How to clean cast iron skillets

Lodge Cast Iron Skillet

Say hello to my little friend: interior of well seasoned Lodge 12 inch cast iron skillet

In my home are a number of cast iron skillets in various states of repair. The picture is my 12 inch Lodge. I use it all the time for steaks and other seared meats. I crank it up high, sprinkle a liberal amount of Kosher salt on the surface, slap in the steak and off I go. Afterwards I pour in some boiling water, give it a few minutes to dislodge the scraps, then dump the water and wipe it out with a paper towel. The residual heat dries the skillet and I’m good till next time. That’s how I clean cast iron skillets—with water permitted but not detergent.

I also have a couple of Lodge Dutch ovens I use for baking bread, which doesn’t leave a residue. A couple of times a year I make chili in them. I boil some water with the lid on, dump it out, and wipe the interior with a scrubby pad containing just a bit of soap in case there’s food contamination. I then rinse and dry them over the heat (including the lid). And that’s how I clean my cast iron Dutch ovens.

I was prompted to write the above by a few recent articles that suggest a/it’s incredibly difficult to season a cast iron pan and b/once you get one, you must never ever let water touch it. As for seasoning, it’s been awhile but the process I recall was to start with a battered specimen that had been poorly seasoned, scrape off as much of the residual char and sticky oil as I could with a single edge razor or other device, and finish the cleansing by putting it in a self-cleaning oven on the clean cycle.

Having a fresh surface to work with, I then rubbed the interior thoroughly with oil with a high smoke point (I used generic vegetable oil I think, though I’ve read avocado oil is highest while sesame oil and olive oil have dangerously low smoke points for this purpose) and put them in a 500 degree oven, inverted over a cookie sheet so the oil drips off and doesn’t pool, heated 15 minutes then turned off, cooled and repeated. You eventually end up with something like my picture. The oil gets into the nooks and crannies and, while not a smooth as glass surface, is perfectly adequate for my cooking needs.

You don’t have cast iron skillets, you say? Start going to garage sales. They’re a favorite item for disposal by folks who’ve been unsuccessful in seasoning them or allowed them to rust (easy to remove) so for 5 bucks or less you can pick up a $50 skillet ready for your magic. I would also feel fine about buying a vintage* skillet or pan from IronSpoon on eBay, who also has some good tips on care. And if you’re feeling like treating yourself, consider the Finex skillet which may seem expensive at $165 but is a relative bargain compared to some of the kitchen tchotchkes people spend their money on. It is octagonal (which means it has 8 pouring spouts) and is made by the traditional* method in which the iron is poured into a mold then polished by hand.

Read more: Kenj over at Serious Eats did a good article which echoes the above and more. Also see Cast Iron Collector for some good seasoning tips.

  • Today’s Lodge skillets are mass produced and pre-seasoned, but they perform very well. There seems to be a lot of nostalgia for the skillets which were made by Griswold and Wagner up through the 1950s which were sand-cast then hand finished. Maybe you will be lucky enough to find one of these at an estate sale or online. If so, check for wobble, an artifact of hand manufacturing that does not exist with a quality factory produced skillet; this is irritating in any context and makes the skillet unusable for induction cooking, a popular application.
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Sous vide reality check

ChefSeps Carne Asada

Chef Steps sous vide carne asada is good, but you may be able to do just as well with your own recipe.

