Cast-iron cookware has always been cool, whether it’s a treasured heirloom, a well-seasoned kitchen tool or a collectible piece of artisan Americana.
Certainly, in the South, cast-iron has become a cultural icon, while hiding in plain sight as the sacred vessel for favorite family fried chicken, cornbread or hoecake recipes.
Lately, though, cast-iron cooking is getting a lot more attention in the broader culinary world. Its naturally non-stick, all-purpose ways with frying, searing, roasting and baking have become hot topics, and the subject of several recent cookbooks.
In “Stir, Sizzle, Bake” (Potter, $25), New York food writer and home cook Charlotte Druckman takes on two things many people find daunting — the cast-iron skillet and baking. And she does it with recipes for the likes of scones, sticky buns, arepas, pizza and even a cornflake-milk layer cake.
“I actually think that because you have the control variable of the cast iron, it makes the baking seem less daunting,” Druckman says. “Really, cooking with cast iron is so easy. I found that to be more true as I did the book. And the crust from cast iron is so good. If you like any kind of golden-brown thing, how could you not use it?”
“Stir, Sizzle, Bake” is structured as a baking how-to, starting with the easiest “no-bake baking” recipes and progressing in difficulty to things like that crazy layer cake, which is a tribute to Atlanta chef and baker Liz Lorber.
One of the least complicated but most interesting recipes in the book is a hoecake Druckman learned to make under the tutelage of Nashville pastry chef Lisa Donovan. She gave it a twist with a 10-inch-skillet super-sized version topped with kimchi, scallions and nori.
“A hoecake is a pretty tricky thing to flip,” Druckman says. “So if you mess up at all, you can just throw that stuff on the top, and no one can see it — and it tastes really good, too.”
In “Cast-Iron Cooking” (Storey, $12.95), Los Angeles chef and food writer Rachael Narins offers easy skillet recipes and common-sense tips for caring for cast-iron cookware.
“My first job in high school was at a cookware store. I started collecting cast iron because I thought it was really pretty, and it was what was in my budget,” Narins says. “As I learned to cook, it was something I always had on hand.”
While Narins understands that caring for cast-iron pans is often a vexing task for new owners, she has some very simple advice.
“Don’t be intimidated,” she says. “It’s just a matter of use it, clean it, dry it, and use it, again. That’s all you have to do.”
As far as the recipes in the book, Narins included family favorites, along with dishes she thought worked especially well in cast iron. “I don’t think you can have a cast-iron cookbook without a cornbread recipe,” she says.
But one favorite that’s sure to surprise is the Dutch Baby, an easy-to-make egg dish that she says is ideal for an elegant breakfast.
“I don’t even think you could make it in anything but cast iron,” Narins says. “It’s a cross between a pancake and a souffle, and you just mix it up in a blender and pour it into a pan.”
These recipes from three new cookbooks feature dishes that make the most of cast iron with some unexpected twists.
Hoecake With Kimchi, Scallions and Nori
A hoecake batter is a sludge formed from cornmeal, salt, boiling water, and lard. When fried in a greased, sizzling-hot pan, it develops a crunchy 14-karat-golden crust. Hoecakes are denser than pancakes and both lighter and crunchier than hot-water cornbread. Once a staple of slaves’ diets in the American South, they’re still served with collard greens to sop up the cooking liquid — or potlikker — left behind.This recipe slips maple syrup into the base and makes one big hoecake, with the Asian flavors of kimchi and nori on top. Flipping a single, large hoecake is no easy task. If things get messy, you’ll be grateful for those garnishes.
1 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably fine ground (see note)
½ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
2½ teaspoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons lard
1 tablespoon canola oil
1⁄3 cup packed, coarsely chopped kimchi
2 tablespoons thinly chopped scallions (green parts only)
½ teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted
3 or 4 (2½ by 4-inch) sheets toasted nori, cut width-wise into matchsticks or torn into confetti-size bits
Preheat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet on the stovetop, gradually raising the heat from low to medium-high so it gets very hot. Meanwhile, make the batter: In a small saucepan, bring 1 1⁄3 cups water to a boil over high heat. In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal and salt. Add 2⁄3 cup of the boiling water to the cornmeal and stir to combine. Continue stirring and slowly add 2 tablespoons more water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Add the maple syrup and stir to combine. The batter should be thin enough to slowly pour but thick enough to spread with a spatula. If the batter is too thick to pour, add more boiling water as needed, 2 teaspoons at a time, and stir to combine.
Melt the lard in the hot skillet, tilting to coat, then remove the pan from the heat and pour off the fat into a small heatproof bowl. Add 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of the melted lard to the batter and stir to combine. Reserve the remaining melted lard.
Reheat the skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add the reserved melted lard and the canola oil to the pan and tilt to coat. Pour the batter into the pan. Quickly spread and even out the batter with a spatula or knife, leaving some room around the edges of the skillet for flipping. As the batter cooks, gently jiggle the pan from time to time to prevent sticking. As the edges start to solidify and toast, gently slide your spatula beneath the hoecake and begin to loosen it from the skillet. As frying proceeds, slide the spatula closer to the center of the pan. Cook for about 8 minutes, until the edges are crisp and nicely browned and the rest of the hoecake looks set. If your hoecake is completely loosened from the base of the skillet and slides when you nudge it with your spatula or gently shake the pan, flipping should be no big deal.
Cook for about 6 minutes more, until the second side is golden brown; the interior of the cake should be soft. Turn off the heat and garnish the hoecake, in the pan, with the kimchi, scallions, sesame seeds, and salt to taste. Top it off with the nori and serve hot.
