Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cast Iron or How I Learned to Love the Fond

I will be honest; I grew up with all non-stick cookware. I thought only the big restaurants and fancy chefs had anything else. I made my eggs, sauces, and cooked all of my meat in similar vessels, not knowing what I was missing. A while back I was watching a particularly good episode of Good Eats in which fried chicken was prepared. To my dismay, it was done in a cast iron skillet. Wait, I thought, aren't those only used outside on a ranch or as decoration? Obviously I had been pretty sheltered.

A few weeks later I decided to try out this cast iron, went down to my local store, and purchased a $15 model (Lodge has an impeccable reputation) that was about 14 inches in diameter. I went home, prepared my fried chicken, and somewhat disappointed with the result. The chicken stuck to the pan, there was a slight funky taste to my coating, and I was very unfamiliar with cooking time in something that holds heat so well. Nevertheless, I was determined to make something of this skillet and turned to the internet for answers.

Turns out I experienced the same result most first-timers experience with a cast iron skillet. It was not seasoned, which leads to food sticking and a less developed flavor. Seasoning a cast iron skillet refers to repeated use of the vessel, causing small deposits of oil and food particles sticking to the iron surface. Over time this can lead to a deeper flavor and a relatively non-stick surface. Cast iron was once the material of choice to cook stews, bread, and any frying due to its wonderful heat retention and even distribution. Skillets and pots were passed down generations thanks to their wonderful seasoning. However, with the advent of non-stick cookware and the home cook asking for quick, easy solutions, cast iron took a back seat to more convenient methods and with it, taste.

One of the main reasons cast iron can make things taste better is because of the fond. Fond is the browned bits of meat that stick to the bottom of the pan after cooking. With cast iron, this fond is partially left on the bottom of the pan, and further cooking can pull up deeper flavors from the pan. This can dramatically increase your flavor base of gravies, stews, and many other foods you can cook in cast iron. After all of my research, I found out a few key things that should be noted when using cast iron.

- Do not ever wash the pan with soap. Hot water is the only cleaning substance that should ever be used. If food bits stick the bottom of the pan, do not use an abrasive sponge. Instead, pour some salt (kosher preferably) over the spot and scrub at it with a paper towel. This will allow the salt to gently remove the food without scratching.

- Dry the pan as soon as possible. If not, rust will quickly set in and you will have to scrub it out before your next use. The best way to dry is to put the pan on the stove over low heat for about 5 minutes.

-Seasoning can take some time, do not get frustrated. If it seems your skillet is losing some of its seasoning, add 1/4 inch of oil to the bottom of the pan (preferably canola or vegetable) and put it in a 300 oven for an hour. Wipe out the excess oil. This will seal up the pores and reestablish the seasoned layer.

-You can cook almost anything in cast iron. Do not be afraid to try eggs (they will not stick after a while and will taste great), braised meats, and especially fried chicken. I now use my cast iron skillet to make sausage gravy thanks to the skillet imparting a wonderful browning of the meat.

Sausage Gravy

1 pound of original roll sausage
2 C Milk
salt, pepper, cayenne

Heat skillet over medium heat. Add sausage, brown and chop until a nice dark brown. Sprinkle flour over the sausage (about 5T) and stir until the flour absorbs most of the fat from the sausage. Cook this for about 2 minutes to allow the flour to hydrate. Add the milk, stirring often until the gravy has thickened. If it is too thick, add a bit more milk to thin it out. Season with salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste. Serve over biscuits, toast, or pretty much anything that deserves gravy.


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