Friday, June 10, 2011

On Cast-Iron Pans

I go through cycles of hobbies.  Each passion is usually met with people sighing, here we go again!  These hobbies usually consume a lot of eBay and internet time.

I went through a cast-iron pan phase last year.  This came about when I read an article detailing the hazards of Teflon.  Do you know that if you put your empty Teflon-coated pan on the stove and turn the heat up high, the resulting breakdown of the Teflon coating will release fumes that will result in dead pet birds?

Hazards of Teflon to your pet birds

While there's no final verdict yet on Teflon, there are articles which point out a possible link between Teflon and numerous ailments, ranging from infertility in women to developmental defects.

UCLA researchers report that exposure to perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) may reduce women’s fertility

Might chemical in Teflon pose health risk?

Time Magazine Article on the Hazards of Teflon

In my search for a suitable alternative, I was led to cast-iron pans.  As the article in New York Times succinctly phrases it:
While nonstick cooking offers big benefits--ease of cleanup, drastically reduced need for oil--nobody has yet invented a coating that works as well as Teflon. But there's a low-tech solution that dates back hundreds of years: a good cast-iron skillet. It's cheaper than a coated pan, it browns food better, and as for the nonstick factor, when properly seasoned, it's nearly as good.
And thus beginneth my cast-iron phase.

The problem was, Cast-Iron Pans are not very popular in our country.  We're more of an aluminum wok - Teflon saute pan kind of a crowd.  It was a good thing that I found a store affiliated with one of the bigger stores in Manila - and from there, I was able to source out my first skillet:  a Lodge 8-inch diameter skillet.

Presently, it's being put to good use, frying chicken for lunch.

Cast-iron pans are perfect for searing and for frying.  Fried chicken, for some people, is synonymous with cast-iron pans.  There is a drying effect of cast-iron on the crust of fried food, lending a crispy crunch to the surface, yet maintaining a moist and tender interior.  Alton Brown recommends it in this recipe.  In his Good Eats episode, there's even a shopping trip to procure a cast-iron pan.

Alton Brown's Fried Chicken

My second piece of iron was an Ebay find.  I stumbled on a site for Aebleskivers one time, and that triggered a hunt for an Aebleskiver pan.  These are Danish pancakes, traditionally served during the holidays.  I found a pan on Ebay, and after weeks of waiting, it arrived in the post office.  I couldn't wait - I just had to park somewhere and open the package.  This is the baby that came through the mail.  It had the original Griswold and Wagner box, and the surface was very smooth and slick.

My Griswold and Wagner Aebleskiver Pan

Close-up of one hollow:

I couldn't wait to try it out.  The funny thing is, the first batch of Aebleskivers was a success.  In an effort to tweak it, future attempts were sub-par.

My sister, a wonderful enabler to my hobbies, recently gave me a book on Aeblskivers - and hopefully those recipes will point me towards better 'skivers.

You'd want such a pan, too, after watching this video.

It's fascinating she flips the pancakes by quarter turns with practiced ease, ensuring that the final result will be a perfectly spherical pancake.

I quickly built up a collection which covered our library table with pans.  Getting a Lodge Wonder Skillet was a no-brainer - it was small, cheap, and it made it to Ophrah's 10 Favorite things.  This small pan is wonderful for grilled cheese sandwiches.  You don't have to wait a long time to wait for a bigger chunk of iron to heat up - it just takes a few minutes to reach toasting temperatures.

The Lodge Wonder Skillet, on the company site (I'm not affiliated with Lodge!)

A smaller Lodge skillet followed, for those times when I'm making a batch of french toast and there's a queue forming already.  And then a Griddle from eBay - again, a Griswold and Wagner piece.  Plus two more skillets...  and another square skillet. My eBay friend threw in a free (!) skillet when it took him a slight delay in processing my order.  I just had to stop when a dear relative was expressing dismay about the accumulating mound of iron in the library.

Well, a little bit of warning - it is always mentioned that the problem with cast-iron is sticking.  That might be true if you are using a new piece - but for well-seasoned pans, it's almost as non-stick as Teflon.  I've seen videos of people cooking sunny side up eggs in a CI (cast-iron) skillet and the thing just slides across the pan, as if it was wearing tiny roller skates.

*Seasoning* refers to putting a non-stick layer of carbonized oil on the surface of the pan - and it does not mean sprinkling it with salt and pepper.  To do this, I coat a pan lightly with oil and put it out on the barbecue grill for about three hours.  I don't want to use the oven, to save on gas, and seasoning involves generating a lot of smoke, which I don't want to happen inside the house.  Gradually, the surface of the pan becomes darker after several bouts of repeated seasoning.  Using the pan frequently also helps bring the process along.  During seasoning, oil get burnt off, leaving behind the carbon atoms.  The carbonized layer fills up the minute crevices leading to a smoother surface, and hence, a more non-stick finish.

Two videos on seasoning cast-iron pans:

So why do we bother doing all of these?  Why not just buy one of the greener versions of non-stick skillets that replaced Teflon?

Well, a number of things...

One important factor is the end product.  Food cooked in a cast-iron pan benefits from it's steady heat.  Because of the mass of iron, temperature does not fluctuate widely.  Once the oil reaches desired temperature, we turn the heat down to low, resulting in a lower LPG consumption.  Food fried in cast-iron results in a crispy surface - apparently, the reason to the superior crust is that the layer of moisture between the food and the hot oil in the pan evaporates faster in a cast-iron pan.  In contrast, there is a tendency of food in a Teflon pan to be "braised" rather than seared. Hence, food with important surface appeal - corn bread, fried chicken, and steaks  - these benefit from the dry even heat of cast-iron pans.  Another benefit is that a small amount of iron leaches into the food.  This does not affect the taste, but it does give your hemoglobin a nice ferrous boost.

Two, you won't be able to pass on your teflon-coated pans to the next generation.  Some of the pans I bought are well over fifty years old - and I can pass them on down the line, with proper care.

and three - well, you can't beat chicken fried in cast-iron!

Lunch awaits.

Additional Resources:

     - Homepage of the Lodge Manufacturing.  This site contains their product line up, plus basic information on how to care/season cast-iron.  There are also a few recipes here - check out the Southern Fried Chicken with Milk Gravy


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