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Irons in the fire

(article, Ashley Griffin Gartland)

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Until aluminum became affordable in the late 20th century, cast iron was the cookware of choice in American kitchens. But aluminum — coated with its easy-clean pal, Teflon — briefly bumped cast iron off the top shelf. That is, until reports arose connecting nonstick pans to health concerns. And we looked around and found that cast iron was more useful than ever.

Today, Food & Wine magazine includes not one but two cast-iron pans on its list of 10 essential pans. Cookbook authors Sharon Kramis and Julie Kramis Hearne wrote an entire book about classic cast-iron cooking, The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook. On Culinate, both Eric Gower and Kelly Myers have declared their love for cast iron. And Mark Bittman wrote in the New York Times_ that cast iron was the most versatile and durable stuff in his kitchen.

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Cast iron goes from stovetop to oven with ease, which makes it a logical choice for both stovetop preparations like Artichoke Pancakes with Goat Cheese, from the food blog 101 Cookbooks, and baked dishes like Irish Soda Bread, from the food blog Smitten Kitchen. Cast iron also evenly distributes heat to food, making browning, searing, and even deep-frying efficient. 

Cast-iron pans are a bargain; their price tag hovers around $20, and you can often find old cast-iron pans for even less at flea markets and garage sales. And they can last forever; your grandkids might someday be cooking with your cast-iron pans.

The two drawbacks to cast-iron pans are their weight (heavy) and their maintenance (minimal, but you can't just sling them in the dishwasher). 

Some chefs consider the hefty feel of cast iron a pro rather than a con. “The fact that they are heavy is what makes these pans so good for the preferred applications, like cornbread, for instance,” says Lenore Emery, the co-owner of the EVOO Cannon Beach Cooking School in Cannon Beach, Oregon.

Cast-iron pans must also be kept seasoned, to ensure that their surfaces are nonstick. A seasoning is nothing more than a thin coating of baked-on grease, which seals the porous iron and creates a smooth surface. If you're buying new pans, you can either get them pre-seasoned or season them yourself. 

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After you’ve seasoned a cast-iron pan, make sure to heat it well before adding any fat, and use hot water and a scouring pad to wash it after use. Never use soap or steel wool, as both will spoil the seasoning. 

From time to time, you may need to re-season a cast-iron pan, particularly if you burn something in it or forget to dry it and it starts to rust. Re-seasoning takes just a few minutes, and ensures that your pan retains its shiny black patina. 

Keep your cast-iron pans handy and seasoned, and you'll soon find yourself using them for nearly everything: frying eggs, searing meat, baking bread. Not bad for the original nonstick pan.

p(bio). Ashley Griffin Gartland is a Portland-based food writer and the executive director of the Portland Culinary Alliance.


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