column By: Culinary Creations from Gordon Hemersley | March, 21
The next morning Fiona, who is Scottish and very good with columns of numbers, sent me to a restaurant supply store to buy more glasses. With a smirk, she reminded me that we’d be out of business soon if I came back
with anything other than a few cases of wineglasses. She knows that restaurant supply places are to chefs what Orvis, L.L.Bean and Cabela’s are to sportsmen.
When I returned with no familiar boxes that looked anything like wineglasses, Fiona asked what was up.
“Backordered,” I said.
“So what’s that?” she asked skeptically, pointing at the heavy-looking box I carried with both arms.
“Nothing much ... cost us less than two wineglasses,” I said, disappearing into my kitchen.
As cooks gathered round, I tipped a huge 20-inch round cast-iron pan out and onto the counter, wiped the black beast with a light coating of cooking oil and threw it in the oven at 500 degrees for an hour. I repeated the oiling and oven routine, and the pan was then ready to cook with. I added more oil, cut two heads of garlic in half and a few onions and carrots. Then I added 10 chicken thighs, sprinkled it all with salt and pepper and put the pan back in the 500-degree oven. An hour later, we ate lunch. And that pan became the most sought-after cooking vessel in the kitchen for years.
Casting iron originated in China around 5,000 B.C. and made its way to Europe as cooking material in the 1700s. It was the American pan of choice until around the 1960s when copper, stainless steel, aluminum and Teflon replaced them. Today, these rugged pots and pans of our grandparents are being rediscovered, restored and put to good use.
My favorite “go-to” skillet is a 10-incher made by Lodge that belonged to my mother. And I’m not kidding when I say I cook everything in it: quick breads, sourdough loaves, fried chicken, stir-fry, most eggs, most fish, shellfish, steaks, roasts, braises, soups, pizza, even soufflés. The 20-pound Thanksgiving turkey always cooks in that 20-inch monster! Desserts? The best apple tarte Tatin is made in cast iron.
That goes for game birds, of course, too. Whole roasted grouse or Hungarian partridge, fried quail, flash-seared sharpies or doves – they all do well in cast iron. And aesthetically, nothing beats bringing to the table a bubbling cast-iron skillet full of pheasant with apples, onions and sage, popping it down and letting hunters dig in.
To avoid hot spots, the best way to heat a cast-iron pan is in the oven but heated slowly on a burner large enough to cover the entire bottom works, too. Once hot, cast iron will maintain even heat far longer than other materials.
To initially season a cast-iron pan, rub a light coating of cooking oil onto the entire surface of the pan and bake it in the oven at 500 degrees for about an hour. Then wipe the pan with a clean towel. Repeat the process two or three times more. This bakes on layers of carbonized oil, the black surface that keeps food from sticking to the raw iron. The more the pan is used, the better the surface becomes.
There are a few things that shouldn’t be cooked in cast iron. Highly acidic foods will break down the surface of the pan and will also impart a metallic flavor to your food, so no long-cooked tomato sauces in cast iron. Delicate fish doesn’t do well in cast iron, either. Use Teflon, a stainless pan or the microwave for fish like flounder or cod.
A general rule of thumb for cast iron is to cook with it, clean it, dry it and store it. Cast iron is best kept in a dry place with lids either off or askew. As with your old side-by-side, avoiding condensation is key.
The storied American companies like Griswold (closed in 1957), Wagner and Lodge make heavy pots and pans, and the older antiques are highly prized. But newer artisanal manufacturers like The Field Company in Wisconsin, Marquette Castings in Michigan or the Smithy Ironware Company in South Carolina employ modern techniques that render their pans lighter and more user-friendly. The new ones are truly things of beauty!
My kitchen crew asked me for another big skillet and then another. From the beginning of their day until the end, those cast-iron skillets were in high demand. When we sold the restaurant, I gave each of my sous chefs one, and I took the others. There’s a lesson here. Use what the pros use, and you won’t be sorry.