.. for Flavour and Health: The Art of the Cast-iron Pan
(c) 2013, Davd
If you want a cheap laugh, and don’t mind being thought a fool, go into a good steakhouse and say “Boil me a T-bone.” (Even “Boil me a pork chop” is cheap dimwit comedy rather than mere ignorance.) Fried meat, we often hear, is unhealthy for us, and especially for our hearts and arteries. .. but would you boil a steak? even a pork chop or a slice of ham? Not if you’re sure it’s in good condition!
Since frying and grilling (and roasting for thick pieces) are the best simple ways to cook fine cuts of meat, it’s worth learning how to do them well—to get delicious meat with little or no risk to your health. The skills involved—much like riding a bicycle or driving nails with a hammer—will need careful attention at the start, to go well; and then you’ll gradually “get the hang of it” and they will become a comfortable routine.
You can make a stainless steel or Teflon-surface frying pan do a good job, but the metal that serves me best—that does a good job most easily and the best job when used with care—is cast iron. It seasons well with vegetable oil (or with animal fat); it builds up enough heat in its heavy metal, and delivers that heat fast enough, to sear meat well; and it’s easy to clean without damaging it. (Yes, it does need “seasoning” [for cooking performance, not for flavour] with oil; but that oil can be a very small amount and it will help sear the meat.)
Next time you see cast iron frying pans at a yard sale or second-hand store, if they’re reasonably priced, get the sizes you don’t already have. A little rust can be cleaned up and once well seasoned, cast iron pans won’t rust again. Oil protects the metal from rusting. If the rust has made pits in the cooking surface [inside bottom] deeper than your thumb-nail is thick, i wouldn’t buy
it even for only a dollar.
To season a cast-iron frying pan, first clean it thoroughly and let it dry. (It will dry fastest if it is at an angle between horizontal and vertical, inside down. To force-dry it quickly, heat it on a stove, fairly low power.) Then heat it to about the boiling temperature of water. (If a drop of water sizzles or even evaporates quickly without jumping around, the pan is hot enough.)
Now add a small amount of canola oil, corn oil—a good vegetable oil but not olive.* I aim to just cover the bottom of the frying pan with oil, when it’s hot—and hot oil spreads much more thinly over the iron than cold oil. You don’t need much. When the oil runs freely around the bottom of the pan—not sluggishly as oil does when it’s cold—tilt the pan this way and that until the bottom is oiled all over, then turn off the power or slide the pan to a relatively cool corner of the woodstove. Leave the pan fairly hot for at least a minute, then put it on a cold stove element, a trivet, an oven shelf, even a block of wood, to let it cool.
The first time you try this, you may find it hard to estimate how much oil to add. Take your time, and watch how the oil and the pan-bottom are interacting—this is learning time, not wasted time. Add a little and if it’s not enough, a little more… and if you wind up with too much you can pour the excess on the dog’s food, into a clean empty tuna can, even into another frying pan where you’ll cook potatoes or eggs, which cook best in more than a film of oil.
When the pan has cooled, then, if there is enough oil in it to run visibly to the low side when the pan is tilted, you can pour that oil out if you’re planning to fry meat. (Leave it in if you’re planning to fry potatoes or eggs. I often set a small frying pan inside a larger one, upside down with one edge tilted upward slightly, and let the oil run into the larger pan, .. then later, if i’m going to fry potatoes in the small pan, i put the oil back in addition to the oil from its latest seasoning… or i use that excess oil to season the small pan next time.)
It’s good to let a pan cool to complete the seasoning, then re-heat it when you’re ready to fry that pork chop, chicken leg, beefsteak, or fish. If you’re in a hurry, you can usually get away with using a pan that’s just been seasoned… but i wouldn’t make a habit of that.
Frying has at least two, different stages: Searing and cooking. Searing always comes first: The meat is browned at high pan heat—well above the boiling point of water—to seal the outside so the moisture will stay in. Throw a pork chop or a steak—even a chicken leg—in boiling water without searing it, and so much of the flavour will go out into the water that the meat will taste insipid, and the water will seem “bloody” rather than meaty. Before you make a beef stew, pot roast, chicken cacciatore, pork with bean sprouts and mushrooms in Chinese or Japanese style—before moist-cooking generally—you should also sear that meat.
To sear and then cook well, a pork chop should be at least half an inch 1 thick, and ¾” [2 cm] isn’t too much. (There is a different technique, using a thin-bottom steel pan and a gas flame, for cooking thinner meat; and most of those i’ve met who do it well, also speak fluent French. Few of us who speak mostly English, even have gas flames to cook on, except maybe in a camp stove.)