I’ve been doing more sous vide preps recently using the nifty content on ChefSteps and my Anova sous vide device. While I’m generally happy with results, I’ve discovered a few caveats.
1. Sous vide is not a miracle. This would be the biggest shocker to someone reading the breathless articles that appeared in home cook media early on. What sous vide (French for “under vacuum”) is, is an efficient slow cooking method that controls the process and concentrates the flavor of additives. This weekend I made carne asada and Cuban style pork and both were fine but no better than I could have achieved with long marinating and low slow cooking, respectively.
2. Be aware of the capabilities and limitations of your sous vide device. The Anova shuts itself off if the water level drops below a level that’s safe for its mechanics. This is a good feature but can throw a wrench in the works if you arrive to plate your 10 hour cooked meal and discover it stopped cooking 5 hours ago.
3. Don’t forget food safety. Apropos the above, half cooked meat sitting in tepid water because the device shut off is a marvelous petri dish for the growth of all kinds of bacteria—including anaerobic ones like botulism if you’ve been successful in sucking out all the air from the cooking bag. A best practice may be to thoroughly re-heat, sear or apply some other germ-killing method unless you can personally vouch for what has happened to your food at each stage on its sous vide journey.
4. Those Zip-Loc vacuum bags with the pump are worth what you pay for them. It’s cool that you can get a starter set for almost nothing on Amazon, but I’ve found that the vacuum seal is compromised after the first use and won’t get a tight seal if you try to re-use the bags. If you decide you’re serious about sous vide, invest in a FoodSaver vacuum sealer system.
Or, give up on creating a total vacuum and just squeeze as much air as you can out of a heavy-duty non-vacuum bag and then weight it to keep it under water (you might consider some well-washed river rocks for this job). Interestingly, this is the approach (without the rocks) in the ChefSteps recipes. But be warned: if that bag leaks, it’s going to ruin your prep and potentially foul your sous vide cooking element.
5. Don’t use a Styrofoam ice chest as your sous vide tank. Seems like a great idea but I learned the hard way that the bastards can leak, even with no visible damage. Possibly the vibration of the device pushes water through the interstices of the forced-together foam pebbles. Anyhow, a floor-staining, carpet-killing disaster.
6. Take sous vide recipes with a grain of salt. An herb or spice that has a light effect when added during a simmer can become overpowering when left in contact with the food over a many-hour sous vide cycle. But you can learn to make adjustments easily enough. If you have a recipe you like and trust, it’s probably better than anything you’ll find online or in a sous vide cookbook.
7. The best use of sous vide is probably the original one: prepping complex dishes that can be stored and finished when it’s time to serve. My blogger friend and expert cooking teacher Deanna Fox derides places that serve “boil in bag” food but in fact this is a great application when the kitchen doesn’t have the skill and equipment for a five-star finish and preparation. If you have a good vacuum sealing system, consider stockpiling favorite meals in your freezer (or, short term, in the fridge) then finish them in a few minutes on a night when you’re too busy to start from scratch. Note: I don’t have personal experience with this; please research the details of safely storing sous vide cooked (or partially cooked) meals.

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Recipe: Sourdough Rye with Anise and Caraway

Caraway Anise Rye. It goes vey well with pastrami, as you can see.

Sourdough Rye with Caraway and Anise seeds

This pleasing sourdough rye started with a need to use up some white rye flour, but more common medium rye would work fine. Makes one two-pound loaf.

200 g refreshed whole rye starter @100% hydration
375 g (1 1/2 c) water
280 g (2 c) white or medium rye flour
245 g (1 1/2 c) all purpose flour, plus more as needed
3/4 t active dry yeast
1 t Kosher salt
1 t caraway seeds
1 t anise seeds

Method: Add water and yeast to starter in a large mixing bowl and stir till blended. Mix in all other ingredients and knead 5-7 minutes until the dough is cohesive with some gluten development. If it sticks to your hands add more flour, but don’t worry if it’s soft and tacky. Bulk rise 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size.

Oil or butter a standard loaf pan and sprinkle interior with cornmeal or polenta if desired. Add dough, cover and rise 1 hour. Place bread pan in a cold oven (this is an odd technique I found in a King Arthur Flour cookbook, but it works) and turn on to 400 degrees. After it comes up to temperature continue to bake15 minutes then lower heat to 350 degrees and bake until thoroughly cooked through. The internal temperature should be 206 degrees or a bit higher and the loaf should make a hollow thump when turned out and tapped on the bottom; in my oven this took almost an hour after the initial higher heat bake. Cool on an oven rack; serve and eat as sandwiches.

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Recipe: Maachere Jhol (Bengali Fish Stew)

Maacheri Jhol

Maacheri Jhol (Bengali Fish Stew) made with cod, which is a little flakier than some other fish you might use

Maachere jhol is a classic Bengali fish meal simmered in a rich curry sauce. This gravy is called jhol. You can use almost any type of fish. Salmon and mahi mahi are popular choices. Sea bass, cod, tilapia and flaky white fish can be used if they are handled gently. Serves 4.

