Food Feed

The Skillet Feeding You! How to Cook with a Cast Iron Skillet

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Note: This is part three in a three-part series devoted to cast iron skillets.

If you've read the previous two blog posts in this series (here and here), your pan is well-seasoned, and you know how to care for it. Before you start using it, the first thing you need to do is a bit weird, and it sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, but you need to get to know your pan. Remember, listen to your pan more than you speak.

Cast iron skillets have personalities (no, I don't know what their D&D stats would be1). Some heat up very fast, some more slowly. Some need a lot of oil regularly; some can get by on the oil in your foods. All cast iron pans heat up unevenly. Once they are hot, they give off a nice, even heat that lasts for some time, but as they are heating, you can hold your hand above the pan and feel temperature differentials.

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When we first started cooking with our cast iron skillet, it seemed like food was always sticking to it, no matter how well we greased it. After doing some research, the problem became obvious. We were treating our skillet like a Teflon-coated pan. We would put it on the heat, toss in some oil, fat, or grease, and start cooking. As I mentioned above, cast iron skillets heat up slowly. And they need to be hot in order to not have food stick to them. We needed to adjust our cooking process to give the skillet a few minutes to heat up. Generally, I heat up the skillet about one notch on the heat dial above what I intend to cook food at. For example, if I am cooking a hamburger and will cook it at a "5" on the stove dial, I will set the dial to "6" for a few minutes, and then turn it down to 5 when the pan is hot. Then I will add the cooking fats and finally, the hamburger.

Next, you will need to get metal cooking utensils to use with your cast iron. First of all, you can't hurt your pan with a metal utensil like you can a coated pan. And secondly, you will want that metal-on-metal ability to get the pan cleaned of all food. Finally, cast iron can get very hot, and the last thing you want is for a rubber or plastic cooking utensil to leave traces of themselves on your lovely pan.

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Although it has been mentioned a number of times, it bears mentioning again: cast iron skillets can get very hot. And they will get hot all the way up the handle. You need to remember that and use a good thick oven mitt when handling your cast iron while cooking with it. Also, don't forget that it will be hot and it will stay hot for some time. Don't set it down on the counter to cool, or you will end up with a burnt spot on your counter. If you drop it into your stainless steel sink when it is hot be prepared to hear a loud bang as the hot pan hits and bends (temporarily) the cool sink bottom. A better option is to leave it on the stove on a cold burner to cool down for a 5-10 minutes, and then rinse it with water and clean it out.

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The final point I will make is that while I've been cooking with cast iron for about five years, I don't have a huge variety of personal experiences. I have yet to make brownies or sweet rolls or anything not savory in my cast iron. But the word on the street (the mean streets of the Internet that is) is that one should keep one set of cast iron for sweet cooking and another for savory. Just as your choice of oil for seasoning your pan can impart a small amount of taste to your foods, the theory is that the foods you cook will impart a small amount of taste to the pan and then to other foods you cook. If you have just cooked a savory dish, and you are cooking another savory dish, the taste will likely be so subtle that it will be unnoticeable. But, some people swear that if you cook a sweet dish and then a savory dish (or vice versa), the taste is distinct enough that it can be noticed. I plead ignorance on this one, but it does make some sense. I guess if you had a very sensitive palate, you might choose to have one set of pans seasoned in coconut oil for sweet cooking and another seasoned with a different oil for savory cooking.

With that, I conclude my three-part series on cooking with cast iron. As I learn more, I will put out updated posts. Also, as the Dragonflower Farm investigates other pre-fossil fuel-based technologies, I will post our experiences of those as well!

(1) OK, OK, you forced me.

Simple Melee Weapons
Weapon Cost Damage Weight Properties
Battle Pan 2 gp 1d4 Bludgeoning 3 lb. Light, Versatile (1d6), Special

+1 to your AC if you are wielding it and have no shield. However, due to the nature of the weapon, it is ineffective against heavy armor, which causes a -2 to damage rolls.

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The Care and Feeding of Your Skillet

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Note: This is part two in a three-part series devoted to cast iron skillets. Part one is here.

