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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Cast iron cookware has been used for generations in traditional Kentucky cooking

Venerable cast iron cookware has a place in the hearts of generations of Kentucky cooks who love to prepare traditional meals for family and friends.

On a campout, there’s nothing quite like a breakfast of thick-sliced hardwood smoked bacon or country sausage, fried up with eggs in a cast iron skillet over an open fire.

A cast iron dutch oven (Photo from Lodge)

At home on the weekend, coming in from working outside, its wonderful to find the house filled with aroma of a beef or venison roast baking with potatoes, carrots, onions and celery in a cast iron Dutch oven.

There was a time in Kentucky when the main course for Sunday dinner was likely a tender young chicken, a fryer, floured and then fried in lard in a lidded cast iron skillet, served with mashed potatoes, green beans and cornbread.

Cast iron cookware has stood the test of time and is popular today with outdoor enthusiasts and local foodies. It’s versatile, durable, chemical-free and ideal for the preparation of a wide variety of meals.

Cooking in Iron Pots

As long as humans have been smelting iron ore to make metal tools they have been cooking in cast iron vessels, perhaps earliest in Asia, then later in England by the seventh century.

Cast iron cooking pots were highly valued because they could withstand the direct heat of a fire, and retained heat evenly, thus improving the quality of cooked meals.

In the U.S., prior to the mid-19th century, meals were cooked in a hearth or fireplace, and cast iron cooking pots and pans were either designed with handles so they could be hung above the fire, or with legs, so that they could stand up directly in the hot coals and ashes of the fire.

Proper Care of Cast Iron Cookware

With proper care, cast iron cookware can last for generations or longer, and many cooks consider old cast iron skillets as family heirlooms.

A seasoned skillet is smooth and shiny. You’ll know it’s time to re-season if food sticks to the surface or if the skillet appears dull or slightly rusted.

Here’s some do’s and don’ts:

• When cooking, warm up the pan first, or food will stick. Cast iron isn’t non-stick but over time a black layer of polymerized fat will form on the surface of the metal that will keep foods from sticking.

Ribbed frying pans are great for steaks because you’ll get those signature grill marks (Photo by Art Lander, Jr.)

• Never put any cast iron cookware in a dishwasher.

Clean up after cooking with a dish soap and a scrub pad or brush, preferably plastic. Then dry thoroughly and apply oil, about a tablespoon or two, and use a paper towel is evenly coat the surfaces.

• Even rusty, neglected cookware can be rehabilitated.

In cases of severe rust, one extreme option is to take the cookware to a machine shop and have it sandblasted.

For light rust, the first step is to scour with a metal pad and dish soap, until the rust is removed. Rinse thoroughly, then dry the cookware with a clean, dry cloth or paper towels.

Preheat your oven to 350 degreesF.

Next comes seasoning.

Vegetable oil or melted shortening is most commonly used for seasoning, but any cooking oil may be used. Coat the entire outside of the vessel, even the bottom.

Bake the cookware for one hour, upside down on the oven’s center rack. Place a sheet of aluminum foil below the rack to catch any drips.

Turn off the heat and allow to the cookware to cool completely before removing from oven.

• Even new cast iron cookware, sold as “pre-seasoned,” needs a break-in period.

On method is to heat the cookware on the stove top, then oil and blot with a paper towel, to evenly distribute the oil. Let the cookware cool to room temperature, then repeat this process several times.

• To avoid rust, keep cast iron cookware stored in a warm dry location, and routinely cook with it, so it gets oiled.

Cast Iron Cookware Options

There are many cast iron cookware options and a bounty of new and old recipes in cookbooks and on internet websites:

• Frying pans of all sizes are available, at their best for searing and grilling at high temperatures.

Ribbed frying pans are great for steaks because you’ll get those signature grill marks.

Originally Blacklock Foundry, Lodge has been in business for over 120 years. (Photo courtesy Lodge Manufacturing)

Sprinkle your favorite dry rub, such as the Montreal Steak Rub, on a choice ribeye or T-bone. Get your skillet smoking-hot and cook for just a few minutes on each side, so the beef is seared on the outside and juicy pink on the inside.

Another option is to sear game birds, venison backstrap or pork loins in the skillet, then place in a slow cooker, with vegetables and seasonings for an after-hunt dinner.

• Who wants pancakes? A griddle is ideal for all breakfast foods when “camping” in the backyard or on a weekend trip to a state park or forest.

• Covered skillets and Dutch ovens may be the most versatile cookware option.

Stews, roasts, soups, cobbler, chili, even bread can be prepared in this cookware. Get creative!

A popular brand of cast iron cookware today is made by Lodge Manufacturing, of South Pittsburg, Tennessee.

Lodge entered the marketplace in 1896 as Blacklock Foundry, and has been in business for over 120 years.

Visit their website at www.lodgemfg.com

Cast iron cookware is a top choice of Kentucky cooks. So many of our favorites meals were perfected with these venerable utensils that we lovingly pass down from generation to generation as part of our culinary heritage.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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