Be Not Afraid: Cast Iron Skillet Cooking

 

I’ll admit it. For years I was afraid of cast iron skillet cooking. It just seemed sooo complicated and I just didn’t think I could do it. Nor did I really want to try.

One day, my mother gave me an 8” cast iron skillet that had belonged to her mother and my life was changed. Well, my cooking anyway. Although I don’t know exactly how old it is, I’m going to guess it’s 60 years old if it’s a day. It looked as good as the day it was born and the seasoned surface was as smooth as glass. The first time I used it, I was hooked for life.

Why Choose Cast Iron?

How many sets of pans have you bought in your life? Most of the “economy priced” pans sold in department stores are made of aluminum. They’re available in different styles, sizes and colors, all the better to match with your kitchen, your dishes or whatever outfit you’re wearing today.

But then what happens next? Aluminum is a soft metal so your pans begin to warp. They get dented and the color begins to wear off the outside. Someone uses a metal fork and scratches the nonstick coating (which – FYI – they then eat). It’s time to replace them but you don’t mind. Maybe you can match the next set with the tablecloth.

Let’s say you decide to shell out a little more cash for some high quality stainless steel pans. Sure, you’re gonna pay a few hundred dollars but it’s going to last a lifetime, right? Except…that I find that they’re more trouble than they’re worth. I actually have 2 stainless steel skillets that I never use.

In order to avoid having your food stick to these pans, you must cook over higher temperatures. The pan needs to be preheated to just the right temperature, then you need to add just the right amount of oil and heat that to just the right temperature. Only then are you ready to cook your eggs.

The problem here is that I’ve never been able to make it work. Every time I attempt it, I spend the rest of the day scrubbing because there is one thing stainless steel pans are really good at: hanging onto stuck food.

Cast irons pans, on the other hand, are a dream. For the cost of just one set of those “economy” pan sets, you’ll have a pan that’s indestructible and, when properly seasoned, naturally nonstick. A cast iron pan will, literally, be the last pan you’ll ever have to buy. They don’t ever wear out, warp, fade, dent or crack. And the more you use them, the more nonstick they will become.

Fat Polymerization

According to the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils (ISEO), fat polymerization is ”All commonly used fats and particularly those high in polyunsaturated fatty acids tend to form larger molecules (known broadly as polymers) when heated under extreme conditions of temperature and time. Under normal processing and cooking conditions, polymers are formed. Although the polymerization process is not completely understood, it is believed that polymers in fats and oils arise by formation of either carbon-to-carbon bonds or oxygen bridges between molecules. When an appreciable amount of polymer is present, there is a marked increase in viscosity.”

Wait…what? Trust me, it’s relevant. Most of us call it “seasoning the pan”. This is the first step in cast iron cooking and the most important. Seasoning will give your pan a non-stick surface.

Seasoning is an easy process that should be applied to every new cast iron pan you get, even if it claims to be “pre seasoned”. It’s a process that also can be used on a pan that hasn’t been properly taken care of in the past or hasn’t been used in a while.

Depending on what you cook in your pan, it may need to be reseasoned from time to time. Cooking acidic foods such as tomatoes or using acidic ingredients such as wine or vinegar can damage the seasoning. Cooking foods that don’t have a lot of oil in them (such as baking pizza or cookies) can also leech some of the seasoning away from the pan. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t cook these things in your cast iron…it just means you’ll need to season it again at some point.

Here’s the good news: the more you cook in your cast iron, the more durable the seasoning will become. Every time you use oils (whether it be added oils such as olive or oils naturally found in meats) in your pan, the seasoning improves.

So what is the process? Here it is in 7 easy steps:

  • Preheat the oven to 375℉.
  • Thoroughly wash your pan in hot soapy water. If your pan hasn’t been properly cared for, has food residue/carbon build up or rust, use a steel wool to remove it.
  • Dry thoroughly.
  • Spread a thin layer of oil or shortening over the pan using a paper towel or basting/pastry brush. My personal preference is vegetable shortening as it’s easier (read: less messy) to use than liquid oils but you can use any oil you have on hand. Olive oil, sesame oil, flax seed oil, butter or bacon grease are not recommended due to their low smoke point.
  • Place your pan upside down on the upper rack of your oven. Place a piece of aluminum foil or silicone baking sheet on the lower rack to catch any drips.
  • Bake for one hour.* Shut off the oven and allow the pan to remain in the oven undisturbed until it’s completely cool.
  • That’s it! Go cook something!

*This will likely create a bit of smoke. If you’re sensitive, be sure to open a window or turn on your kitchen fan!

