Saturday, April 20, 2013

Foodie Faves: Cast-iron Cookware
What's cooking? Texas Cornbread

One of my earliest cooking-related memories is of my grandmother frying chicken in her cast-iron skillet. She had no air conditioning in that kitchen for years, just a big ceiling fan, occasionally augmented by a small, rotating table fan when the Texas heat became unbearable, which of course wouldn’t stop her from frying chicken. She’d tuck a handkerchief or tissue into the space between her rolled up sleeve and her arm, and periodically would use that to blot the perspiration from her face and neck.

I don’t know what happened to her skillet. It probably got sold in the estate sale. I had developed a real interest in cooking by the time she died, but even then wasn’t interested in frying chicken, and I couldn’t imagine what else you’d use that skillet for. What a fool I was.

I have by now purchased my own cast-iron skillet, which is by Le Creuset and is a bit fancier than my grandmother’s. Its interior is a satin black enamel, not raw iron, but it can still be seasoned through the buildup of the natural oils and fats from cooking – like when I’m browning beef or pork for a stew or chili. And for that reason, it’s the only skillet I will use to make roux for gumbo – I think the seasoned surface adds to the flavor of the roux. Just the act of setting it on the stovetop makes me feel like a real Southern cook, channeling my grandmother.

I have other, raw cast-iron pieces that I’ve picked up at garage sales or estate sales over the years: a couple of molds for cornbread, shaped like ears of corn, and a tiny (6-inch) skillet. When you get them second-hand, it’s important to clean the old seasoning off and start fresh, which you can do by putting your skillet or pot upside down into a self-cleaning oven (on a rack – not on the floor of the oven) and running the self-cleaning cycle. There are lots of videos on the web that can show you in more detail. (Trust me, I’ve now watched a good half-dozen of them.)

A well-seasoned cast iron skillet is the original non-stick pan. You don’t want to soak it in hot, soapy water when you've finished cooking – just rinse and wipe dry with a paper towel (if you must use soap, use only a tiny amount, then re-oil after drying).

The best thing about cast iron is the way it conducts and holds the heat. A frittata that has been cooked in cast iron will stay warm long enough to get seconds that don’t have to be reheated.

Kitchen Goddess favorite facts about cast-iron cookware:

1. Don’t use cast iron to cook anything acidic, such as wine or tomatoes, or you’ll get an acrid, metallic taste from those foods reacting with the iron, and you might damage the surface of the pan.

2. Because cast iron conducts so well, it’s the best surface for softening butter or thawing meat, as it draws the temperature of the air into the food.

3. Want to keep a dish cool? Try putting it into a cast-iron pot that has been refrigerated.

And for those of you who are as geeky as I am about this stuff, check out the Official Lodge Cast Iron Foundry Tour Video. Such fun!

One of the great dishes to cook and serve in cast iron is corn bread, that great Southern staple. I’m making it this week to serve to some Yankee and not-so-Yankee friends of my husband in a sort of college reunion. So I’ve used a Texas-shaped pan rather than cast iron, figuring the occasion calls for form over substance. Please forgive me.

For this version of my mom’s recipe, I’ve added a cup of frozen corn, which I think adds a nice touch, like a raised-relief map, to the Texas shape.

Texas Cornbread

1¼ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cups yellow corn meal
3 tablespoons sugar
4½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
⅔ c milk (room temperature works best)
⅓ c melted butter
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels

Heat oven to 425ยบ.

In a medium-sized bowl, sift together the dry ingredients – flour, corn meal, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a separate, small bowl, beat the egg well with a fork, then stir in the milk and melted butter. Pour the liquid mixture all at once into the dry, stirring with a fork only until the flour is thoroughly moistened. (It’s okay if the mixture is lumpy – just don’t overstir.) Stir in the corn kernels just until evenly distributed.

Pour the mixture into an 8-inch cast-iron skillet or a greased 8x8-inch baking pan and bake 25-30 minutes until the top is browned and a toothpick stuck into the center comes out clean.  Serves 4-6.


  1. My other cornbread tip, from years of watching the cook not necessarily being the cook: Run the cast-iron pan in the oven loaded with butter first, before you pour the cornbread batter (?) in. It sizzles and fries and leaves a yummy crust.

    1. Almost 3 years later, I just saw this, Gusty. Probably because you post at the other end of the day. :-) Great suggestion -- thanks!

  2. This looks delicious except for the flour,
    sugar and lack of buttermilk...a little bacon grease never hurt either!
    Amen to Augusta concerning getting that skillet H O T before pouring in the batter!