Ingredients for the fish:
1 lb fish fillets
1/2 tsp powdered turmeric
1/4 tsp salt
2 T mustard or other cooking oil

Ingredients for the sauce:
2 tsp Panch Phoron
1 medium onion, chopped
1 c diced tomatoes (canned or fresh)
1/2 tsp powdered turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
1 inch pice ginger root, grated
1 c water

Method: Rub the fish fillet with the salt and turmeric. Let it sit for 15 minutes, then cut into 1-inch bite size chunks. In a large skillet over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the fish. Then, turn the heat to medium. Flip the pieces when they turn opaque around the edges. Finish cooking the other side for 2 to 3 minutes. Set the fillets aside.

To make the gravy, add the panch phoron to the oil remaining in the skillet. (You may need to add a bit more oil.) Add the chopped onion pieces. Fry until translucent. Add the tomatoes along with the turmeric, cumin, grated ginger and water. Season with salt to taste before returning the fish to the pan. Cook for 10 minutes or until the sauce is thick. Serve over steamed rice.

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Ballantine Burton Ale is worth the hunt

Ballantine Burton Ale

Ballantine Burton Ale

I found Ballantine Burton Ale in the back corner, literally, of my beer store. I have mixed memories of Ballantine XXX Ale from a long-ago trip to Philadelphia when that mild, cloying brew was paired with fabulous hoagies, so was amused at the attempt at a craft product and picked up a six. But a trip to Beer Advocate revealed that this barleywine (it clocks 11.3% ABV) is indeed something pretty special.

The original Burton Ale was brewed after Prohibition and put up in oak barrels for as long as 20 years. (Master Brewer Greg Deuhs says the new one spends “several months” in oak). According to the label, “the beer was given as a gift to prestigious friends of the brewery, including the White House… Like the original, our Burton Ale is sweet, strong, yet balanced by a robust hop characteristic true to the Ballantine name. The oak essence and notes of toasted vanilla make it the perfect holiday treat.” (It was released in December 2015.)

I found it very malt-forward yet balanced and palatable for a high-alcohol beer, similar to the Jewbilation series from Shmaltz. Three bottles are now gone and the next three go into the basement to see how they’ll taste a year from now.

The ironic thing about this project, which apparently has very limited distribution, is that Ballantine is now owned by Pabst. So instead of getting the white glove treatment from the rep from Remarkable Liquids or Tristate, Burton Ale was loaded on the hand truck with cases of PBR. Hence its unloved placement in the back of the store. If you can find some, buy it.

Ballantine Beer Display

Ballantine’s unloved placement in the back of my beer store

While you’re there, pick up a six or two of Ballantine IPA as well. This is also a revival which, according to the Pabst website, “includes hop oils imported directly from the United Kingdom in order to capture the balanced but defined hop flavor of Peter Ballantine’s original brew.” That’s quite different from the Northwestern hops that give today’s hoppy IPAs their strong citrus notes, yet it has enough tang to satisfy your contemporary raised-pinky craft beer snob. It’s 7.2% ABV, 70 IBU and set me back a grand total of $8.99 for a six-pack. No complaints there.

You will probably be tempted to grab some Ballantine XXX, just to complete the picture. I’d advise you not to bother. Though not marketed as such, this 4.85% brew was the original “session” beer, displayed along with Mickey’s, King Cobra, Country Club and other high-alcohol payloads as the one to have when you’re having more than one 40 oz bottle. It’s yellow, not amber, in the glass, and the flavor is appropriate to that hue.

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Recipe: Sautéed Milkweed

Sautéed Milkweed

Sautéed Milkweed

Milkweed appears in mid-May in my back yard in upstate new York. The plants have distinctive paddle-shaped leaves opposite each other and hollow stalks that ooze white liquid when cut. When they’re young, the whole above-ground plant can be eaten. The taste is pleasant and mild. Serves 4.

A good handful of milkweed stalks with leaves (about 1 quart by volume)
2 T olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
2 T white wine (optional)
1 t lemon juice
sprinkle of cracked red pepper (optional)
1/2 t salt

Milkweed Growing

Milkweed growing in my back yard. Stalks and leaves up to this height are all edible.