Continuing Care Of Your Cast Iron Skillet

The logical thing to do next is to ask around for advice on how to manage the continuing care of your cast iron skillet. How do you clean it? How do you store it? What foods can you cook in it? What foods should you avoid? How do you preserve the seasoning?

How many different answers did you get? I’m guessing all of them. I’m guessing that now you know that you should just wipe out your pan after cooking. Unless you should use rock salt. Except that a stainless steel scrub is the only way to go. Never, ever, let water touch it.

You should always store your cast iron in a dark cupboard except that it’s better to keep it in the oven. Hanging it from the ceiling is optimal unless it falls on your head. In that case you should take it down and leave it on your stove top.

Don’t cook stinky foods like garlic and onions in your pan. Acidic foods such as tomatoes, lemons or wine will end in disaster. Eggs will stick. Fish will dry out. And that family sized chocolate chip cookie? That’s certain to taste exactly like the ham and red eye gravy you had for dinner. You could cook a steak as long as it hasn’t been marinated (again with that nasty ACID). It might be best to stick to just cornbread and bacon.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what gives cast iron a bad name.

 

Real Life: Cooking With Cast Iron

So, what’s a girl to do? Well, the first thing is to remember that these pans are made from iron and steel. There’s not much you can do to hurt their feelings. The only real thing that will be a damper on your day is if it develops rust but since we know rust can be scrubbed out that’s not a deal breaker. Just kind of a pain.

Here are my thoughts:

Season your pan. Season it when it’s new (even if it claims to be pre seasoned) and reseason if you notice that food is sticking to it more than usual.

Clean your pan as soon as possible. If there are food particles stuck to the bottom of the pan, feel free to put a little water in the bottom after removing the food. You can let it sit until the food is loosened, which I’ve found takes about as long as it takes me to eat.

I like to swish the inside of the pan with some soap and water to remove any cooking flavors, using the scrubby side of the sponge to remove any food particles. After rinsing and towel drying, I use a towel or paper towel to apply a thin layer of vegetable shortening to the inside of the pan. Turn the towel over to the “dry” side and wipe any excess shortening from the pan, leaving as thin a sheen as possible. The whole thing takes less than 5 minutes.

If you prefer to use one of the other cleaning methods discussed above, feel free to do so. This is a judgment free zone.

Don’t allow your pan to remain wet for any length of time. Don’t put it in the dishwasher. Don’t let it soak in the sink until you “get around” to washing it. If it gets wet (intentionally or not) wipe it dry ASAP. This is simply so you don’t have to spend time removing rust from the surface of your pan.

Don’t store leftovers in the pan. Because…again….rust. No one wants rust in their leftovers.

Store your pan in an area where it won’t get wet. Cupboard, oven, stove top, above, below, east, west, I don’t care. Just not in a wet area.

Cook whatever you want. If it affects your seasoning, simply coat it with a little shortening or reseason it. Cooking some foods will have a learning curve but you’ll get the hang of it in no time!

Real Life Recap – Cooking With Cast Iron: Season your pan and don’t let it rust. The end.

That’s My Story And I’m (Non)Sticking To It

So there it is and it’s just as simple as it seems. What do you think? Are you ready to take the plunge? I promise you won’t regret it.

Be not afraid.

All my best,

Cynthia
cynthia@cynthiaeats.com

Red Bean Casserole

Red Bean Casserole

⅔ cup small red beans

4 cup water, divided

1 red onion

2 cloves garlic

1 jalapeno pepper

½” piece fresh ginger, peeled

2 slices bacon

⅛ tsp cumin

½ tsp salt

2 large tomatoes (1 pound or 2 cups chopped)

¼ tsp chili powder

⅛ tsp garam masala

½ cup heavy cream

¼ cup pickled red onions

Cover beans with 2 cups of water and allow to soak for 6 – 12 hours. Drain and rinse.

Add 2 cups of water and beans to a saucepan. Turn heat to medium. Cover and simmer for 45-60 minutes or until tender, checking occasionally to ensure there is enough water to keep beans from scorching. Drain excess water, if necessary.

(NOTE: The above step can be done ahead. Store beans tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.)

Preheat the oven to 350℉.

Roughly chop onion and place in a blender or food processor with garlic, jalapeno and ginger. Puree until smooth adding a bit water if neccesary.

Cook bacon in a saute pan over medium-low heat until it’s crispy and has rendered it’s fat. Add onion mixture, cumin and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the excess moisture has evaporated and turned a golden brown, 8 – 10 minutes.

