Back in the early days of the American West, trail cooks had to be able to
cook just about anything that came their way, but they didn't have the
huge array of tools available to today's cooks. Walk into a kitchen store
today and you'll encounter a dizzying array of cooking vessels from the
most expensive and fragile copper pots to old, durable standbys like
Magnalite and Corningware.
The trail cook needed something durable and easy to clean that would
moderate the wildly fluctuating temperatures inherent in camp cooking and
perform a plethora of cooking tasks. Nothing was, or is, better suited to
this purpose than cast iron.
Today's cast iron is very little changed from its pioneer forebears, with
the exception of some of the new "pre-seasoned" lines, and it is
still the best choice for many types of cooking applications. Lewis and
Clark carried it, and there are records of cast-iron foundries in the
American Colonies as far back as the mid-1600s.
In 1896, the Lodge Cast Iron company, now the United States' premier
manufacturer of cast-iron cookware, began turning out skillets, kettles
and that most classic of camp cooking pots, the Dutch oven. You will
likely find their products at any kitchen store, but for the best prices
and selection you're better off heading to your local sporting goods
store, to the camping department.
Of course, you can also pursue the true adventurer's way to assemble your
cast-iron collection: garage sales and flea markets. I have in my own
collection a corn stick pan that, when I found it, was so caked with rust
it was almost unrecognizable, having been used as a garage doorstop, among
other purposes, for quite some time. The purchase price for this neglected
trinket was a princely 25 cents, which I parted with gladly.
Why, you might ask, did I buy this wretched wreck? What possible use?
Let's go back to the chuck wagon. Do you think those pans were put away in
nice, pristine cabinets after every use? Might they have endured a life
that would make my little doorstop's existence look like a walk in the
park? And yet, many of those pans are still in use today, in the
collections of hardcore camp cooks and chuck wagon operators.
The first step is to get all the "active" rust off the pan. This
can be done easily with steel wool. Don't use soap pads, just standard
steel wool. Keep scrubbing and rinsing until the loose rust is gone. What
is revealed will most likely be black, if the pot was well-seasoned and
used in its past life.
Once you've got the debris of neglect removed from the pan, you'll need to
season it. This process is the same whether your pan is fresh off the
store shelf or straight from the neighbor's garage.
One thing that seems to intimidate most cast iron novices is all the
mystique about "seasoning" a new pan to make it ready for use.
However, there's no need to fear. Follow these simple steps and you'll
have a ready-to-use pan in no time at all:
Clean the pan with hot soapy water and a stiff brush to remove shipping
wax and any metal chaff from the surface. This should be the only time
soap will ever touch your pan during its lifetime.
Rinse completely and towel-dry immediately.
Cover the lower rack of your oven with foil and move the upper rack to
allow room for the pan.
Coat the pan with either liquefied shortening or vegetable oil.
Put the pan in the cold oven, on the top rack, and set the oven for 350
degrees F. When the oven heats, leave it on for one hour, then turn it off
and allow the pan to cool completely before removing from the oven. This
is something good to do before you go to bed. Just leave the pan in the
Rub the pan down vigorously with paper towels to remove any excess oil and
you're ready to go!
If you've got a deep pan, such as a chicken fryer or Dutch oven, you can
put an exclamation point on the seasoning by deep-frying something in it.
When the oil hits about 350 degrees F., you'll hear a few deep
"thinks" from inside the pan that, to me, have always indicated
the last few pores of the pan opening and slurping up their share of
Clean the pan with hot water and a stiff brush after use, then give it a
light wipe-down of vegetable oil on the cooking surfaces before storage.
If it ever develops rust or a metallic smell, reseason it.
Follow these steps and you'll very soon have pots with that rich, black
patina so prized by cast iron cooks everywhere, which has made cast iron
cookware an item of vituperative dispute in estate settlements.
Properly seasoned cast iron is as close to nonstick as you can get without
using Teflon, without the health concerns that have been raised about that
coating. If you use metal utensils in your cast iron, you might end up
with a little iron in your food, which your body will be happy to make
good use of, whereas it wouldn't be nearly as happy with a gram or so of
So now you've got your pan cleaned. What are you going to do with it? If
what you're holding is a flat-bottomed skillet in the 8- to 12-inch range,
the good folks here at AmericanGrassFedBeef.com have just the thing to put
your cast iron to good use: steaks.
Grass-fed beef is very similar to what the camp cook would have had to
work with, in the days when cows ranged free, before they were penned up
and force-fed grain and hormones to distort the meat from its natural
state. Sure, today's grain-fed beef may be more marbled with fat than
grass-fed, but once you've had a properly cooked steak and seen how tender
and juicy a lean, healthful one can be, you'll never want that greasy
mouth-feel of a fat-soaked cut again. Meat should taste like meat, not
The best thing about this method is that you don't have to use the really
expensive cuts to get a great-tasting steak. Sure, a rib eye, New York
strip or even tenderloin will do well and come out tender and tasty, but
you can use a "lesser" cut like chuck or sirloin and make your
diners think they've died and gone to meat heaven.
Before we begin, a word on safety: you are going to be working with VERY
hot metal. It may be too hot for your ordinary potholders, which is why I
consider a pair of welder's gloves and indispensable accessory in the
kitchen. If you don't have them, at least use a double or triple thickness
of potholders. Do NOT use a standard oven mitt, as when the pan heat
penetrates your hand will be trapped in there with it.
This technique will also generate a fair amount of smoke, so turn on your
vent fan and crack a window to allow good airflow. Don't worry, though,
the only smell that will linger will be that of delicious steak.
First, set your steak out and allow it to come to room temperature. Don't
worry about it spoiling, you won't be leaving it at room temp long enough
to do any damage.
Now, put your seasoned skillet in the oven and set the temperature to
"broil." Allow it to heat for 15 to 20 minutes. While the oven
is heating, season the steak on both sides with liberal pinches of kosher
and freshly ground black pepper. Add a light coating of canola oil. NOTE:
I don't recommend regular vegetable or olive oil for this method, as their
smoke points are too low.
Once your oven heating is done, turn your large stove burner to high. If
it's an electric stove, allow the burner to come to full temp. Remove the
skillet from the oven and set it on the burner for another three minutes.
You will now have an insanely hot cooking surface.
Using tongs, place the steak in the skillet. After 30 seconds, turn it
over to brown the other side. Wearing your welding gloves, transfer the
pan to the center rack of your oven and cook for three minutes on each
side. (NOTE: This cooking time is for an inch-thick steak. Adjust your
time for thinner cuts.)
Remove the skillet from the oven, and move the steak to a platter to
stand. This is perhaps the most neglected portion of any meat cooking
process. If you cut into a steak, pork chop or even chicken before it's
had time stand, you will end up with a platter dripping with juices that
belong in the meat. Allow your steak to stand, with a tent of foil to
retain the heat, for 10 minutes and you'll be rewarded with beef that is
as juicy on the last bite as it was on the first, and leftovers that won't
have the texture of cardboard.
When I'm cooking these steaks, I'll frequently cook one or two extra just
to slice for steak sandwiches the next day. Do this, and you'll have half
your office trying to swap you valuable pieces of jewelry for your lunch.
If you have a large enough skillet, you CAN do more than one steak at
once. Even if you don't, the cooking time for each steak is so brief that
you'll have dinner for four ready by the time the side dishes are done.