Generally, there are a few rules for cast iron skillet care and a few myths that can be dispelled. First of all, there is cleaning the pan. A well-seasoned pan, that is being used properly, should not be difficult to clean up. Hot water and a metal spatula are usually all you need. If you are cooking something that has a lot of sugar or starch (say potatoes), then you may need to break out the non-soap steel wool. But once again, you won't be "scrubbing;" you will be scraping gently. Soap is usually considered a bit of a no-no, and we don't use it. But everyone I've read says a small amount is 'no big deal.' If you are going to use soap, as I said in my previous skillet post, I would recommend something with few chemicals and/or perfumes. If you want an alternative to soap, you can try salt and a bit of oil. 

Once clean, depending on whether you want to save paper or save energy, you can go one of two directions. If you want to conserve energy, you can wipe the pan dry with a paper towel or a clean cloth. If you want to conserve paper, you can dry the pan by shaking off as much water as you can and then setting it on the stove on low heat to evaporate the remaining water. If the pan only requires some hot water to get clean, there is often a good amount of oil remaining from the cooking. If so, just wipe that into the pan, and once the pan is dry, put it away. If it took more scraping, or if you used soap or the pan looks or feels dry, then just rub a bit of oil onto the surface before you put it away.

Pans store best hung. As always, the reason is purely practical. The worst thing you can do to a skillet is to let it sit with water on it. Unless you are extremely careful, it is very easy to have a wet pan sitting on top of another pan. But not everyone has the ability to set up a pan-hanging rack like this one.

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This image courtesy Pixabay. All others by Anthony Valterra.

We are still working out how and where we would put something like that in the kitchen. So, for now, we are stacking our pans and being careful about drying them. This is what we have. At least they are not resting on each other. 

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Moisture really is the enemy of iron pans, so there are a few things you should avoid doing. Baking in a pan is one common way of using them. If you are making pan pizza or lasagna, then you could use the pan to bake the dish. But what you don't want to do is store the food in the pan. It may be tempting to just put the leftover pizza (leftover? How big is your pan?) into the refrigerator, still in the pan, but don't do that. The food has moisture in it, and it is sitting on the pan. As an example: here is a lovely shepherd's pie baked in a pan (no blackbirds, I swear). We had plenty of leftovers, but they were taken out of the pan and stored in another container.

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Along the same lines, a common solution for cleaning pans is to let them soak in hot water to loosen food. I would not do this longer than the length of a meal. So, if you finish cooking and before you sit down, you put hot water in your pan, and then after the meal is done you clean the pan, you are probably fine (I have certainly done this). But don't give in to temptation and leave it overnight.

Proper care of your pans will ensure that you need to re-read the first entry in this series of posts less often. But just in case, seasoning your pan can be found here. Next up, we will look at the right ways to use this well-seasoned, well-cared-for pan.

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Giveaway! Win a Signed Copy of Doug Tallamy's 'Bringing Nature Home'

Bringing Nature Home

Last night we attended a Partners for Native Landscaping event at the Missouri Botanical Garden: "Nature's Best Hope." The event featured native plant expert Doug Tallamy, with a presentation based on his latest book. If you haven't read Doug Tallamy, I highly recommend him. His first book, Bringing Nature Home, helped spawn a rapidly growing movement to focus on native plants in home gardens. With his latest book, he expands upon that to imagine what we could do if we stitched together the fragments of true nature we have left by converting other public and private swathes of land to native plant ecosystems. It's a compelling, inspiring argument.

To help promote these ideas, we're giving away a free, signed copy of Bringing Nature Home. All you have to do to be eligible to win is subscribe to our newsletter. If you're already subscribed, you're automatically in the pool, but please do tell your friends! The drawing happens on March 31, 2020, so sign up before that cutoff date.