Note: Achieving the right batter consistency is important. The coarser your grain, the more water you will likely need to add to the batter. If you’re using a medium grind, for example, you may need to add 2 extra tablespoons (as opposed to teaspoons) to the mixture.
Serves 4 as a side or 2 for lunch.
Per serving, based on 2: 459 calories (percent of calories from fat, 2), 6 grams protein, 61 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams fiber, 21 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 12 milligrams cholesterol, 713 milligrams sodium.
Adapted from “Stir, Sizzle, Bake” by Charlotte Druckman (Potter, $25).
Dutch Baby With Blueberry Sauce
Behold the Dutch Baby. It’s a delectable American version of a German popover that’s ideal for an elegant breakfast. No bowls needed; just a blender, a pan, and a sieve for the powdered sugar. The lemon it is served with adds a welcome touch of acidity.’
For the Dutch Baby
4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter, cut into pieces
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup whole milk
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of ground nutmeg
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
Lemon wedges and blueberry sauce, for serving
For the Blueberry Sauce
2 pints blueberries, fresh or frozen
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Scatter the butter into a 10-inch cast-iron skillet. Place on the middle rack of the oven and preheat to 450.
Meanwhile, pour the eggs into a blender and blend on high until light and foamy. Remove the lid and add the milk, flour, granulated sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, and salt. Blend again until all the ingredients are completely incorporated.
Remove the pan from the oven, pour in the batter, and return to the oven immediately. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden and puffy.
While the Dutch baby cooks, make the blueberry sauce. In a nonreactive saucepan, stir together the blueberries, granulated sugar, and lemon juice. Simmer until the blueberries begin to pop, about 15 minutes. Mash lightly to release more juice. Let cool.
When the Dutch baby is done, remove from the oven and use an offset spatula to lift it onto a cutting board. Cut into wedges. Sift confectioners’ sugar over each piece and serve with lemon wedges and blueberry sauce.
Per serving, based on 4: 383 calories (percent of calories from fat, 41), 9 grams protein, 50 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 18 grams fat (10 grams saturated), 198 milligrams cholesterol, 242 milligrams sodium.
Adapted from “Cast-Iron Cooking” by Rachael Narins (Storey, $12.95).
Skillet-Roasted Cauliflower Steaks With Jalapeno Creamed Spinach
Cauliflower makes a great stand-in for meat in this vegetarian dinner. Look for the freshest cauliflower you can find. It should have tight, compact florets with no signs of yellowing or browning and crisp-looking leaves at the base.
1 to 2 large heads cauliflower (about 3 lb. total)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. ground cumin
1 recipe Jalapeno Creamed Spinach (see below)
1/4 cup roasted, salted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) for garnish
Preheat oven to 375. Remove outer leaves from the cauliflower. Carefully trim stem end, leaving core intact so florets are still attached. Turn cauliflower head core side down, and using a chef’s knife or large serrated knife, cut cauliflower vertically into four
1-1 1/4-inch thick “steaks” and reserve ends and loose pieces for another use.
In an extra-large oven-proof skillet heat oil over medium heat, add cauliflower steaks and cook 4 to 6 minutes or until browned on both sides, turning once. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and cumin. Transfer skillet to oven and roast, uncovered, 15 to 20 minutes or until tender. Remove cauliflower from skillet and cover to keep warm.
For the Jalapeno Creamed Spinach
2 6-oz. packages of fresh baby spinach
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 or 2 fresh jalapeno chile peppers, seeded and finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream,
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Heat an extra-large skillet over medium heat. Add the packages of fresh baby spinach, one package at a time, to hot skillet and stir until wilted. Transfer to a colander and squeeze out excess liquid.
In the same skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add 1/2 cup chopped onion and 1 to 2 fresh jalapeno peppers. Cook 5 minutes or until tender. Add 1 cup heavy cream and salt and black pepper. Bring to boiling. Cook 3 to 5 minutes or until cream starts to thicken. Add the wilted spinach. Simmer until desired consistency.
Serve cauliflower steaks over creamed spinach. Sprinkle with pepitas.
Per serving: 396 calories (percent of calories from fat, 64), 11 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams fiber, 31 grams fat (15 grams saturated), 82 milligrams cholesterol, 460 milligrams sodium.
Adapted from “Skillet Meals” from Better Homes and Gardens Test Kitchen (Better Homes and Gardens, $24.99).
Caring for cast-iron
To season your new cast-iron:
1. Wash it with warm, soapy water and dry it completely with a kitchen towel.
2. Using a paper towel, lightly rub it inside and out with a teaspoon of vegetable oil, and blot any excess to create a thin coating.
3. Place it face down on the middle rack of your oven, heat to 450 and let it bake for 1 hour, then turn off the oven, and let it cool before taking it out.
4. Repeat the process until it’s well-blackened and slick or whenever food residue is not releasing or the surface is noticeably spotted, gray, or rusty.
To clean your seasoned cast iron:
Well-seasoned cast iron will function and clean up like non-stick cookware. Depending on the food residue, simply wipe out your pan with a paper towel, or use a bit of course salt and a damp dish towel to remove any stuck-on debris.
It’s also OK to wash a cool pan with warm soapy water and a soft-bristled brush from time-to-time. Just remember, the more you wash, the more you may need to season.
Overall, as Rachael Narins puts it in “Cast-Iron Cooking” (Storey, $12.95): “Use it, clean it (avoid abrasives), dry it, re-oil it occasionally, and use it again.”