So what was Grandma thinking when she cooked in cast iron? Didn’t she realize the iron released into her food might actually harm the health of her family!? Grandma had some tenants of do’s and don’ts about cast iron cookware that were carved in stone, or at least engraved in cast iron.
Where does cast iron come from and what is it? Let’s go way back to the 5th century B.C. Archaeologists uncovered primitive cast iron near an ancient foundry. It was nearly one thousand years before cast iron found its way to the west from, wait for it, China. The Chinese made the first cannon from cast iron, then some other applications for warfare. When the western world took the ‘new metal’ it was tinkered with through mixtures of carbon and other ingredients to come up with today’s cast irons. What is ‘other’ cast irons, is it not just for cooking? The simple explanation is that cast iron is very complicated. Long after the first cannons were made, cast iron was used in building, think of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, cast iron. Many cast iron bridges are still bridging after two hundred years. There is gray cast iron, white cast iron, often used in construction and products that require high strength applications like ball bearings. Malleable cast iron can be engineered for high strength and be refined for use in car engines. Then there are cast iron sewer pipes, cast iron bath tubs, and on and on.
Back in Grandma’s kitchen, let’s look into her cast iron skillet, easy to do because she kept her pan well-oiled and well-seasoned. It reflects a shimmering, dark image as though it can see into your deeper thoughts. I’m thinking the wicked witch queen in Snow White had a cast iron mirror. What you hold in your hand at Grandma’s is the result of years of cooking, cleaning and seasoning. One myth I love is this, ‘Never use soap on cast iron.’ ‘Never clean cast iron’ is a beauty as well. Always clean your pan, using soap and hot water and a gentle abrasive like a pot scrubber is fine. After cleaning, dry the pan right away and heat it on the stove for a bit, then wipe it with vegetable oil. Over time the black surface becomes a deep, dark reflective surface that is a natural non-stick pan. I own more than a dozen cast iron pots, pans and oddities. Two of my favorite oddities are the Plett pan used by Scandinavians to make little, lacy pancakes, seven at a time. The Abbleskiever pan has deep, half-sphere impressions that you fill with a waffle batter, once the downside is brown you use knitting needles, or in my case, chop sticks to quickly push down on one side to roll the ball over and cook the up side. The result is a little round ball of yummy which you sprinkle with powdered sugar and syrup or applesauce and sour cream. Not cleaning your iron pan can ruin the surface requiring re-seasoning. If you wipe your pan out and feel little bumps, that is crud, scrub it out. One way to clean the pan is to add water and heat it up, let it sit for a while and most foods come right off.
Here are the outdoors-man applications: you can cook most anything in cast iron with enough grease or bacon fat. I have two cast iron pots with feet and a heavy lid, these are the original crock pots. Add in your meat and vegetables while the fire burns down to coals. Slide the pot into the fire pit and shovel live coals around and on top of the pot, then add a layer of wood, not much, to the pile. While you get ready to leave camp the wood should have become a fresh layer of coal that will help slow-cook your meal. A few hours later you reach in with your bare hand and pull out the pot. I like my hand so I use tongs or an iron hook and a welder’s glove to remove the pot from the fire. Take a peek inside, your chicken caccatore (hunter style) dinner is ready to eat.
One sage adviser cautions, ‘One food you never, ever cook in cast iron is fish’ I should add them to my campsite when I’m doing a mess of trout. In the end, cast iron cookware is here to stay, just ask our pioneers who cooked on it every day. If you like, you can buy cast iron covered in baked brightly colored enamel, of course the price for Le Cruset is ten times the cost of humble, black cast iron.
Bill Hanson is a Sonoma County native and a lifelong sportsman. He is the former president of the Sonoma County Mycological Association. Look for his column in The Community Voice each week.