It may be the most versatile pan around, yet it’s hundreds of years old and comes in one color: the cast-iron pièce de résistance. For generations of cooks, the pan has been passed along from kitchen to kitchen as an heirloom.
Among the fans of the heavy-duty pan is Ross Sveback of Afton, Minn., a lifestyle promoter and the state’s answer to Martha Stewart.
Sveback himself has a cupboard full of cast-iron cookware. One of his recipes appears in the new book, “Lodge Cast Iron Nation,” edited by Pam Hoenig. The only company that still makes its cast-iron cookware in the United States is Lodge Manufacturing of South Pittsburg, Tenn., which opened in 1896.
Whether the cookware is used to fry chicken, bake cornbread, roast Brussels sprouts or sear steak, the pans add a special sizzle to cooking. Sveback tells us how he uses this versatile pan: on the stove, in the oven, on the grill or campfire. And at the table, where the dish can be presented direct from the heat.
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Q: Why the attention to cast-iron cookware these days?
A: It’s that old-time magic. It’s the sense of heritage. People are on a budget. But they still want to buy things and treat themselves. This is one reason that cast iron is so popular. People want beautiful things in their home and they want to entertain and have a perceived elevated lifestyle. But they are going back to things that their grandmothers did — like canning. We’re in a time where people are valuing again what people do with their hands. It’s a more personalized world.
Q: What are the advantages of cast iron?
A: It’s approachable. Anyone who really loves cooking can afford this cookware. I can’t buy a $300 copper pot, but I can get a really good cast-iron pan for $50. It’s a fantastic investment in your kitchen.
Q: How often do you use cast iron?
A: I cook with it almost every day, especially in the summer. I love the heat retention with the pan. I can set food out on the table in the pan and it stays warm for a long time.
Q: What are the biggest problems with cast iron?
A: People don’t rinse the pan right away. Don’t leave food in it or it’s harder to clean. After you’re done eating, remove any food from the pan, wash it with hot water and a scrub brush (not metal). Sometimes you have to be patient a bit to get it clean.
Q: How do you restore it?
A: I use a scouring pad. I scrub it with warm water to get rid of the rust. Then I add the oil. Don’t use bacon grease or olive oil; use some kind of vegetable oil. I prefer canola oil. I use my fingers or a paper towel and get it all over inside the pan. You can lightly put it on the outside on the sides and liberally on the inside. Then I heat the pan on medium until it starts to smoke, take it off the heat and put it in the oven (which isn’t on). I put it in there to be out of the way and because it’s hot. After it cools, wipe off the excess oil and it’s like a brand-new pan.
Q: What can you make in a cast-iron pan that’s unexpected?
A: Pie. But line your pan with parchment. Some people make bread. I also like to make cake — especially pineapple-upside down cake. It’s the only way to get that caramelization that’s so nice.
TIPS FOR CAST-IRON PANS
• To prepare a new pan: Remove oils from packaging by heating pan on the stovetop. Use a paper towel to wipe away any oils. Cool pan and wash it with water, dish soap and a scrub brush (this should be the only time soap is used with the pan). Then season the pan (see below). Dry thoroughly. Note that some pans come preseasoned (follow package directions).
• To season a pan: Wipe it with vegetable oil — including exterior, bottom and handles — and put it in a 500-degree oven and leave it there until it smokes (you may want to put pan on a baking sheet to catch any oil that drips off). Remove the pan from the oven and cool it slightly before rubbing more vegetable oil on it. When completely cool, wipe off any oil.
• To fix a rusty pan: If there is a little rust, use a paper towel with vegetable oil to rub it off. For a seriously rusty pan, use a metal scrubber. Then dry the pan thoroughly and season it.
• To prevent rust: Always dry the pan quickly and thoroughly. If desired, pop it into a hot oven or place it on a burner on low to dry it out. Store pan without a cover on top, which can trap moisture.
• How to clean a pan: This is easier to do when the pan is warm. Using a nylon scraper, remove any bits and pieces of food in the pan, and rinse the pan in hot water. Never use a dishwasher. If necessary, add boiling water to help remove food particles. If food regularly sticks to the pan, it may need to be reseasoned. Do not use soap. If that concerns you, rinse the pan in boiling water. If cooking odors remain, put the clean pan in a hot oven for about 15 minutes to clear the smell.
• How to cook with cast iron: Unless the recipe says otherwise, heat the pan to medium or medium high before adding food. To sear food, the pan should be smoking hot.
• Advantages of cast iron: It’s inexpensive, heats evenly and is nonstick when seasoned. The pan can be heated to a much higher temperature than any nonstick pans, and it adds some iron to your diet.