cast iron

How To Cook Grass Fed Beef In Cast Iron Cookware

By: J Scott Wilson
Food Editor
Internet Broadcasting System

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 oven overnight.

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 seasoning oil.

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 Teflon.

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 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 salty fat.

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.

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