Cast-iron cookware: Good for you and lasts forever

In my kitchen, hanging above the long counter where I do my cutting and chopping, there is an array of cookware, including three cast-iron pans. Until the past few years, I never used them much. What was wrong with me? Now I reach for them right away.

Ellen Brown's Cast-Iron Pan Don'ts

"Never scrub a cast iron skillet with an abrasive like steel wool.

“Never use dishwashing soap in it.

Never let it soak in the sink.

”Never put it in the dishwasher.

“Never allow it to air-dry on a dish rack.

”Never allow food to remain in it after the meal is over.

“Never refrigerate food in it."

--  "The New Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook: 150 Fresh Ideas for America's Favorite Pan" by Ellen Brown (Sterling Epicure, 2014, $24.95)

I love them for browning meats, for cooking mushrooms, for burgers and steaks and pork chops and bacon, for chicken thighs or a whole roast chicken. Anytime I want a slow, even heat, or a great, hot sear, without sticking, and without using too much fat, cast iron is my go-to skillet.

Everyone else's too. Cast iron is all the rage, it seems, judging from these two new cast-iron skillet cookbooks that offer plenty of tasty and inventive recipes.

There's "Lodge Cast Iron Nation," from the skillet manufacturer of the same name. The book includes Lodge family (and extended family) recipes along with dishes from chefs and good cooks around the country. An appealing volume, it's filled with charming stories because cast-iron pans bring that out in people.

This iconic yet humble piece of cookware is often passed down from family member to family member. The skillet belonged to your grandma, the Dutch oven was your mom's or you got the griddle you can't live without from a beloved friend. Embedded in its glossy finish -- in its well-used, seasoned surface -- are food stories and fond memories. Slick, sweet and evocative.

There are plenty of homey, delicious recipes in "The New Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook" by Ellen Brown. She also includes an extended, informative opener, hitting on many topics such as the care and use of these skillets, along with their history.

She writes: "Until World War II, saying 'cast iron skillet' was redundant. One just assumed that skillets were made from cast iron, and really only the French were partial to copper."

She continues, telling us that most people never laid eyes on a new skillet. They didn't pop out to the store to buy cookware; these pans were handed down. "When someone needed a new cast iron pot, it was the blacksmiths who made it, a sideline to their primary work of making shoes for horses."

Cast-iron trivia

Ever notice the numbers on the handle of a cast iron skillet? I always figured they were the size of the pan. Not so. Lodge’s Mark Kelly explained that cast-iron pans are measured across the top, not the bottom. A pan that has an “8” on the handle is not an 8-inch pan -- that's the model number (also diameter of the bottom of the pan). The top measures 10¼ inches. So if a recipe calls for a 10-inch skillet, this is the one to use. Long ago, cast-iron Dutch ovens and skillets were manufactured with raised rims on the bottom and these numbers corresponded to a burner on a wood-burning cook stove. In newer pans, they have ditched the model numbers.

-- Miriam Rubin

Who can imagine in our throw-away culture that things once were made to last for generations.

The only remaining cast-iron skillet producer in the U.S. is Lodge Manufacturing Co., located in South Pittsburg (no h), Tenn. A family-run business, they've been making skillets and Dutch ovens since 1896. One of the reasons for cast iron's popularity and resurgence, said Lodge's public-relations director Mark Kelly, is that since July 2007, the skillets have been preseasoned, using a soy-based vegetable oil. So they're ready use right away. It changed everything. "They work and keep on working," he said.

Cast iron offers positive health benefits as well, writes Ms. Brown. With worries about chemicals possibly released if nonstick pans are used when scratched or over a too high heat, cast iron offers "a safe cooking surface that, with very little effort, has always been totally nonstick." And you get some dietary iron, too, she explains, transferred into the food you cook in the skillet. Plus these things are heavy; consider it a bicep workout!

You will need to maintain the pan's seasoning. Mr. Kelly likes to rub olive oil all over the pan and heat it in a low oven for about 20 minutes prior to first using it. Repeat every three months or so, he said, until the pan retains its easy-release finish.

Ms. Brown suggests when using a new seasoned skillet to cook foods in fat, or containing fat (bacon) the first half-dozen times you use it. Also, at first, avoid cooking acid foods, like tomatoes or wine, in it because they can harm the finish. "And remember," she writes, "especially at the beginning, to always rub a little oil on the skillet after drying it with paper towels." And never use soap.

After all, you want to be able to pass it along to someone. Someday.


Bay County Oysters and Fish

This is Mark Kelly's favorite recipe from the book. It's from the recipe box of Patricia Millhiser, the grandmother of a Lodge board of directors member.

Mr. Kelly makes this often, because it reminds him of the abundant seafood along the Savannah, Ga., coast where he grew up. He likes to serve it with just wild rice, "It's the bomb." He also replaces the canned mushrooms with about 1 cup sliced fresh ones, sauteing them in the butter with the onions.

4 tablespoons salted butter or margarine

1 cup finely chopped onion (use any onions, even scallions, said Mr. Kelly)

4-ounce can sliced mushrooms, drained and juice reserved, or 1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms

1 pound flounder fillets, each cut into 4 pieces

1/2 cup liquid (combination of liquor from oysters and juice from canned mushrooms or some chicken broth)

1/4 cup dry sherry

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 pint (8 ounces) shucked oysters, drained and liquor reserved

Hot cooked white or wild rice

Melt butter in 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add onion (and fresh mushrooms, if using) and cook until glazed and tender, 8 to 10 minutes.