Method: wash stalks and cut into 3 inch pieces, combining stems and leaves. If the bottom parts of the stems have gotten woody, trim those away. Heat oil in a saute pan and cook garlic until fragrant; add milkweed, toss, cover and cook for about a minute. It will have cooked down considerably. Add white wine and lemon juice and sizzle in the pan until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add salt and optional red pepper flakes and serve.

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Recipe: Pickled Ramps Bulbs

Pickled Ramps Bulbs

Pickled Ramps Bulbs

At their prime, ramps bulbs have a taste between garlic and onion. Add one or two of these pickled ramps bulbs on the side of a serving of roasted meat for a flavor bomb. Proportions are for about a half pint but can be modified as required.

Ramps bulbs, about 1 c after trimming
3/8 c rice vinegar (unsweetened)
3/8 c water
2 T sugar
1/2 t salt
1 T pickling spice mixture
1 bay leaf
a few flakes dried red pepper

Method: trim any roots from the bulbs and cut them just below the green part of the leaves. (Reserve the leaves for bonus ramps pesto.) Wash thoroughly and transfer to a heat-resistant canning jar. Bring all other ingredients to the boil and pour over ramps in the jar. If needed, top off with equal amounts of vinegar and water till ramps are submerged. Refrigerate at least a week (or put up in vacuum method) and enjoy. Keeps at least a month in refrigerator.

Ramps Plants

These late season ramps are a little long in the tooth, but with judicious trimming the leaves can still be used for pesto.

Bonus Ramps Pesto recipe: trim ramps leaves, discarding any wilted or yellow ones. Cut the rest into 1-inch pieces and process in a food processor with 2 T parmesan cheese, 2 T olive oil, 1 T pine nuts and 1/2 t salt. Makes a couple of servings used like regular pesto over pasta.

Wild springtime ramps are one of the benefits of living in the northeast. They make their appearance around May 1, and prefer wooded, moist areas near bodies of water. I always feel guilty pulling them up, plus I have not had great luck finding in the wild, so I buy mine at the farmer’s market. If you do harvest them wild, use a pair of scissors and cut above the roots to give the plants a better chance of coming back. (My friend Kate H tells me that is how they do it in Austria.)

Note: turns out I did another pickled ramps recipe awhile back, using the entire plant. But this one is definitely better for late season when the tops aren’t in top condition.

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Hindbeh (Lebanese-style sautéed bitter greens)


Hindbeh Lebanese (sauteed bitter greens)

Here’s a way to cook and eat dandelion leaves. They’re still bitter, so this dish would make a nice complement to more unctuous foods in. Serves 8.

Dandelion greens or other bitter green, 1 gallon or so, carefully picked over and washed
1/2 t baking soda
2 T olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2 T pine nuts (optional)
3 T lemon juice
1 t salt OR 1 T zataar (if you have it)
1 onion, sliced and fried OR 3 oz crispy onions from a can

Method: bring 2 quarts water to boil in a stew pot; add baking soda. Add bitter greens and push down with a wooden spoon to immerse. Cook 2 minutes or so to blanch the greens and transfer to a colander. Drain then dry thoroughly by squeezing and with a paper towel. The gallon of uncooked greens should have reduced to a quart.

Fried Onions

Fried onions from the store will save you a lot of time in this prep.

Fry onions according to this method or else just use canned fried onions, which saves a lot of time and tastes just as good.

In a large skillet, heat oil and saute chopped garlic and pine nuts until brown but not burned. Remove and reserve. Add greens and toss to heat all surfaces; return garlic and pine nuts to the mix, add lemon juice and salt (or zataar, the middle eastern wild thyme and sesame seed mix) and adjust seasoning to taste. Mix in about half the fried onions then serve with the other half on top for diners to combine to their preference.

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How to eat dandelions

Hindbeh recipe

Large Dandelion Leaves

Larger dandelion leaves are less bitter

I was looking for spring ramps in the Adirondacks last weekend and instead found a bounty of dandelions. Dandelions in all stages of growth: from barely recognizable to robust and flower-less to flowering to puffball. I picked specimens at all stages except the last (assuming it would be extremely bitter) and set to experimenting to figure out how to eat dandelions.

