Article and Photos By Guest Contributor Russell A. Graves
I first met writer and photographer Russell Graves a lifetime ago when we were both writing for Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine.
He’s been telling authentic Texas stories with a camera and with words for the past 30 years. And when I saw his article, Cast Iron Cooking, which first appeared in Texas Co-Op Power Magazine, I couldn’t wait to share it with you.
From inside my home, I could smell the wood smoke wafting across the lawn. It’s a delightful blend of post oak and some fruitwood and just the smell makes me hungry.
With my smoker keeping a steady temperature of 350-degrees, I preheated a seasoned, 9-inch cast-iron skillet in the smoker. Being an all-metal piece of cookware, I don’t have to worry about plastic handles or Teflon coatings being ruined by the constant heat.
Soon, I’ve placed some homemade dough, tomato sauce, cheese, and pepperoni in the skillet and back in the smoker. The woodsmoke-infused pizza will taste great and the crustiness provided by the cast iron cooking vessel will give the pizza the texture and crunch I am after.
Fifteen minutes later and I have (at least in my estimation) pizza perfection and it was made possible by a piece of cast iron handed down through my family over a couple of generations.
Cast iron cookware is the ultimate utilitarian piece for the home chef and while it’s been used for a few hundred years in some iteration or another, the venerated cookware is making a comeback because of its versatility and durability.
A Brief History of Cast Iron Cookware
In the realm of metals, cast iron isn’t necessarily an exotic one. It’s a combination of iron, steel, and carbon alloys blended in a forge to make a blend of iron that’s tough, resilient and will last for decades.
Once molten, the steel is poured into a mold that’s concocted of compressed sand and when cooled, the sand is shaken loose revealing the nearly finished pan. Once the pan goes through a process to trim off the excess metal and polishing, it’s ready for seasoning and use.
The Chinese first used cast iron for cooking nearly 2,000 years ago and over time, the cast iron process has been used to build cannons, architectural elements like bridges, and even pieces of art. The technology first started in Asia before it eventually made its way to the Americas where it was quickly adopted for use as cookware.
Colonial Americans used cast iron extensively for cooking and as the West opened up for settlement by Anglo-Americans, the cookware made its way across the plains and mountain west on the back of chuckwagons.
“The chuckwagon cook is part of our western heritage,” says Kent Rollins, chuckwagon cook, educator, and YouTube personality whose videos are regularly viewed by millions. Kent’s been both a cowboy and a cook all of his life so he’s got the hard-earned bona fides to have the attention of his nearly two million subscribers. “If cast iron was good enough for Ol’ Cookie to take on the trail, it’s good enough for me. We have some old cast equipment that’s close to 100 years old or older and it still holds up. If you take care of it, it will never wear out.”
As cowboys and cattle peppered the plains in the great cattle drives of the 1880s, the need for portable food preparation was paramount. Camp cooks used big pots called Dutch ovens to prepare a variety of stocks, stews, and even bread. Dutch ovens have a large, flat lid that allows for the even distribution of coals across the top so that heat comes from both the top and the bottom of the vessel. That even heating is essential for creating bread and cobblers – a staple of chuckwagon cooks everywhere. It’s the same oven that Rollins recommends to first-time cast iron cooks.
He says that if you have a 12-inch skillet and a 12-inch Dutch oven you can cook just about anything. Rollins says that new cast iron cooks should start with cornbread to learn to control the heat from the coals. Once you’ve mastered cornbread, other dishes become simple.
The versatility of the Dutch oven makes it such a valuable piece of cookware. He advises new cooks to buy American-made cast iron as it’s well worth the investment.
“You get what you pay for,” Rollins advises. “I always look for cast iron that’s made in the USA. It’s a bit higher than cast iron made elsewhere but it is a lifelong investment and it will give you something back every time you cook out of it.”
Why Cast Iron?
The post-World War II era brought change into American kitchens. Pans made from newer and thus lighter materials and non-stick coatings appealed more to the American cook and in the last half of the 20th century. Therefore, cast iron fell mostly out of favor as the go-to cookware.