Tallamy's lecture at the Botanical Garden was sold out, and today's full-day workshop on native plants is as well. At the reception before last night's talk, Anthony and I had a nice long chat with Marsha Gebhardt, president of the St. Louis chapter of Wild Ones. She mentioned that she and the other Wild Ones leaders (all volunteers) feel like "victims of their own success," as their events are so popular, they're investigating larger meeting venues and generally feeling the growing pains of a swelling membership base.

It's great to see the enthusiasm for native plant gardening, and we hope it continues.

I do want to share an observance I've made after spending a good deal of time self-studying both permaculture and native plant gardening: Permaculturists and native plant proponents need to work together. I see a lot of the same arguments being made by both, which is a key place to have a discussion. But then they're sometimes working at odds due to blind spots on both sides:

  1. Permaculturists can actually do damage to their own and connected ecosystems with their use of invasive species. For example, autumn olive might be a great choice for soil remediation and people food, but even if it's slashed and mulched later, birds could have spread its seeds to sensitive natural areas. It's also just not going to do much in terms of attracting and feeding pollinators and interrelated species.
  2. Native plant gardeners miss the importance of growing one's own food and other human use products, which can mitigate the damage of the agricultural food system. For example, if you're buying 100% of your groceries from a store that trucks most of its supply in from out of state and out of country, you're part of a system that depletes topsoil at alarming rates and poisons a dwindling watershed, no matter what good you're doing in your own yard with native plants.

We're managing our best at Dragon Flower Farm to bridge the two camps, taking the tried and tested practices from both and applying them to our 1/4-acre. I'm sure we'll make mistakes, and we don't claim to be purists by any stretch of the imagination, but we try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

We wish you well in your own efforts at sustainability and lifestyle gardening, and as always, tell us what you think in the comments below. Good luck on the giveaway, too!

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The Skill That Goes Into a Skillet

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Right now, it is trendy to reach back for older technologies. There are, likely, a number of reasons for this. First, nostalgia is ever-present in our culture. When I was a young chap in the early 1980s, the decades of the 1950s and 60s were all the rage. We watched "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley." My junior high even referred to our dances as "sock hops." Secondly, I believe there is a growing dis-ease within our society over the constant updates on technology. I am sure that I am not the only one who has vented out loud over some new improved version of an app, program, or website that is less functional, convenient, and/or easy to use. People are beginning to wonder, "Is there really that much value in the latest gadget?" Maybe some of that old technology is perfectly fine, does the job at least as well (if not better), and doesn't try to steal your private information in the bargain.

Cooking is one of the subject areas where some people are embracing older technology. I now grind my own coffee beans. And I use a hand grinder. It takes almost exactly as long as it takes for my water to boil to grind beans for my French press, I use no electricity, and my grind is exactly the way I want it. I think my coffee is now better than what I get at my local coffee shop. I also use cast iron skillets. And that is the subject of today's blog post.

I am aware that there are new technologies emerging in the realm of non-stick pans. I've heard that these new "blue diamond" pans are supposed to be toxin-free, non-stick, and virtually indestructible. I've also heard that they chip and/or scratch easily, and lose their non-stick surface quickly. Well let me introduce you to my little friend, "the cast iron skillet." The cast iron skillet is, truly, nearly indestructible. It used to be common for skillets to be passed down from generation to generation. They can lose their non-stick surface, but re-seasoning them is easy to do. I suppose, if you really tried hard, you could scratch one, but not with any kitchen utensil I know about. So, why have we switched to these new tech pans?

Well, cast iron does require a bit of thought and effort. But in return, you get a device that will not wear out and will not add toxins to your food or your home. In order to use cast irons, there are a few things you need to do:

  1. You need to season your pan (which I will cover).
  2. You need to learn how to care for your pan (covered in an upcoming post).
  3. You need to learn how to cook with your pan (covered in an upcoming post).

Seasoning Your Pan

Seasoning a pan is not difficult, but it will take some time. I would set aside an afternoon. You can get plenty of other things done at the same time, but you will want to be around to monitor the process. 

