The Wonders of Cast Iron

Reader Contribution by Sue Van Slooten
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Cast iron, as in those items used in cooking, has come a ways since your Grandma’s day. Today, with all the non-stick pans on the market, with all their various wonderful finishes (they claim), from Teflon to more modern versions, you wouldn’t be blamed for asking, why cast iron? Why use a pan that acts more like it wants to break your arm? Let me explain. I do use some of these modern pans as well, but they have limitations. For example, don’t scratch one, like the old Teflon ones, or it can end up in your food. Ugh. They don’t take to high heat well (more about that later). And they are also toxic if overheated to your pets, particularly pet birds. It can kill. I’ve gotten rid of my earlier non-stick pans, as I do own a bird, he resides near the kitchen, is doing extremely well for his age sans Teflon (while I’m sure they’re out there, who’s heard of an 11 year old lovebird?). Even the modern ones though, have the same problem. And they still can scratch.

There are some other reasons to use cast iron. As some of you may recall, I own a Big Green Egg that likes to cruise around some high temperatures. No non-stick pan could take that. Cast iron does. Ditto if you have a wood stove or similar appliance. Today I will give you two recipes, both excellent candidates for the use of cast iron. In fact, I only make these generally in cast iron. Aside from withstanding heat well, it is it’s very property to retain heat that becomes important. This heat retention means that you can get results you won’t get from another pan. My earliest introduction to cast iron was my parent’s old woodstove, a real beauty in her day. That’s where a tried and true recipe like “Leftover’s Hash” would come into play. Our early farmhouse originally had no electricity, so this was the way to cook. The only way. If you wanted to eat well, that is.

Cast iron used to be always considered difficult, because it needed seasoning. Yes, it could be a bit tedious, but if you hung in there, it would happen. Fortunately for us, modern materials science has produced the “pre-seasoned” pan, and they work like this:  Buy, bring home, wash in warm sudsy water, dry on the stove to prevent rusting (true with any cast iron), and you’re ready to cook. That simple. There are a couple of caveats, nothing too serious: 1, after you use, wash, and dry your pan, always take a paper towel and put a fresh coating of vegetable oil on it.  This preserves the seasoning, and prevents rusting. 2. Don’t cook with anything with acid in it, as in, making tomato sauce in you pan may not be a good idea. The acid interacts with the pan. Now in a related point about cast iron, is taste. I have one friend, Irene, who loves cast iron, but her daughter doesn’t, because she detects a metallic taste in the food. Neither Irene nor I have ever noticed this, but perhaps we’re just not sensitive to it.

I don’t have my mother’s original hash recipe, but worked out one over the years that has served me well. Basically, you mince or run through a food processor or food mill in 3 equal parts leftover beef or corned beef, onions, and potatoes. Here it is:

  • 2 cups minced/ground leftover beef roast or corned beef
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 medium potatoes (peeled or not, as your preference), chopped
  • Oil for the pan, preferably vegetable
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Ketchup, optional
  • Eggs, optional
  • 12-inch cast iron pan, seasoned unless pre-seasoned

Heat the pan on medium to medium-high heat, adding the oil when you’re ready to cook. Mix your 3 main ingredients in a bowl. Let the oil heat a little and add your ingredients. Pat the hash into the pan in a layer. Let cook, peeking under to check the browning. As it browns, you can lift and turn the hash, trying, if you can to keep it in more or less one piece. If that doesn’t happen, that’s fine. The point here is to make some nice brown crispy parts, which may end up throughout your hash, which is fine. I like it a bit mixed in, so…. or, you could just get aggressive and stir-fry it. Cook until the potatoes are tender. If you like some fried eggs on top, by all means go for it, as well as ketchup. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Hmmm….I’m getting hungry!

The other recipe is extremely simple: Sauteed Mushrooms. This is a favourite of ours on the Egg. Take your same pan, pour in a couple of tablespoons of oil, add a package of either whole or sliced mushrooms, garlic powder to taste, and sauté on your Egg or stove. The Egg would like a temperature between 400 F to 450 F. This won’t take a long time. Cook until mushrooms are tender, and if you want to be utterly decadent, throw in a splash of port. But only if you want some decadence in your life. Please do this off heat, and stir quickly. Enjoy!