Puree tomatoes in a blender or food processor. Mix tomatoes, onion mixture, chili powder and garam masala together. Gently stir in beans.

Transfer to an oven-safe dish and drizzle cream evenly over the top. Bake until sauce is thickened and top is brown, 30 – 40 minutes.

Sprinkle top with pickled red onions and a small amount of brine.

Serve hot with rice or tortillas, if desired.

4 servings, 285 calories per serving (beans only)

Hack: Freeze leftover portions sealed in serving sized portions for future use. Allow to thaw completely in the refrigerator before reheating.

Hack: One cup of frozen onions can be substituted for fresh onion in this recipe.

Hack: One 15 oz. can of red beans, drained and rinsed, can be substituted for the dried beans in this recipe.

Hack: 2 cups tomato sauce can be substituted for the fresh tomatoes.



Asparagus with Caramelized Onions and Tomatoes

Asparagus with Caramelized Onions and Tomatoes

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp butter

1 large onion, thinly sliced

1 pint grape tomatoes, sliced in half

1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut in to 1” lengths

1½ teaspoon balsamic reduction

Place olive oil and butter in a heavy saute pan and turn heat to medium low.

Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and beginning to caramelize, 30-40 minutes.

Add tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid from tomatoes has evaporated, 30-40 minutes.

Add asparagus, turn heat up to medium high and cook until all liquid from asparagus has evaporated, 10-15 minutes.

Make a well in the center of the pan and add balsamic reduction. Stir to deglaze the pan.

Serve immediately or store, tightly covered, in refrigerator for up to 5 days.

3 servings, 170 calories per serving


Creamy Garlic Parmesan Chicken

Creamy Garlic Parmesan Chicken
(Courtesy:  Arty Garland) 

½ lb skinless boneless chicken breast, cut into 3 strips

2 tbsp olive oil

1 cup sliced mushrooms

1 tbsp butter

1 garlic clove, minced (1 tsp)

1 tbsp flour

½ cup chicken bouillon

½ cup heavy cream

½ cup Parmesan, shredded

1 tsp garlic powder

½ tsp salt

½ tsp pepper

1 cup frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

1 cup grape tomatoes

Heat olive oil over medium high heat. Add chicken and brown on all sides. Remove from the pan.

Add mushroom and cook until tender, 4-5 minutes. Remove from the pan.

Turn heat to medium. Melt butter in the pan, add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add flour and cook until it simmers, stirring constantly. Add bouillon, heavy cream and Parmesan, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Bring back to a simmer and cook for one minute or until thickened.

Add spinach, tomatoes and mushrooms to the cream mixture and bring to a simmer. Add chicken and cook until it registers an internal temperature of 160℉, 7-10 minutes.

Serve over hot egg noodles or rice, if desired.

3 servings, 450 calories per serving



Smothered Pork Ribs

Smothered Pork Ribs

2 boneless pork ribs (3 oz each)

Salt and black pepper

2 tbsp olive oil

1 clove garlic minced (1 tsp)

½ onion, sliced

½ green bell pepper, sliced

½ red bell pepper, sliced

1 small tomato, chopped

1 jalapeño pepper, minced

3 tbsp tomato paste

¼ cup red wine

½ cup chicken stock

Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a heavy saute pan over medium high heat. Dry pork ribs with paper towels and sprinkle pork ribs with salt and pepper.

When oil is heated, brown ribs on all sides (3-4 minutes). Remove from the pan and set aside.

Add remaining tbsp olive oil to the pan. Add garlic, onion, peppers and tomatoes. Saute until softened, about 5 minutes.

Add tomato paste and saute for 1 minute. Add wine and scrape the bottom of the pan to deglaze. Add stock, stir and then move vegetables to create a well in the center of the pan. Turn heat down to medium.

Place ribs in well and cook until they reach an internal temperature of 160℉ (about 10 minutes)

Allow to rest 5 minutes before serving.

2 servings, 350 calories per serving



Preparing Healthier Meals

Eating Healthy. It’s something we all know we should do but it can seem like an impossible task. Often we feel so ingrained in our bad behavior that it’s hard to decide how to even get started.

I’m not an expert in the field and my eating habits are not perfect. I’m just a gal who’s trying to do better today than I did yesterday. I fall off the wagon just like everyone else and have to backpedal to get on the right track again.

I have, however, picked up a few nuggets of knowledge along the way in regard to preparing healthier meals and I’d like to share a few of them with you!

