Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Kitchen basics: I am Iron Man

On the first kitchen basics about cookware I steered you to get basic stainless steel equipment, with no added frills, like Teflon or other non-stick coating. The basic premise behind that is that by staying in a simple, more purist more you make sure to avoid a variety of messes, like melting plastic handles, scratched Teflon in your food, or simply inferior products requiring special care for an inflated price for it's value.

Stainless is fun, but it has its own limitations.

Enter the granddaddy of cookware, cast iron.

For a variety of reasons, many people shy away from these bad boys. For one thing, they're old fashioned, reminding people of pioneers and grandma's laborious kitchen. For others, its the weight of these bastards, not exactly the best kind of equipment for gangly folks to stir fry. And then there's other technical aspects, like proper use and care to avoid the rust buildup.

The thing is, cast iron cookware is some of the best thing that you can lay your hands on, especially is you are a meat-eater or enjoy the benefits of slow food. The best steaks are seared on a cast iron griddle, braising in them is a joy, and I wouldn't use any other vessel to whip up a righteous chili (except maybe a clay pot, but I'll stick with tradition for now.)

Are they heavy? Yes, but if you understand their purpose, you will learn to see this as an advantage rather than as a liability. If its a problem to lift, its also less liable to be tipped over, spilling burning food all over the place. That grandma used it for years is only a testament to their durability, as they can last long enough to be passed down for a few generations. Their design also provide excellent heat distribution, maximizing energy use and saving you money and effort in the end. A slow-cooked chili left to cool down in the turned -off oven will still be warm overnight, so that the meal is ready to be eaten even after you return from your night shift, or from shoveling off the snow out of the driveway.

Iron vessels come in two variety:

plain iron
enamel coated
I'll profess a fetishist love for both of these products, but especially the enamel-coated variety, in particular the ones produced by Le Creuset. I'll agree that they are expensive, which seems to run counter to the point of the blog, but I've never said that I buy them brand new; I scrounge second hand shops and church sales and Goodwill shops and get them for a fraction of the price, mostly because when the older folks who owned and used them get transferred to retirement homes (or reach their expiry date) their stuff gets dumped at resellers, as the caretakers neither care or know what treasures they are, so with a sharp eye, you can get your hands on those goodies for a few dollars.

If you go for the plain iron kind (second hand or new) the first thing you want to do (besides cleaning them) is to season them. To do that the vessel has to be completely dry and free or rust. then you rub a generous coating of cooking oil all over the inside and pour table salt at the bottom, enough to cover it to a good thickness. Stick it in a hot oven (350-400f is good) for an hour. Take out, scrape the salt off, rub more oil, salt and cook another hour. Take off the salt, wipe clean with some paper towels and let cool.

This is the Cajun seasoning method, providing your vessel with a base signature flavor. This flavor will build over time, so its important to treat you vessel carefully: clean as soon as possible, using only a scrubber (or steel wool) and hot water. Towel or heat dry and rub a thin layer of cooking oil on the inner surface. Avoid using soap (except in extreme cases, like after the first purchase) as this will kill the flavor. After a few years of regular use and care, it will develop a non-stick patina that will rival Teflon, with the added advantage of lasting a hundred years longer and not requiring special tools to handle.

The enamel kind require no special care, except avoiding the use of steel wool if the inner surface is enameled. Not all of them are, so pay attention to the vessel's construction.

As far as the necessary basics, there are two things you want to get: a pan and a crock pot. A 10-12 inch cast iron pan with high sides is an absolute essential if you love properly seared meat. A Dutch oven does wonders for stews, ragouts and roasting of birds and meat roasts, the closed circuit acting like a mini oven. The enamel coated types can serve the same purpose, and can even replace the stainless steel pots; myself I have mostly a selection of the enamel coated pans for pretty much any searing and cooking, keeping the stainless steel pots for pasta, rice and steaming foods. The enamel coating has certain non-stick and heat distribution properties, with none of the carry-over flavor of the plain cast iron vessels.

Cast iron vessels represent a valuable investment for the creative, but cash-strapped cook, as they are versatile, long-lasting and require little special care or tools. They can go range-to-oven without any worries, and they stay hot for prolonged periods of time. Pioneers used Dutch ovens to cook entire meals, using the lid as a grilling surface or for baking bread while a stew or soup was simmering below.

I am an Iron Man and I approve this message.

Thrifter's tip: Le Creuset is not the only brand that makes enamel coated vessels, its just the best. When out shopping for good deals look for the colorful coatings and inspect them to see if they are solidly made, with no cracks in the coating. If the bottom is flaking avoid, as there could be all sorts of unwanted passengers hiding in those nooks. Many are quite affordable even brand new, but if you intend to use in the oven, try to get all-metal vessels, avoiding those with wooden handles or unknown material lid handles, just for convenience's sake. It'll prevent you from having to deal with the fire department or the emergency room if those materials dont stand up to the heat.


  1. I cook with my enamel coated pot all the time. It is probably my single favorite cooking dish. The way it heats evenly I love.

  2. Its the perfect vessel for slow cooking, but also for bread making. I'll be posting about that soon :D