I've had just about every kind of cookware imaginable. Why, I even demonstrated Tefal French non-stick cookware in Macy's when I was young. (Teflon! Pure PTFE coating, folks!) My great aunt once gave me a Lifetime brand stainless steel cook pot that I still have. But the piece de resistance of my cookware stash are my old iron pans. I got them when my grandmother passed and I cherish them like they are precious jewels. Not only do they remind me of my grandmother (she received them as a wedding present when she was 19 and had them until her death at 87) but they have been my mainstay through every phase of my life.
My beautiful iron pans
I'm kind of a pioneer-ophile (if there's such a word). I read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a child. I also read all of Willa Cather's books when I got older. I see images of a covered wagon rolling across a prairie with the black cast-iron skillet hanging from the wagon’s bow. My dad cooked his Canadian specialty Shanty Beans in a cast-iron dutch oven buried in the earth under hot coals. So you see this sturdy black cookware was a highly prized possession of my ancestors. I'm not the first to have it be left to favorite relatives in wills. I think every self-sufficient home should be cooking with cast iron.
What's so great about cast iron? As you can see it can last a very long time when properly cared for. That makes it an economical choice. If properly seasoned, it's better than any PTFE non-stick Teflon thing. It's better because it will not leach unhealthy chemicals into your system and, in fact, in can add healthy iron to your food especially when you're cooking with acidic foods such as tomatoes. If it's properly seasoned, you don't have to use as much oil to cook with. Food cooks evenly in it because it distributes heat evenly. I don't need to be a scientist to claim this. My experience of 40-plus years of cooking tells me so.
On the "lighter" side, it's heavy so you can use it to build up your muscle strength. If I can lift my pot with one hand I feel a trip to the work-out place is less necessary. I've yet to brain my husband with a pan, but it's there if he needs it. You need to practice with firearms, but if you're hefting an iron pot every day you've got all the practice you need when the time comes. When I watch old movies and the heroine grabs a knife out of the drawer to defend herself, I think now why didn't she grab the pan? If the bad guy has a gun she can use the pan as a shield and then clock him on the head with it.
Back to reality: I've used an iron pan to cook cream cornbread with chilies and cheese in my oven. There's a great Artisan Bread recipe in GRIT Magazine's Guide to Homemade Bread. Guess what? The iron pan is perfect to cook it in when you have a tight fitting lid. I've even used it to cook over an open campfire or on the Weber. The wonderful thing about cast-iron cookware is, the more you use it the better it gets.
I never buy cast-iron pans new. I always look for them at garage sales. This is how I got my pans for camping. I just make sure there aren't any cracks. If you get one from a yard sale, you will most likely need to properly clean it and then re-season it before you use it. And don’t pass up a used piece of cast iron because it’s rusted. If the price is right you can repair it with a little elbow grease.
For general cleaning you will need only a steel pad and warm water. I'm not talking about Brillo. You don't want to use any soap in it. I'm talking about the little pure steel wire-y thingies you find in the cleaning section of the store next to the little copper wire-y thingies.
Once it's clean all you need is a little good quality oil to season it with. I like olive oil. No rancid oil, please. I just put my iron pan on the stove and pour a little olive oil in it and then I wipe most of it away. Then I heat it a little bit over low heat. Don't let it smoke. I've been told that the process opens the pores of the metal and lets the oil soak in but don't quote me on that. Over-heating hurts the pan and you're taking a chance of burning it up. So set the kitchen timer for 5 minutes and keep an eye on it.
Iron pans are the best. What do you use your iron pans for?
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