Eat At Home (And Pack Your Lunch)

Americans love to eat out. It’s a fact. Studies show that we, on average, spend over 50% of our total food budget to eat food away from home 4-5 times per week.

Now, we all know the dangers associated with fast food but there are pitfalls at your local sit-down eatery as well. Restaurants are in the business of serving food that tastes good with little regard to how healthy it may be. The result is often an increased amount of fats and sugars compared to meals you would normally cook at home.

The bottom line? Those who eat more home cooked meals are simply healthier than those who don’t.

And since you’re cooking dinner anyway, why not cook extra to pack for your lunch tomorrow?

Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables

The recommended amounts of produce for adults is 1-2 cups of fruit and 1-3 cups of vegetables. (And, no, french fries don’t count.) This seems to be an area where many of us fall short. More than 90% of Americans don’t eat enough produce.

While a wide variety of fruits and vegetables are the optimal solution to good health, let’s be serious. We don’t all like every vegetable. Me? Not crazy about salads. Or at least that’s how I feel about the bowl full of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. However I love this Mexican Avocado Salad and this Orange Beet Salad.

Vegetables can take on a whole new flavor profile when combined with a small piece of bacon, some soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, or a few nuts. Sometimes, they can even be the base for your entire meal!

Smoothies made with whole fruits and vegetables (not juice) are a great choice. Quick to prepare and easy to take along for the ride to work. This is one of my favorites but there are plenty of other options out there, both “green” or “fruity”. Really, almost any combo of fruits and veggies work well in a smoothie so use your imagination!

So, maybe it’s not that you don’t like produce. Maybe it’s just that you don’t like the way you’ve been preparing it!

Lose The Cans And Bottles

Marinades, sauces, dips, soups, canned fruits and veggies…the vast majority of these pre-made items are loaded with sugar, salt, fat and all kinds of additives. And P.S.? They don’t taste nearly as good as what you can whip up in your own kitchen.

OK, OK, you’re right. I’m not going to ferment my own vinegar or soy sauce. It’s stinky and it takes months.

What I can do is make a few key items when I have the time and store them in the freezer for when I need to use them. Applesauce, cranberry sauce, barbecue sauce and tomato sauce are just a few examples of things you can whip up in no time!

Salad dressings and dips often don’t hold up as well to freezing but it’s easy to throw together just the amount you need for the meal you’re having. Blue cheese? Yes, please! Thousand island? Honey Mustard? Making these will leave you unflustered!

And this ranch powder mix will happily sit in your cupboard for a long time until you need it.

Plan Ahead

  1. Make a meal plan. This doesn’t have to be complicated but it is important. It’s a fact that those who make a meal plan are more likely to have a healthier diet.
  2. Hit the store. Make a list of everything you’re going to need to make those meals and go shopping for everything you don’t already have.
  3. Prep, prep, prep. Prep all the food you just brought home from the store. Break the proteins down into serving sized portions for freezing (so you don’t have to defrost 5 pounds of ground beef to make one meal) and pre-prep other items in advance (such as turning that head of broccoli into bite sized pieces). It’s easier to prepare a meal after work if you’ve already done some of the work!
  4. Cook for the future. Since you’re cooking anyway, why not make enough for another meal? Many of my recipes, such as this pepper steak stir-fry, make 2 or 3 servings that can be used for several meals during the week. I love to cook a whole meatloaf and then freeze individual slices to use later in sandwiches. Uncooked meatballs can be frozen (make sure the ground beef hasn’t been previously frozen) and then thawed in single portions to make sweet and sour meatballs or pasta.
  5. Don’t be overzealous. This is a mistake I’ve made more than once. I mean, why not double this sausage and butternut squash skillet so it will last the whole week? Because I guarantee you’re going to be sick of eating it by day 3. Luckily, it freezes nicely so I was able to eat the rest a few weeks later.

Go Forth And Cook


The road to eating healthier meals can seem like a long and daunting journey but keep in mind that you don’t have to be good at this all at once. There will be missteps, missed exits and side trips. The important thing is to stick with it. Before you know it, you’ll be looking forward to preparing that healthy meal. I promise.

What strategies have you adopted to make things easier? Let me know in the comments below!

All my best,


Cynthia

cynthiaeats.com

Cheesy Black Bean Dip

Cheesy Black Bean Dip

⅔ cup dried black beans

4 cups water, divided

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 red onion, minced

3 garlic cloves, minced (3 tsp)

¼ cup tomato paste

¾ teaspoons smoked paprika

¼ teaspoon red-pepper flakes

½ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ cup boiling water

Salt and pepper to taste

¾ cup grated Cheddar (3 oz)

Cover beans with 2 cups of water and allow to soak for 6 – 12 hours. Drain and rinse.

