Cooking with cast iron cookware
People have been cooking over a fire since the dawn of man. Even with the invention of the microwave and electric stove top, most modern meals are cooked over some fashion of fire. Most people who cook prefer a gas stove to an electric one and you would be hard pressed to find a professional chef who prefers to cook on electric. The only trend that has taken hold recently in the culinary arena is a shift in cookware. Most modern kitchens have pots and pans that are steel or aluminum and might have a copper bottom to retain and distribute heat. Most all of these have a coatLing of Teflon or other non-stick surface to keep the cooking food from bonding with the cookware (see; fried eggs). The modern consumer fell in love with Teflon when it was introduced in the ’60′s and really never looked back. I get it, ease of cleanup and meals that didn’t end up stuck to the pan. Now that it is 50 years later, most have forgotten where we came from in terms of cookware.
This is where cast iron comes in. Cast iron cookware has been around for centuries. You know those old drawings of witches stirring their cauldrons? Those cauldrons are made of cast iron and versions of them were in every household (cast iron cauldrons not witches). Almost everyone in the 17 and 18 hundreds had a hearth or fireplace. Besides being used to heat the home, the hearth was used to cook. Pioneers would simply get their fires going and hang their iron on a rod and let their meals cook. No grill, no stove. Just plain old fire on a pot. Because of this, manufactures of cast iron pots would outfit them with handles that could be used to hang the pots. Later, the spider pot was constructed that included three legs on the bottom of the pot. These stout legs allowed the pot to be placed directly over hot coals for cooking. Hot coals are often placed on top of the lid for even cooking. The pot lids are generally flat and have a small lip around them to keep the coals from falling. I have this version of the lid and also have another version that has a lid that doubles as a fryer. You just flip the lid over and there it is. Instant fry pan.
There are distinct advantages taken from cooking with cast iron. First, they will last forever. These things are heavy, thick and are cast out of one piece of iron. Even if they rust, they can be cleaned with a wire brush and put back into service. Second, they can be used directly over an open fire or with direct contact with coals. This makes them versatile. You can hang them over a fire or directly into a coal bed. If you tried that with a conventional steal pot with copper bottom you would end up with a very unusable commercial pot or pan. Third, these things are relatively cheap. They are at or below the cost of their modern counterparts. You can often find cast iron for sale on craigslist, at swap meets and garage sales. Lots of people like the idea of cast iron but sometimes let them rust. Not knowing how to take care of them causes people to want to get ride of them. I actually picked up a small cast iron fry pan out of a pile of junk left on the curbside. The thing was bright orange with rust. I took a wire BBQ brush and about thirty minutes to get the thing like new. Keep an eye out!!! Fourth, cast iron gets hot fast and retains its heat. This makes them perfect for slow cooks, frying and brazing. They also distribute heat very evenly. This makes for a more balanced cook temperature and even cooking throughout the dish. Fifth, you don’t need soap to clean cast iron. It is actually not recommended to use soap at all. Also, water is used at a minimum for cleaning if at all. With that, there are special considerations when using cast iron.
The biggest concern with cast iron is the seasoning of it. Seasoning is the oil coating that keeps the iron from rusting and gives the cooking surface its non-stick characteristic. This is why you don’t use soap to clean cast iron. It will wash all of that good oil away. Every time you cook, a new coating of oil will form. This oil is to be left on the pot or pan. The more the better. All you do when you are finished cooking is wait for the cookware to cool (duh), empty it out and wipe it clean. That’s it. If you do happen to get chunks on your iron that need more than a wiping just take a wire sponge to it and give it a QUICK rinse. After I find the iron to be “clean” I typically will heat it up to get all of the water to evaporate. place it back over the fire. This will also allow all of the new oils to burn into the iron. Remember, the oil should be on the inside and outside of your cookware.
With the little pan I found on the street, I now have five pieces of cast iron to cook with. A seven qt. pot, a five qt pot, a fryer, a coal lid and mini fry pan. You could cook anything with this set up including baked goods. That’s right, baked goods. There are tons of recipes online and a ton of cooking shows on YouTube about cooking with cast iron. Often they are referred to as Dutch Ovens. These shows are great. You can see John and I cooking on cast iron here.
It’s interesting that the inspiration for writing this article came during a run I took this morning along the boardwalk. In Balboa and Newport Beach (CA) there is a boardwalk that separates the beachfront homes from the beach itself. This three mile stretch of homes are all backed with patios so the homeowners can enjoy the beach. I ran by one house and to my amazement there were two dutch ovens sitting on a bed of spent coals from the night before. Their back patio was floored in bricks so they just set up a pile of charcoal and set off to cooking. I had to stop and talk to them. Luckily, the family was playing on the beach just outside of their home. I introduced myself and asked what they had cooked. If I remember correctly, it was meat and potatoes in one and apple cobbler in the other. It was most likely one of the best meals they had.
In a grid down, disaster or remote camp situation, cast iron is hard to beat. Easy to care for and tough, you can be sure that your cookware will last a lifetime. Eat well party people and be prepared.~ Adam, Modern Bushman >