Cooking With Iron

I’ve posted previously that I love cooking and experimenting with different styles of food and cooking methods. Some can be simply quick and dirty meals for the sake of convenience and others are for real enjoyment and taste. I’ve also covered some of the utensils that I’ve had for some time when it comes to food preparation, but if there’s one thing that stands apart from all of these it would have to be what I actually use to cook my food. Now for some (many?) the latter is a microwave oven when preparing those delicious meals from packets and whatever, or it might involve a non-stick pot or pan. While our kitchen does have non-stick pots and pans, my favourite cooking implements are cast iron pots (camp ovens), pans, woks and similar. As far as I’m concerned, nothing beats cast iron.

Camp Ovens and Finnish cast iron pot (Left)

Camp Ovens and Finnish cast iron pot (Left)

When my family came to Australia, it was from a rural area in the north-east of Finland, close to the Russian border. I never noticed it as a kid, but later on realised that many of the pots and pans that my parents used were either stainless steel or cast iron. Going back to Finland for my second time at a later age and spending a lot of time with my uncle and his family at what was the family farm, wood fired cooking and heating were de rigeur (the aromas of baking bread coming out of the wood fired oven each morning is something I’ll never forget) and just about every cooking implement was made of cast iron. Cast iron has always been durable, heat retaining, heat distributing and when properly seasoned and cleaned, non-stick. Sadly, in modern times, cast iron cookware faced the onslaught of mass production processes where flimsy stainless steel and aluminium pots and pans could be pressed out in the millions; however, cast iron does appear to be having a bit of a resurgence.

Finnish cast iron pan

Finnish cast iron pan

Modern cast iron pan

Modern cast iron pan

Old and new cast iron griddle pans

Old and new cast iron griddle pans

However, in today’s world, such oddities as cast iron cooking implements are mostly appreciated by chefs, old timers and a few that have discovered the benefits of cast iron. As I said, I do own aluminium non-stick pots and pans, as well as stainless steel ones, but prefer not to use them if I can help it. The non-stick pots and pans are generally used for simple things like steaming, boiling pasta and such, as is the stainless. The thing that I really hate about non-stick fry pans is that after the first use, they bow in the middle such that they are no longer flat and oil/butter just flows to the sides with the centre staying dry. And no matter what anyone says, I’ve yet to come across a non-stick pan that’s non-stick after a short period of use. The stainless steel pots, while of good quality, are a nightmare to clean if anything sticks to the bottom.

Le Creuset cast iron wok

Le Creuset cast iron wok

Le Creuset cast iron wok

Le Creuset cast iron wok

It’s one reason why I was keen to buy a French pan when it came on sale at our local Aldi store. This is one of those cast-iron ceramic-coated pans with a lid that is useful for stove top as well as oven use. The week that I got this pan, my wife went on a three week holiday to Bali and I used the pan to cook every meal while she was away. Perhaps that was going a bit overboard, but I really liked how I could make so many different meals in this pan and everything kept coming out nearly perfect. What was really good is that nothing tended to stick to the pan and when some residue did burn on, I’d just pour some water into the empty pan, let it sit overnight, and next morning everything would just flow off. Yes, you can do this with so-called non-stick pans, but what’s the point?

Modern cast iron French pan or shallow casserole dish

Modern cast iron French pan or shallow casserole dish

Some of the best meals that we’ve ever had have been made in camp ovens while in the bush. We used to always take several with us when camping in a group and cook roasts in the camp ovens, on top of or buried in the ground, surrounded and covered by hot coals. In two hours or so, every type of meat came out tender and juicy, and vegetables came out crisp and well cooked. Our best surprise meal was when a hunter’s dog came into our camp one evening, which we tied up and fed, and next day went to take it to a recovery station in Jamieson. Along the way, we came across some hunters who correctly identified the dog and we handed it over. The owner asked if we ate venison and said yes, and about an hour later he came to our campsite with a 2kg backstrap. We had the most enjoyable venison roast that night cooked in a camp oven. And for breakfast or lunch, toasted sangas made in a cast iron sandwich press always taste great.

Camp oven cooking

Camp oven cooking

Camp oven cooking

Camp oven cooking

Cast iron toaster

Australian Image Photography

But the downside for me when it comes to cast iron cookware is that our rural abode doesn’t have natural gas and so our stove top is electric (ceramic cooktop). The cooktop really doesn’t offer very effective heat control, regardless of the actual setting, and one of the elements is either on or off. I suspect that our cooktop is too cheap to provide the proper control and, compared to gas, the heat control is abysmal and requires a lot of monitoring to maintain a steady and consistent heat on the cast iron cookware (I think a new one is in order). Anyway, if you’ve never experienced cast iron cooking, give it a go and you might be surprised. And if you do, make sure that you season whatever you buy.