprika and loads of sharp cheddar. My siblings and I loved the crunchy browned topping as it arrived bubbling from the oven. When I made it, my kids and friends would attack this dish with a vengeance, thus earning it the name “macattacaroni.” Fresh truffles or white truffle oil can elevate this to a new level of comfort.

1/2 pound uncooked cavatappi or cellentani (corkscrew shaped pasta) or elbow macaroni
1/4 pound thick-sliced lean bacon, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 to 2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
4 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese (1 pound)
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
1 teaspoon Hungarian sweet or hot paprika
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs, found in the Asian sections of supermarkets or coarse breadcrumbs

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes; drain and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, cook the bacon in a 10-inch cast-iron Dutch oven or deep skillet over medium heat for 3 minutes or until a little bacon fat covers the bottom of the pan. Stir in the onions and continue cooking until they are golden and the bacon is cooked through, about 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add enough butter to have about 3 tablespoons of fat in the pan. When it melts, stir in the flour and cook until lightly colored, about 3 minutes, stirring constantly.
  3. Whisk in the milk and bring to a boil, stirring until smooth. Reduce the heat and simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add 3 cups of the cheese, stirring until melted. Stir in the cooked pasta and season with paprika, salt and pepper to taste.
  4. In a bowl, combine the remaining cheddar, the Parmigiano-Reggiano and panko. Spoon the mixture over the macaroni and bake until the top is lightly browned, about 30 minutes. If it is not browned enough, turn the broiler on and cook for 3 to 4 minutes longer, watching carefully that it doesn’t burn. Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Blackberry-raspberry crisp

Serves 4 to 6
There’s no question that berries are at their best and most reasonable in the summer, but it’s not impossible to get quite respectable berries throughout the year. They are always like a breath of summer goodness, and when I do find good ones, it’s a reason to make this delicious but very simple crisp. In a pinch, you could also use individually quick-frozen berries, but don’t defrost them before cooking. I prefer blackberries and raspberries, but you can add in some blueberries, or use just four cups of any one berry.

Unsalted butter to grease the skillet
4 cups fresh berries (blackberries, raspberries and/or blueberries)
2/3 to 3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2/3 cup quick-cook oatmeal
1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
Vanilla ice cream or sweetened whipped cream

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly butter a 10-inch cast-iron skillet.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the berries and sugar. In a small bowl, blend the cornstarch and lemon juice and mix into the berries, gently stirring to combine evenly.
  3. Scrape the mixture into the skillet.
  4. In the same bowl, combine the oatmeal, flour, brown sugar, salt and butter and, using a fork or your fingers, stir until it is crumbly and blended. Scatter it over the berries, transfer the pan to your oven, and bake until the topping is set and the berries are bubbling, about 40 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let the crisp cool for at least 15 minutes or until warm. Serve from the skillet and top with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Joanna Pruess is an award-winning author and journalist who writes about food, travel, and women's issues. She is the author of The Griswold and Wagner Cast-Iron Cookbook: Delicious and Simple Comfort Food, Skyhorse Publishing (2009).

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