Spread onion evenly in skillet. Lay fish over onion. Spread mushrooms (if using canned) over fish. In small bowl, mix liquids, sherry, salt and pepper. Pour over fish. Cover and simmer over medium heat until fish flakes easily when tested with fork, about 5 minutes.

Add oysters to skillet and simmer, uncovered, basting frequently with pan juices until edges of oysters curl, about 5 minutes. Serve in a bowl over rice.

Makes 4 servings.

-- Adapted from "Lodge Cast Iron Nation: Great American Cooking From Coast to Coast" edited by Pam Hoenig (Oxmoor House, 2014, $24.95)

Cauliflower with Garlic and Parmesan

PG tested

The skillet I used was 2 inches deep and 11 inches across the top. When I added all the cauliflower for roasting, I thought the pan seemed too full so I took some out. It would probably have been fine as the cauliflower shrinks down as it cooks. This recipe feeds a crowd. It's a good choice for a potluck offering or a vegetarian main dish. I added a squeeze of lemon to my portion cause that's how I feel about lemon. Roasting cherry tomatoes with the cauliflower is an especially delicious touch.

8 tablespoons olive oil, divided

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 shallots, minced

5 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup plain dried bread crumbs

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 medium head cauliflower, broken into 1 ½-inch florets, core diced

1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained

Preheat oven to 475 degrees.

Heat 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons oil and the butter; tilt pan to coat evenly. Add shallots and garlic and cook, stirring frequently 2 to 3 minutes, until shallots soften. Carefully (pan is hot and heavy), scrape into medium bowl. Stir in breadcrumbs, parmesan and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add remaining 5 tablespoons oil to skillet and heat over medium heat. Add cauliflower, tossing with 2 spoons to coat evenly. Transfer skillet to oven. Roast 10 minutes.

Toss again; add tomatoes. Roast 15 to 18 minutes more, until cauliflower is tender.

Remove from oven, mix with lemon juice and capers and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle crumb mixture over and bake 5 to 7 more minutes, until crumbs are browned. Serve right away or at room temperature.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Adapted from "The New Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook: 150 Fresh Ideas for America's Favorite Pan" by Ellen Brown (Sterling Epicure, 2014, $24.95)

Dilled Cheddar Soda Bread

PG tested

This makes quite a large loaf, so prepare it when guests are coming for dinner or better yet, for brunch! This would be wonderful with cast-iron-pan griddled ham or fried bacon and creamy scrambled eggs. Leftovers can be toasted but it's a little crumbly so toast them under the broiler or in a toaster-oven. 

I used my chicken-fryer cast-iron skillet, which is large and deep, measuring 12 inches across the top and about 2½ inches deep. It wasn't as well-seasoned as my other cast-iron pans, so next time I make this I'll put a piece of parchment paper in the bottom.

Softened butter for greasing skillet

3 cups all-purpose flour (spooned into cup and leveled off)

2 cups whole-wheat flour (spooned into cup and leveled off)

3/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon fine table salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2½ cups buttermilk, shaken

1 large egg

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill

1¼ cups grated sharp cheddar, divided

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease 12-inch cast-iron skillet with softened butter. 

In large bowl, whisk together flours, oats, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda. In a medium bowl, whisk melted butter, buttermilk and egg.

Add buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients and stir with wooden spoon until well mixed. (I found it easiest to mix with my hands and a plastic dough scraper.) Dough will be sticky. Stir in dill and 1 cup cheese. Transfer to prepared skillet, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula dipped in cold water. Sprinkle the top with remaining 1/4 cup cheese and cut large X about 3/4 inch deep in center. Dough is shaggy.

Bake 70 to 75 minutes, until crust is brown and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in skillet 10 minutes, then transfer to rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 1 large loaf.

-- Adapted from "The New Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook: 150 Fresh Ideas for America's Favorite Pan" by Ellen Brown (Sterling Epicure, 2014, $24.95)

Hunter Lewis' The Crispiest Chicken Thighs Ever

PG tested

Hunter Lewis is the executive food editor of "Southern Living Magazine" and he knows his way around a good recipe. It's no joke; these chicken thighs are the easiest, the crispiest and the best. My husband now makes them with great success. They can make the stovetop a little messy, but that's easily cleaned up. Mr. Lewis likes to squeeze lemon into the tasty pan juices and spoon that over the chicken. Sounds good.

Serve with oven-fried potatoes (done in a cast-iron skillet) or roasted sweets and salad or coleslaw. Then fight over who gets to pick at the crispiest chicken skin ever.

6 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs (smaller thighs work best)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Season chicken with salt and pepper to taste. Heat oil in 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Nestle chicken in skillet skin side down, reduce heat to medium, and cook, rotating skillet every 2 minutes to promote even cooking until skin is golden brown, about 12 minutes.

Transfer skillet to oven and roast chicken until just cooked through, about 12 minutes (cook larger thighs about 5 minutes longer). With tongs, flip chicken skin side up and cook 2 more minutes to air-dry the skin. Transfer to plate and let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 3 to 4 servings.

-- Adapted from "Lodge Cast Iron Nation: Great American Cooking from Coast to Coast" Edited by Pam Hoenig (Oxmoor House, 2014, $24.95)

Miriam Rubin: and on Twitter @mmmrubin.


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