Ironclad cookery: The simple cast-iron pan serves as one of today’s under-the-radar trends

06/03/2014 1:18 PM

06/04/2014 6:45 AM

It may be the most versatile pan around, yet it’s hundreds of years old and comes in one color: the cast-iron piece de resistance. For generations of cooks, the pan has been passed along from kitchen to kitchen as an heirloom.

Among the fans of the heavy-duty pan is Ross Sveback of Afton, Minn., a lifestyle promoter and the state’s answer to Martha Stewart. (“I’m the inappropriate Martha. There are no rules in my world. I don’t say you can only serve this with that. You forge your own road,” he noted in a phone interview.) When he’s not on TV, or at the Mall of America doling out pointers for entertaining or everyday living, he’s likely to be found in the kitchen.

Sveback himself has a cupboard full of cast-iron cookware. One of his recipes appears in the new book, “Lodge Cast Iron Nation,” edited by Pam Hoenig. The only company that still makes its cast-iron cookware in the United States is Lodge Manufacturing of South Pittsburg, Tenn., which opened in 1896.

Whether the cookware is used to fry chicken, bake cornbread, roast Brussels sprouts or sear steak, the pans add a special sizzle to cooking. Sveback tells us how he uses this versatile pan: on the stove, in the oven, on the grill or campfire. And at the table, where the dish can be presented direct from the heat.

Q: Why the attention to cast-iron cookware these days?

A: It’s that old-time magic. It’s the sense of heritage. People are on a budget. But they still want to buy things and treat themselves. This is one reason that cast iron is so popular. People want beautiful things in their home and they want to entertain and have a perceived elevated lifestyle. But they are going back to things that their grandmothers did – like canning. We’re in a time where people are valuing again what people do with their hands. It’s a more personalized world.

Q: What are the advantages of cast iron?

A: It’s approachable. Anyone who really loves cooking can afford this cookware. I can’t buy a $300 copper pot, but I can get a really good cast-iron pan for $50. It’s a fantastic investment in your kitchen.

Q: What cast-iron pieces do you have?

A: I have many pieces, some heritage from my grandmother, including an abelskiever pan that hangs on my wall. You can find great pieces at garage sales. Buy it, even if it’s rusty, and then restore it. I have miniature cast-iron skillets that I like to use. Anytime you can serve something in individual portions, people feel special. They think you’ve taken extra time to do this – but you haven’t.

Q: How often do you use cast iron?

A: I cook with it almost every day, especially in the summer. I love the heat retention with the pan. I can set food out on the table in the pan and it stays warm for a long time.

Q: What are the biggest problems with cast iron?

A: People don’t rinse the pan right away. Don’t leave food in it or it’s harder to clean. After you’re done eating, remove any food from the pan, wash it with hot water and a scrub brush (not metal). Sometimes you have to be patient a bit to get it clean.

Q: How do you restore it?

A: I use a scouring pad. I scrub it with warm water to get rid of the rust. Then I add the oil. Don’t use bacon grease or olive oil; use some kind of vegetable oil. I prefer canola oil. I use my fingers or a paper towel and get it all over inside the pan. You can lightly put it on the outside on the sides and liberally on the inside. Then I heat the pan on medium until it starts to smoke, take it off the heat and put it in the oven (which isn’t on). I put it in there to be out of the way and because it’s hot. After it cools, wipe off the excess oil and it’s like a brand-new pan.

Q: What can you make in a cast-iron pan that’s unexpected?

A: Pie. But line your pan with parchment (you probably don’t have to, but I do). Some people make bread. I also like to make cake – especially pineapple-upside down cake. It’s the only way to get that caramelization that’s so nice.

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