Friday, September 05, 2014

Cast iron convert

Few things in life are more tedious than having to listen to converts gush about their conversion experiences, whether religious, ideological, psychological or political. No matter how extreme, egregious or mundane the former sin (or lapse, as it were), the particulars all hew to the same pattern: I was lost, and then I was found. And then I went on the road trying to make others see the error of their ways.

Democrat versus Republican, Baptist versus Catholic, creationist versus scientist, Mac versus PC, Ford versus Chevy, branded products versus generic—today’s American has lost all sense of toleration, indulgence, charity or forbearance. Don’t believe it? Just read the comments on online news articles, product reviews or Facebook entries. Temperance, moderation, self-restraint, have all been tossed out the window in favor of strident, in-your-face, spittle-spewing vehemence. A distressing number of Americans have not only drunk the Kool-aid, they’re actively brewing more. It tastes good. It makes them feel better about themselves. It whets their hatred like a keen-edged blade.

Which is why I hesitate to even bring this up, but since you’re still here, I might as well share my story. You see, I’m a convert myself, and it’s come after a long and troubling journey—in the kitchen, of all places.

Be warned, though: this wasn't a Saul of Tarsus epiphany. There was no blinding, ethereal light, no rapturous moment of revelation. It was more of a quiet evolution, a slow unfolding that nevertheless brought me to a juncture where the old ways stretched behind me and a new way before me, and all I needed to do was to decide which path to take. Should I stick with stainless steel cookware, I asked myself, or switch to cast iron, and if so, why?

Hardly the stuff of myth-making, I know, but relevant in that I was still smarting from the berating I received after my cast iron debacle earlier this year when I half-heartedly considered throwing my Lodge skillet into the dishwasher. At the time I compared my attackers to those of some secret, dark cult, something a number of readers responded to with affirmation. 

So why this sudden hankering for change? There’s a lot to be said for tradition and continuity, especially when branching off into the unknown required cash expenditures I could ill afford. Plus, there’s also the problem of having a small kitchen with limited storage space. After all, cast iron isn’t exactly compact. And I wasn’t particularly unhappy using stainless steel. We own some of the finest cookware available, Swiss-made, lavishly expensive, heirloom quality that we purchased back in the flush days 25 years or so ago, and it’s still as good as new. Our pressure cooker has been called the “Rolls Royce” of pressure cookers by several prestigious culinary organizations. There was absolutely no reason to change, and yet something about cast iron called to me, and I though I tried to ignore that still, small voice, it whispered to me in my dreams and haunted my days.

Our single cast iron piece was a no-brand, weatherworn 10-inch skillet we bought when we first got married. Though it was never properly maintained, it developed a glass-smooth patina that no Teflon could ever hope to match. The poor skillet had been tortured and misused unmercifully, washed in dish soap and left to air dry—a surefire way to introduce rust, which soon spread across the surface like some toxic fungus—with only the occasional tri-annual seasoning attempts which usually involved tossing it into the oven during self-cleaning cycles. 

Several years ago I went shopping for a griddle to make pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches. Our five-year-old Teflon model was warped and the Teflon flaking off in pieces that we could not help but ingest (merely the latest in a series of short-lived griddles), and I was perfectly willing to spend an uncomfortable amount of money for a good replacement. Finding one, however, turned out to be harder than I imagined. Product reviews at Amazon and several cooking sites led me to believe that no matter how much I shelled out for a new griddle, the warping and the flaking were guaranteed to follow. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when. 

There was, however, an alternative that finally caught my eye: a round 10-inch Lodge cast iron griddle. Instead of dozens or hundreds of negative reviews, the Lodge was universally adored. Reviewers didn’t just offer favorable comments, they gushed over the griddle as if it were a life-altering object of the highest value. That it cost less than most Teflon griddles didn’t escape my penny-pinching eye.

Of course, there were a few negative reviews. There always are. Some people complained about rust and the constant need for re-seasoning, and others didn’t like the weight. Another gave it a one-star rating after carelessly dropping it on his glass-topped range. It was too slow to heat, it was too slow to cool, it couldn’t go in the dishwasher, it was too hard to clean. 

Still, I liked the idea of something that would never, ever, ever warp or deposit flakes of chemical coating into our foods, so I ordered it. And for the most part liked it. It was smaller than I wanted but I learned to get around that limitation, and I learned, more or less (mostly less) to season it now and then, and I loved its heft—when carefully placed on the burner, it adhered as if magnetized. It was blacker than coal and unseemly heavy but it heated evenly and, I knew, would last a lifetime, if not more.