Foraging tip: you’re going to have to deal with the harvest on a leaf-by-leaf basis at some point, so might as well take time and care while you are picking. Don’t just grab whole plants by their roots like I did. You’ll end up cutting off the roots, removing the random bits of stuff that creep in, then also removing flowers and buds. Better to do it right from the get-go, cutting each leaf with scissors.

Small Dandelion Leaves

Smaller dandelion leaves are more bitter

The best way to eat dandelions is definitely in a salad, judiciously used in small amounts. To do this, pick the leaves with more surface area. They were consistently less bitter (though by no means tame) in my taste test. I think they may be wider both at the beginning and end of their lives; the intermediate stage where they’re pushing out reproductive components makes the leaves shrivel up and become extremely bitter. (Botanists, I welcome your corrections.)

As to cooking dandelions, the standard advice to treat them like any other green (collards, mustard etc): boil the hell out of them then serve with a flavorful sauce. Because of the bitterness I mistrusted that advice and went searching deeper on the web. I ended up making a middle eastern prep (where they are called hindbeh) where the greens are boiled, drained and re-purposed.

Some fun facts about Dandelions:
* They are not a native plant to North American but were introduced by helpful immigrants because of their health benefits.
* The familiar yellow flower actually lasts a single day. Then it closes up for several days and re-emergences as a puffball.
* Dandelion leaves can supposedly be used as a pregnancy test. Pee on them and if the leaves form red blisters, you’re pregnant.
* On the original version of the Rolling Stones’ “Dandelion” if you listen carefully you can hear Lennon & McCarthy singing backup at the end.

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A rating system for great barbecue (in Texas and elsewhere)

Davis mutton barbecue

Mutton barbecue from Davis’ Grocery in Taylor, TX

It’s been a while since I published my list of factors I consider in rating barbecue, and we’ve got a bunch of new readers, so let’s take a fresh look. Especially because I will be in Austin over Memorial Day and hope to visit at least one establishment while there. List is from most to least important.

  1. Tenderness. Good brisket should have the consistency of pudding. Good ribs are falling off the bone. A knife should always be optional. Like they say, you should “need no teef to eat this beef”.

  2. Smoke ring. This is the caramelization which occurs when the meat is exposed to slow heat in the smoker. The outside is crisped (see below) and the meat just below that turns a delicious pink. Smoke ring is not considered in professional BBQ judging (I think because it can be faked) but for me it’s the surest sign of proper preparation by a skilled and loving cook.

  3. Bark (also known as char or crust). Given the choice, I’ll always request burnt ends which provide maximum flavor by concentrating the rub, caramelized meat and juices that leach out. Some meats don’t have bark because of their method of preparation but it’s a huge plus if available.

  4. Surface taste, appearance and texture. A place that serves meat pre-sauced gets an immediate zero for me. A marinated cut that is not thoroughly dried so it develops a crust also will be marked down. The simplest rub is also the one used by my favorite place, Snow’s in Lexington TX: lots of salt and a little pepper.

  5. Side dishes. I’m probably the only one who cares about this, but so what. Cole slaw is such a perfect accompaniment to barbecue that it should be served automatically. An eggy potato salad is close behind. I often eschew the beans because I’m so often disappointed, but when they’re good they’re great. One more thing about sides: by eating more sides you eat less meat, so there’s more left over for a future meal. You also may live longer.

There are a few more things I consider which you can read about on my original post. One thing I don’t consider: popularity.

Folks not from Texas may not be aware that getting barbecue at Franklin’s or another brisket Valhalla can be a feat on the order of getting tickets to Hamilton. I think a lot of these people are in line just for the experience and don’t even like barbecue (and they don’t have to buy it because, by the time they get to the head of the line, it’s sold out).

Some of the best barbecue I’ve had is from places like Davis Grocery & BBQ in Taylor, TX, which have a smoker out in back and serve brisket (or in this case, mutton) as a sideline to another business. I am looking forward to celebrating at this or an equivalent temple in the next few days.

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