As a new century ensued, cast iron made a comeback, and now, it’s often favored by both professional and home chefs everywhere. The reason? Aside from its durability, cast iron heats more evenly and holds heat more efficiently than just about every other type of cookware manufactured. Its simplicity in its design makes the material so functional.
In years past, the 9-inch frying pan and the Dutch oven were among the most common cast iron pieces. However, because of a resurgence of the vessel as a cooking instrument, many manufacturers offer skillets of all sizes as well, a variety of Dutch ovens, and a myriad of accessories and bake pans. As such, the demand for cast iron cookware is still a niche in terms of the total cookware market, but it is indeed gaining steam. Even small manufacturers see the potential for bringing a new pan to the marketplace.
“We initially introduced a 10-inch skillet with a smooth hand-seasoned non-stick cooking surface, which is created using a handcrafted method of finishing and polishing,” says Jay Mallinckrodt, founder of Fredericksburg Cast Iron Company – a boutique crafter of cast iron skillets that was established in 2021 in Fredericksburg, Texas.
“This new approach resulted from the frustration of using so-called ‘modern’ cookware that wore out quickly and a desire to avoid intimidating rough, coarse, and sandpaper-like cast iron surfaces that proliferate the ironware market. Our result is heavy-duty cast iron cookware that is 100% made in Texas and can last for generations.”
According to Mallinckrodt, high-quality cast iron cookware isn’t just about having just another piece of cookware, it’s about having something easy to use and will last.
“Very few high-quality cooking products in the market today can be purchased for less than $200,” says Mallinckrodt. A good cast iron pan will not only cook your meal but it will also bring families and friends together. That pan also becomes an heirloom piece and will last for generations.”
Wild game chef Jesse Morris swears by the tools of his trade. As a professional chef who’s cooked in high-end restaurants and hotels in Dallas, Morris says his pans are essential to creating well-crafted meals. He advises that any protein you’ll cook in cast iron benefits because of the controlled crisping and searing that’s made available by cast iron. In addition, he says that cast iron adds to the story of a meal he cooks.
“Besides all the properties that cast iron possesses like heat retention and nonstick abilities, there is an allure of cooking with well-made pans,” he says. “Cooking is full of romance and it tells a story. When you take the time to make something special and you’re using grandparent’s old skillet or Dutch oven that has been well seasoned and made smooth from years of stirring it helps add to that story.”
Seasoning and Caring for Cast Iron
Although any time of year is a great time to cook on cast iron, one of my favorite times of year is in the fall. There’s something about the flavor when you cook on cast iron that brings food like bacon and eggs alive.
I also love cast-iron cornbread. When you cook cornbread in a cast iron pan, it has a great crust on the bottom and that brings a flavor that you can’t replicate any other way.
Before you cook on cast iron there’s one simple step you have to do and that’s season the pan. You may ask yourself, ‘why should I season my cast iron pans? The reason is pretty simple: when you season a cast iron pan it will help protect the metal long-term and it adds a little bit of non-stick properties to the cast iron. So as you use your pans over and over, the cookware becomes more and more seasoned as they get used over time.
To start the process, a good washing is in order. I use a stiff dishwashing pad and scrub it as best I can. You’ll hear some people talk about that you shouldn’t put soap and water on a cast iron pan and while that’s true after they’ve been seasoned, when refurbishing a pan, you’ll want to try to get all the dirt and grime off of the pan.
After a good washing, place the pan on a stovetop set to medium heat to evaporate all the water off of the pan. After a slow cooldown, wipe the pan with a towel to make sure all the moisture is gone.
Next, use some sort of cooking grade oil (I use shortening) and rub down the entire pan with a coat of oil or shortening. While coating, pre-heat your oven to 350-degrees. When the pan is ready, place the pan in the oven on the middle rack and let it heat evenly for a couple of hours. Once the pan is cooled, you should have a properly seasoned pan. Using the pan will continue to season it over time and the color of the pan will darken.
To clean cast iron, simply wipe it down with a dry towel. If you need to scrub the pan, just re-season it in the oven.
Many thanks to Russell Graves for sharing his work with us! Who doesn’t LOVE cast iron?