How do you know if your pan needs seasoning? The simple answer is that it looks dirty. If you are using your pan correctly (which will be covered in an upcoming post) and food is consistently sticking to your pan, or if it will not wash up easily after use, then it probably needs seasoning. If you can see rust, or discoloring, or the surface is uneven, you probably need to season. Rust is the enemy. You really want to get that off. If it does not scrape or wash off, here is an odd trick that really works; cut a potato in half, sprinkle the rust with baking soda and use the cut potato to rub the rust off. 

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A dirty skillet that needs re-seasoned.

But if you have no experience with a cast iron skillet, you may not know what to look for. So, this is what a well-seasoned cast iron skillet looks like. The surface of the pan should look like a black mirror. It will not be reflective enough for you to actually see yourself in it, but it does reflect light. The surface will be smooth and even. When you wipe it with a paper towel, the paper towel should show little or no residue.

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A well-seasoned pan

Step 1: Wash the pan

One thing seasoning does is use a lot of heat to clean your pan, but let's do our best to give the process a head start. You can start by using a metal spatula and water, as hot as you can take it, to melt and scrape any food or rust off of your pan. If you have food or gunk that is really baked on, put a bit of water in the pan and simmer it for about a minute to loosen it up. To get the pan really clean, I recommend steel wool without any soap embedded in it (like SOS pads have). You don't have to be religious about not using soap on your pan, especially if you are about to season it. But those steel wool pads are handy to have around after your seasoning, so why not buy a box? And if you are going to use soap, I recommend avoiding soaps with perfumes or chemicals.

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Plain steel wool - no soap

Once the pan is clean, heat up your oven to around 375 degrees. Make sure the pan is bone dry. You can even heat it up on the stove, on a low temperature, to make sure you drive off all the moisture. Using a paper towel, wipe the surface of the pan with oil. If you have done a good job cleaning it, the paper towel should come off clean. If it is not perfect, like I said, the process will clean it. Put your pan into the oven face down and let it bake for an hour. After an hour, turn off the oven and let it cool down naturally. Remove it from the oven (carefully - it might still be hot) and wipe it with oil again. Is the paper towel coming off showing nothing but the oil (no black gunk)? Congratulations, you're done! If it is still blackened by wiping the surface of the pan with oil, clean it, and bake it again. Repeat this process until the pan wipes without leaving residue.

I hear some of you remarking, "You say 'oil,' but you don't say what kind." That is a tricky subject and one that people feel pretty strongly about. Here are some guidelines. Any oil (except olive oil) that is liquid at room temperature is in danger of adding PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) to your diet. Some people think PUFAs are liquid death; others think that in a proper ratio with saturated fats they are fine. Traditionally, skillets were seasoned with lard, tallow or other animal fats. These work well, but if you are not using your skillet regularly (multiple times a week), they can go rancid. Some oils add flavor to the pan, which can transfer to your food (avocado, sesame, coconut, flax). Some people dislike that, and some people are looking for that. Finally, some people need their pan not to smoke at a very high temperature. They are planning to use their pan to do things like sear steaks before cooking them. In that case they need to use oils with very high smoking points (avocado, safflower, refined olive oil). If you've been following this blog you know that we render our own fat, so it will be no surprise that we use tallow. We cook with our skillet almost every day, so there is no real concern with the fat going rancid.

Can you mess up the process? You bet. I managed to make cardinal error number one seasoning the pan for this post. I did not make sure the pan was bone dry before wiping it down with oil and putting it in the oven. When you do that the oil clumps up, and your pan looks like it is wearing a camouflage pattern.

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Terrific - I messed it up

The fix is elbow grease. I got to spend a whole lot of time with steel wool in my hand and hot water. I even used salt instead of soap. It took a good 20 minutes of work, but in the end I got the pan seasoned correctly.

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A well-seasoned pan

Seasoning a skillet is one of those processes that anyone can do without understanding what is going on. It's like getting water scale out of the bottom of a teapot. You can know that an acid will likely break up that alkali residue, or you can do what your grandma did and pour some vinegar into the teapot and let it sit before cleaning it. But for those who are curious, here is the layman's science behind seasoning. The iron in the skillet is porous, and the high heat opens those pores wide enough to let the fat seep into the pan. This forms a layer that both protects the metal and creates a non-stick cooking surface. Thus, the effects of flavored oils, high heat oils, and the risk of oils that can easily go rancid. The oil you use to season the pan is still there after the process, even after you wipe it away.