Even so within several weeks it started rusting on the bottom and the cooking surface looked pitted. I read up on seasoning cast iron and tried it for a while, but never with the devotion of a true convert. It was a tool, no more and no less, and shouldn’t need coddling. After all, our stainless steel cookware was still shiny and reflective, and it was never pampered.

But that still, small voice kept whispering in my ear. Oddly enough, at the same time my wife asked if we could make a fire pit out back for the 7-quart Lodge dutch oven she bought a decade ago and never used. How could I not see a divine hand in the timing? We were tapped into something larger than ourselves, something that tugged us into a renunciation of stainless steel. Then again, maybe one of those cultists hexed us with a voodoo spell. 

The pull was irresistible. Despite my doubts, I started poring over Lodge catalogs, amassing recipes and maintenance tips, buying cast iron cookbooks when they went on sale (also suspiciously timed), and pricing various skillets, lids and ovens. Shortly thereafter when a hefty 12-inch skillet went dropped in price I snatched it up and waited anxiously for its arrival. At least Saul had instantaneous gratification! 

When it arrived three long days later, I lovingly seasoned the skillet and placed it in the oven to preheat. There was something about the act of seasoning that made it seem more, I don't know, timely, more systematic, more liturgical. Like when using a smoker, the rituals involved force the cook to slow down, to plan each step, to fully inhabit the moment and the process. And if that isn’t what life is all about, I don’t know what is. Live the moment. Seize the day! 

Ten minutes later I added a touch of oil, browned a few slices of bacon, topped it with five large diced potatoes, diced red and yellow onions, hot green chile and two large bell peppers, capped it with a self-basting lid and slid the skillet into a 350-degree oven for one hour.

If there was a single revelatory moment, surely it was when we pulled the skillet from the oven and removed the lid. Or maybe it was when we added eggs to the leftovers for a scrumptious skillet breakfast, or the skillet cornbread, or the sausage-potato-zucchini-squash-chile-pepper-mushroom dish we made in a new 5-quart double dutch oven I purchased two weeks later.

Since then, I’ve ordered a cute little 6-inch skillet, a cast iron trivet and a 3-quart deep skillet with self-basting lid. I’m also looking for a self-basting lid for the 12-inch skillet and a 14-inch pizza tray. Lodge’s miniature 3-inch skillet would look good hanging with the others from the ceiling beam in the kitchen. 

Lest you say this is simply a case of castironitis, or a pathetic example of mindless consumerism, let me add that since my “conversion” I’m having fun in the kitchen. Cooking has become an adventure, a journey, a destination. Cleanup is a snap. The skillets can go straight from the burner to the oven and back, something that would destroy our stainless steel pots and pans with their brass handles. Unlike Teflon cookware, we can use any type of spatula, spoon or fork without worrying about scratching. And unlike Teflon, these will be passed down to our sons and grandchildren as family heirlooms. They will last. 

Now, I’m not asking you to convert to cast iron—I know you have your own beliefs, and that’s okay. But here, please take my tract, a pocket-sized, full color version of the latest Lodge catalog. Your timing is impeccable. I just put a chicken into the oven to roast in the 12-inch skillet. Church services begin in one hour.


shoreacres said...

OK-doke. Here's a question. I went to see the Lodge products and everything I found says "pre-seasoned." Is this new? Or were yours pre-seasoned, too?

And this: I just dug in the bottom of my stove, and discovered I have two cast iron skillets I didn't know I had. A 10" and a 6". What's the best way for an apartment dweller with no fire pit to season those babies?

I've tried to think this through, and have decided those skillets had to be my grandmother's, kept by my mom, but never used because they were too heavy, or too much trouble, or something. Anyway, here they are, After reading your post, I'm ready to give them a try.

And then there's this. Enjoy!

(And this was a great read, too.)

Tom Parker said...

Linda, thanks for the link. Looks tasty, I'll have to try it.

The cast iron skillet we bought when we were first married is now 40 years old and basically nonstick. The newer Lodge stuff has all been pre-seasoned in the factory with flax seed oil, I believe. I think they've been doing that for a few years though I might be mistaken.

The easiest way to season the skillets is to toss them in your oven during a cleaning cycle. The temperature will remove all traces of rust and old seasoning, leaving bare metal. You can them season them with a little oil.

Lodge has directions for seasoning on their website.

The neat thing about reusing your newly discovered skillets is the continuity involved. Your mother and grandmother would no doubt be tickled.