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May 2010
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October 21, 2009

The Basics Series: A Cast Iron Pan: full of memories

Photo: Warren Bobrow

Cast Iron is THE pan for making cornbread! Photo: Warren Bobrow

The Basics Series: The Cast Iron Pan
Fall is time to bring in a new member of the family to your kitchen. I say family not in the sense of the word as a blood relative-but moreover a family member that will be with you for the rest of your life and perhaps for that of your offspring. This new family member will be as trusted as your grandparents and as giving to your inner self as a glass of fine Kentucky Bourbon. Take this new family member in your hands-admire its heft-the dark glow of the material-the sticky coating covering the surface that will cook a thick slice of sugar cured bacon, a ham steak or a few fried local eggs. Touch this living history and hold it in your hands. Feel the weight. What is this history? Simply put, your new family member is a Cast Iron Pan. If you take the time to season it properly, it will become part of your
family. Shrimp n’ Grits will be stirred and greens cooked low and slow until they release their inner liquids- their pot likker’.   No chemicals or electronically bonded non-stick stirring devices will ever touch it. Only my old hand crafted wooden spoons will touch the inside of my new cast iron pan, and if used correctly, this pan will last a lifetime and then some.  Right now it is dull gray, but given a bath of pork belly or some slowly caramelized onions, the pan will take on an inner glow of contentment.  The time taken now to seek the darkest seasoning will follow this pan throughout its memory.  Years from now- when the pan is used to craft a BLT, it will know- deep inside- the first time bacon touched its cold iron alloy and gave the bacon a warm welcome as if to greet an old friend.

My old cast iron pan came from near Savannah, Georgia out in the real Low Country. Yemassee to be exact. I received it as a gift from a former client who was giving away her kitchen mementos. She said that this cast iron pan had been to “Montana and back, mostly on foot”  Her family’s family cooked in it she said.  It was used to make many a meal over the years. It is not a fancy pan, but it does have a non-stick finish that shines!  I cooked for her a few times- she asked me if I liked cast iron since I always wanted to cook out of that one pan.  I remember replying that it was all I used at home in Charleston.  Then it became mine…This kind of history places my cast iron pan in the annals of early culinary history. Many an egg slipped into this pan not knowing that someday another fried egg would slip out… a century or so in the future. To think of a perfect little chicken, frying gently in my cast iron pan, brined in salt water, then battered in seasoned buttermilk and panko Japanese bread crumbs, or the bacon that cooks low and slow until crispy for my late season heirloom tomato BLT sandwich, or even the perfect cornbread that was made in it almost 150 years prior-gives me pause…

The standards of Southern Cooking in this pan, has always mesmerized me with its inner energy and the flavors contained deeply within.  Some of these memories are passed on in the form of stories. Others are passed on to future generations in the form of passing a cherished cast iron pan on to another generation.  The non-stick coating only comes from years and years of cooking low and slow.  Blackening a piece of freshly caught Brook Trout will not make you a better fisherman, but it will make you a better cook.  It is as if this pan has a memory all its own. The pan is not a fancy “space age technology” non-stick pan, nor is it made of fine French Copper. It’s not made of stainless steel either. But lift it into your hand and connect with the campfire, the washing of that pan (once it has completely cooled) in an ice-cold stream, or just being re-seasoned with memory after memory-in the form of flavor over the years. Yes, this pan has a memory. Many a fine dinner has cooked within its walls for good times and not so good times-the flavors contained within tell a different story each time it is used. This story connects us with a simpler time, before the old cast iron pan in your cupboard was thrown out to make room for non-stick. Little did they know that this pan and all that came before it, was non-stick due to its own inner sense of duty-to cook foods made with love and the care of cooking, not just to feed, but to fulfill a greater cause as well.  George Washington it is said, cooked in cast iron.  His soldiers who inhabited the woods behind my home during the winter of 1778 used cast iron to cook what little they ate. Soldiers were “boiling their boots for soup.”  It must have been a fragrant pot of broth!   I honor them by cooking my own meals in this new cast iron pan that I hold in my hand.

A New Cast Iron Pan/New Pan Seasoning.

I noticed that my new pan is covered in heavy gunk, is it ready to use?  The answer is no.  You must season it before you use it.  The sticky gunk is food safe, but would you want to eat that in your food? I don’t recommend it. First you must remove the packing grease that has been sprayed on the pan.  To do this you first should heat the oven to 500 degrees.  Put something like another baking dish on the bottom rack of your oven, the top rack will hold your new cast iron pan upsides down. Wipe your new family member inside and out carefully with a kitchen towel with the fat of your choice, make sure that kitchen towel is absolutely dry or you will burn your hands.  The pan will immediately smoke heavily.  Open your windows, pour yourself a tall glass of sweet tea, for you have many hours of seasoning ahead of you today.  Turn oven down to 250 and leave it be for a while.  How long? How about a few years… it takes that long to set the seasoning.

The next day caramelize a bunch of onions in that pan.. The next day cook some butternut squash in it.  Chose your dinners carefully and when you cook in the pan, do so with love.  Always smile when you use this new pan- but do not be afraid to show emotion around it.

The pan will appreciate it and so will I. This process of seasoning will take many years- do not hurry or rush.  Never, ever use soap on your cast iron pan.  Soap will stick to the pan and make everything you cook taste of soap.  If you burn something in the pan, take some sea salt and rub it into a paste with a bit of water and scrub away the burn, then re-season as described above.  A pan takes time to become an heirloom, a trusted friend in your pantry. There is much for the pan to remember before it becomes your best friend.  Trust your instincts and cook with passion. The results will sing of the energy contained deep in your new cast iron pan and it will reward you with perfect bacon and a slippery non-stick coating for years to come.

Play the right music and your pan will remember.

Photo: Warren Bobrow

wb

Wild River Review contributing editor, Warren Bobrow grew up on a farm in Morristown, NJ.   A graduate of Emerson College with a degree in Film, he spent his senior year as a research assistant in visual thinking at CAVS / MIT. He worked for many years in the corporate world.His column on food, wine and life, Wild Table appears daily in the online magazine, Wild River Review. In addition to Wild River Review, Warren writes for NJMYWay.comNJ Life Magazine, NJ Monthly and SLOWFOODNNJ.org. He has upcoming work in Edible Jersey Magazine on the topic of Organic and Biodynamic wine and upcoming submissions for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Ed., 2. February brings an article to NJ Savvy Living.  Please follow his moving about and drinkin’ ’round on Twitter @WarrenBobrow1

Trust your instincts and cook with passion!

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Ham Steak!

Photo: Warren Bobrow

2 Comments

  1. Skillets like yours are invaluable for flavorful cooking. Like you say they bring back fabulous memories of past meals and tastes you have long forgotten, long live the cast iron skillet!

    Comment by Cheryl — October 25, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

  2. Thank you Cheryl… it’s all about the memories whilst in the kitchen. Just please be careful when removing the pan from the oven. Always use a good pair of potholders. Cast Iron burns like no other cooking material. wb

    Comment by joystocke — October 25, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

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