Add 2 cups of water and beans to a saucepan. Turn heat to medium. Cover and simmer for 45-60 minutes or until tender, checking occasionally to ensure there is enough water to keep beans from scorching. Drain excess water, if necessary.

(NOTE: The above step can be done ahead. Store beans tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.)

Heat the oven to 475 degrees.

Heat olive oil in a saute pan over medium low heat. Add onions and saute for 5 -10 minutes until translucent but not browned. Add garlic and saute until fragrant, about one minute.

Stir in the tomato paste, paprika, red-pepper flakes and cumin and saute for 30 seconds.

Add the beans, water and generous pinches of salt and pepper, and stir to combine. Transfer to an oven-safe dish and sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top. Bake until the cheese has melted, 5 to 10 minutes. If the top is not as browned as you’d like, run the skillet under the broiler for 1 or 2 minutes.

Serve immediately with corn chips, crusty bread, pita or rice.

6 servings, 245 calories per serving (dip only)

Hack: Freeze leftover portions sealed in serving sized portions for future use. Allow to thaw completely in the refrigerator before reheating.

Hack: One cup of frozen onions can be substituted for fresh onion in this recipe.



Crispy Fried Green Tomatoes

Crispy Fried Green Tomatoes

2 large green tomatoes

1 egg

½ cup milk

½ cup flour, divided

1 tsp salt

½ tsp pepper

½ cup cornmeal

¾ cup butter (1½ stick)

Cut tomatoes into ½“ slices and set aside.

In a small shallow bowl, whisk egg and milk. In another small, shallow bowl, mix ¼ cup flour, salt and pepper. In a third bowl, mix remaining flour and cornstarch.

Dredge each tomato slice in flour mixture, dip in egg mixture and coat with cornmeal mixture. Lay in a single layer on a flat surface and allow to rest for at least 5 minutes.

Melt ½ cup butter in a heavy skillet over medium until it begins to foam and sizzle around the edges. Carefully place tomato slices in the pan and fry for 2 minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Do this in batches so as not to crowd the slices in the pan. Add more butter as necessary.

When cooked, remove slices from pan to paper towels or rack to drain. Allow to rest for 5 minutes before eating.

Serve with ranch dressing, if desired.


74 calories per slice



Creamy Beef and Shells

Creamy Beef and Shells

2 tbsp olive oil, divided

½ lb chuck beef, cut into 1” cubes

1 onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced (2 tsp)

1¼ cup water, divided

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

¼ cup red wine

1 red bell pepper, cut into ½ slices

1 green bell pepper, cut into ½ slices

1 cup grape tomatoes, cut in half

¾ tsp Italian seasoning

⅓ cup tomato paste

1 cup beef bouillon

1 tbsp cornstarch

½ cup heavy cream

2 cups pasta shells, cooked

Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a large heavy skillet or pan over medium high heat. Dry stew beef on paper towels and add to hot oil. Brown on all sides and remove from pan.

Add onion and saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Push onion to the sides of the pan to make a well. Add garlic to well and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add beef back to pan, add 1 cup water and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to simmer, cover and turn heat to low. Simmer for 2½ hours. 

Add red wine to pan and stir to deglaze.  Remove beef and juices from pan and set aside.

Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in pan over medium heat.  Add peppers and tomatoes.  Saute until peppers are soft, 5-7 minutes.  

While peppers are cooking, use your fingers or a fork to pull beef apart into small pieces.

Add Italian season and tomato paste to peppers and mix well.  Stir in broth and bring to simmer.

Mix ¼ cup water with cornstarch in a small bowl or glass.  Add to pepper mixture and bring back to a simmer, stirring constantly.  Simmer until broth thickens.

Add beef, cream and shells into pan.  Heat through and serve immediately.

4 servings, 595 calories per serving

Hack:  Pasta can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months.


Homemade Sweet Potato Fries

Homemade Sweet Potato Fries

1 large sweet potato (about 1 pound)

Vegetable oil

Salt to taste

Peel sweet potato, if desired. Cut into ½” strips.

Heat 1” oil in a heavy skillet on medium until a drop of water sizzles when dropped into it (5-10 minutes).

Carefully put sweet potato strips in hot oil and fry until golden brown (7-10 minutes), cooking in batches so as not to crowd potatoes. Remove from oil with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels or rack. Salt to taste while still hot.

Serve with honey mustard dip, if desired.

3 servings, 200 calories per serving