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Cast-iron skillets bring flavor home

Wed., Dec. 12, 2012, midnight

Cast-iron skillets can be used to cook up a batch of cornbread and pan-seared salmon, among many dishes. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Cast-iron skillets can be used to cook up a batch of cornbread and pan-seared salmon, among many dishes. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Pan’s versatility opens door to everyday use in the kitchen

In our kitchen, we have managed just fine without Thermo-Clad, All-Clad or anything-else-clad.

That’s because we have an iron-clad alternative: cast iron.

The cast-iron skillet is, of course, the classic campfire cookery item. Yet, please, I beg of you, do not stow it away in your camping box. Keep it in your kitchen, hang it from a hook and use it. The cast-iron skillet is the most useful and versatile of everyday pans – and it has been for at least a couple of centuries.

Here are just a few of its virtues:

• Cast iron is heavy and dense, making it perfect for browning, searing, roasting and caramelizing.

• It heats up fast and maintains heat for a long time.

• It’s oven-proof, which means it’s perfect for those recipes that start on the stove and end in the oven (see Pan-Seared Wild Salmon, below).

• It’s fireproof, perfect for the barbecue grill and the campfire.

• It doubles as an excellent baking pan (see Daisy Hollow House Skillet-Sizzled Cornbread, below).

• With a lid, it makes an excellent braising pan.

• It lasts forever and can be passed down through the generations.

• It’s nonstick, as long as you season it to the proper dark patina.

The seasoning issue scares off some cooks. Yet seasoning a cast-iron skillet is ridiculously easy. First, most new cast iron pans come pre-seasoned. Second, seasoning amounts to merely coating it with shortening and baking it in the oven for an hour at 350 degrees. Third, an old cast-iron skillet like ours is more or less permanently seasoned from decades of use, as long as we don’t do something stupid, like run it through the dishwasher.

Cookbook authors Sharon Kramis and Julie Kramis Hearne have laid out a book-length case for the skillet in their excellent 2004 volume, “The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook” (Sasquatch Books, $16.95). They sum it up succinctly: “Certain recipes require an iron skillet; others just taste better when cooked in one.”

To which I would also add: Some dishes just look better in one (see Dutch Baby, below).

Ideally, a kitchen should have an assortment of cast iron: a large skillet, a medium skillet, a small skillet and a Dutch oven (the Dutch oven being a topic all its own, beyond the scope of this article). However, if you want to put just one item of cast iron on your Christmas list, make it a 10-inch or 11-inch skillet with straight sides. Those can handle just about anything, including all of the recipes below.

Of course, I disregarded my own advice a couple of years ago and bought my daughter a 12-inch cast-iron skillet from Lodge, a quality American manufacturer. My reasoning was: Why go small? Now, this skillet has become somewhat of a family joke, because it requires Olympic weightlifting skills just to haul it in and out of drawers.

To which I reply: Why put it in a drawer? Just keep it on the stove, ready to use at any time.

The following recipes were chosen to show off the versatility of cast iron:

Dutch Baby

This baked breakfast pancake is also known as Dutch Bunny. Also, you can turn it into a German Apple Pancake (highly recommended) simply by sautéing sliced apples with cinnamon and sugar in the melted butter before pouring the batter right over the top. In either case, the highly puffy result is spectacular. Adapted from “The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook.”

2 tablespoons butter

4 eggs

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup milk

For the topping:

3 tablespoons butter

Juice of one lemon

1/2 cup powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Melt the butter in a cast iron skillet over low heat. Mix the eggs, flour and milk until well-blended. Pour the batter into the skillet, over the melted butter. Put the skillet in the oven and bake 25 minutes, or until puffy and slightly golden. Sprinkle with melted butter, lemon juice and powdered sugar. Cut into wedges and serve.

Yield: 2 servings

Daisy Hollow House Skillet-Sizzled Cornbread

You can bake nearly any cornbread recipe in a skillet, yet it’s nearly mandatory with Southern-style cornbreads. The secret is simply to heat up the pan, either in the preheated oven or on the stove, before pouring in the batter. This recipe comes from the marvelously named food writer Crescent Dragonwagon, and it was specifically created for cast iron. Adapted from her cookbook, “The Cornbread Gospels” (Workman Publishing, $14.95).

Vegetable oil cooking spray

1 cup unbleached white flour

1 cup yellow cornmeal (stone-ground if possible)

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

2 tablespoons sugar

1 egg

1/4 cup mild vegetable oil

2 tablespoons butter, or mild vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray a cast-iron skillet with oil and set aside.

Sift together flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl. In a smaller bowl, stir the baking soda into the buttermilk and then whisk in the sugar, egg and ¼ cup oil. Put the skillet over medium heat, add the butter and heat until the butter melts and is just starting to sizzle. Tilt the pan to coat sides and bottom.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and combine them quickly, using as few strokes as possible. Scrape the batter into the prepared skillet and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes.

Yield: 8 wedges

Rösti Potatoes

This is essentially a Swiss potato pancake, perfect for cast iron’s browning properties. This recipe is cooked on the stove but I have found it is also excellent on a barbecue grill. You can also skip the parboiling, but only if you use fewer potatoes and the pancake isn’t too thick. Adapted from “The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook.”

2 pounds russet potatoes, or Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed and unpeeled

4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

4 tablespoons butter, divided

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to boil. Add potatoes and cook for 10 minutes. Drain. Cool to room temperature.

Peel the potatoes (optional) and coarsely grate them. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil and 2 tablespoons of butter in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the grated potatoes and brown until a crisp golden crust forms, about 10 minutes, occasionally gently pressing down on the potatoes with a spatula. Season with salt and pepper.

Invert the potatoes by placing a plate face down on top of the hot skillet. Use thick oven mitts to grasp the skillet and plate with two hands and turn the potatoes onto the plate. Add remaining butter and oil to skillet, let it melt, and return potatoes to the skillet, crisp side up. Cook 10 more minutes, season with salt and pepper.

Yield: 6 servings

Wild Salmon

Cast iron is great for searing meat and seafood. It’s also excellent for blackening fish, Cajun-style, but I would not desecrate wild salmon by blackening it. Here, you simply rub the salmon, sear it and then finish it briefly in the oven, right in the same skillet. (Please note that it’s easy to accidentally blacken a fish in cast iron, because it conducts heat so well. Start at the medium setting on your stove and work up.) Adapted from “The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook.”

4 wild salmon filets, 6 ounces each and 1 inch thick, skin removed

2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

For the rub

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon lemon zest

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine salt, pepper, brown sugar and zest. Sprinkle rub evenly on the top side of salmon and pat in with fingers. Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium or medium-high heat. Place the filets in the skillet and sear for 2 minutes. Turn over and sear for 2 minutes on the other side. Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake until the salmon is just cooked through, about six minutes. Serve with a dill tartar sauce or other sauce of your choice.

Yield: 4 servings


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