The nice thing about seasoning is that it is not like coating a pan with a non-stick teflon. That is something that can only be done once, and only done in a factory. Seasoning can be done, redone, and done by you in your own home.

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Authors Team Up to Pay Tribute to Fungus - and Raise Money for Cats

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All photos courtesy Ellen King Rice.

Lisa Brunette: Last week we took a magical mushroom tour with former wildlife biologist and author Ellen King Rice. Ellen and I first connected back when I lived in Lewis County in Washington state. She was just starting out on the author trail and lived in neighboring Thurston County. Both counties are primarily rural. I found the community in Lewis to be highly close-knit and tremendously supportive. I myself received a lot of support as an author, and it inspired me to give back to the community and help other authors, like Ellen. I witnessed the community continually coming out to support individuals in need as well as businesses and organizations. Ellen's project, Naked Came A Fungus, is a terrific example. 

Naked Came A Fungus is inspired by the award-winning story collections Naked Came the Stranger and Naked Came the Manatee. Cool coincidence: My writing mentor, Evelyn Wilde Mayerson, wrote one of the stories for Naked Came the Manatee, Chapter 7's "The Lock and Key." She used to teach at University of Miami, where I earned my MFA in Fiction. OK, now here's Ellen to tell us about her fun, fungus-y take.

Ellen King Rice: Fame and fortune are not finite. Too often insecure authors and artists can act as if success is a pie where one person taking a large slice means the next person will have to be contented with a small slice. Thank goodness there are creative people like Lisa who see the world as a place where there can be many pie makers - and exchanging recipes and presentation ideas means... more pie for everyone. Lisa encouraged me when I was absolutely brand new at storytelling. It was a huge lift to my heart to have a published author see value in my work. 

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Now three books into my world of thrillers set into the woods of the Pacific Northwest, I am following in Lisa's footsteps. This winter I've put together Naked Came A Fungus, which will showcase Puget Sound-area mushrooms and independent authors. Some background on the project: In 1969 two dozen writers created a literary spoof of the naughty potboilers of the day. They titled their creation Naked Came the Stranger, and it became a bestseller. A few years later, humorist Dave Barry led a group of Florida writers - including Lisa's mentor, Evelyn Mayerson - to create Naked Came the Manatee. Proceeds from the book benefited charities. 

Given that it is January, it is high time to launch Naked Came A Fungus, a showcase of fungi and writers from Puget Sound. We'll have a number of Puget Sound writers contributing stories or other material to the Naked Came A Fungus blog. Check in frequently to see if a poem, a song, a recipe, or an-out-of-this-universe experience has appeared. Each contribution will be paired with a photograph of one of the Northwest's stunning fungi (or a fungus from the destination of a traveling writer). 

The adventures will continue until the first day of spring, March 19, 2020. Want in on the fun? If you have an idea you'd like to contribute, please contact me.

Because I think we all need to have a party AND do good in the world, this project is also a fundraiser for our neighborhood cathouse, Feline Friends, a non-profit organization staffed by dedicated volunteers partnering to rescue stray cats and kittens.

May your day be filled with colorful wild mushrooms or loving pets or lots of pie - or perhaps some of each, along with a smidge of encouragement when it is most needed.

EllenKingRice

A wildlife biologist by training, Ellen King Rice is author of a three-book, fungus-themed mystery series: The EvoAngel, Underworld, and Lichenwald. In her fiction and non-fiction both, she is particularly fascinated by sub-cellular level responses to ecosystem changes and believes that we don't know near enough about the thousands of fungal species that exist all around us. She lives near Olympia, Washington. Find out more at www.ellenkingrice.com.

As with all our content, this post was not sponsored, and we received nothing in exchange for the references made here.

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