So get the pan surface, with its thin film of oil that wouldn’t move around at room temperature, hot enough that the oil moves around easily or the pan threatens to go dry. Put the meat in, brown one side, turn it, brown the other side, and to be thorough, brown the edges also. (For a breakfast pork chop, the two large “sides” are enough, but doing the edges is still a good idea unless they are made up of bone or fat.)
If you’re not sure when the meat is browned, you can lift it and look. (Be sure you get the whole side of the meat down against the pan, each side, at the start and after looking. Pushing down with a spatula that’s almost as wide as it is long, will usually do the trick.)
As soon as the second side is down on the much-hotter-than-boiling pan, or when you start searing edges if you do, lower the heat; and when done searing, cover the pan. Searing is taking all the water from the surface of the meat, browning it, and thus sealing that surface; but you don’t want the meat dried out all the way through. Slower cooking after searing will produce a juicy and still fully cooked pork chop. You want the pork cooked to a tan colour clear through, not red or pink. If it has been well seared, it will still be juicy and tasty, not dried-out, not waterlogged.
(Why fully cooked? Mostly, because of trichinosis. Trichinae are tiny worms that can live in the muscles of pigs, bears—and unlucky humans. You don’t want them in your muscles, and apparently, they can survive stomach acid and get through the intestinal wall; so standard cooking practice for pork, since trichinae were discovered, has been to “cook it well done.” If there are trichinae in the pork, cooking it well done will kill them. Today, most pork is inspected and pig farmers seem to have learned how to keep trichinae out of their pigpens—but better safe than sorry.
Chicken and ground beef are also supposed to be “cooked well done”, because of disease bacteria rather than trichinae. It is possible to produce ground beef that is safe to cook rare or medium; but that involves a lot of cleaning and sterilizing and the big meat packers don’t seem to find it profitable.)
When the pork chop is done, you can put your porridge (or a slice or two of bread, or even cooked pasta or rice or barley) into the pan to soak up the mixture of fat and water that has formed during slow cooking. (If it’s mostly fat, you can choose instead, to pour it on the dog’s food dish. Dogs only live ten to fifteen years, and as far as i know, don’t have time to develop dangerous “arteriosclerosis”. They do enjoy pork fat; and when i have a pork chop with enough fat in or on it, to cut out, Fritz [my dog] gets the fat and counts it for a real treat.)
Whole grain porridge flavoured with pan brownings and a little meat juice from the slow cooking, is my preference. Add an apple**, and you’ve got a hearty healthy breakfast.
The same frying technique works, with a little adjustment, for steaks and lamb-chops. Beefsteak can be cooked “rare” to “medium” as well as fully [“well done”]. Lamb (and young mutton) i’d cook medium but not rare. For rare and even for medium, a thicker piece of meat will fry [or grill] best: An inch thick if you want rare, ¾” or more for medium… but i wouldn’t go thicker than 3 cm [an inch and a quarter] without consulting someone who’s more experienced with very thick steaks.
For chicken and ground meat, use the same technique as for pork, because the health authorities today say consistently, that these meats are not safe to eat partly cooked. Chicken “cutlets”, “filets”, “nuggets” and strips, are near enough uniform thickness to cook like steaks and chops, if they are all meat. I use mainly salt and pepper to season pork and beef after searing, but might add chive and tarragon to chicken.
Chicken pieces of any type that are “breaded” or otherwise coated, don’t need searing, so read the package directions and then adapt them to your liking. Chicken thighs [cuisses de poulet] without back attached, may also be uniform enough to fry like chops, though i’d be inclined to sear-and-simmer, as i do with whole legs. Chicken breasts with the skin still on, can be steamed skin-side up, and tend to be better that way. (Those techniques will be the subjects of future “posts.”)
To sum up: The best way to fry a 2-3 cm [¾” to 1¼”]; piece of meat—a chop, chicken ‘filet’, or steak—is to sear both flat sides in a seasoned cast-iron frying pan, lower the heat, cover the pan, and cook until it’s to your liking (or the safety requirements.) Steaks, pork sirloin chops, and white meat chicken “filets”, may benefit from searing the edges as well. When the meat is done, the frying pan will usually contain “meat juices” that can be used to flavour bread, barley, pasta, rice—or for breakfast, porridge is my favourite. What with apples and spice plus meat juices for oatmeal and meat juices alone for rye porridge, i find porridge is a food i can eat daily for weeks and months… and its proteins complement those in the meat.
Meat fried this way has very little extra fat, and that fat is healthy vegetable oil. The technique is easy once you’re familiar with it, and the results are as good as you’re likely to get until you’ve mastered the smoky-coals barbecue—which is a more demanding technique i expect to write about starting next spring.
… by the way … cooking most of the fat out of smoked bacon, really isn’t frying as we otherwise use the term.. it’s slow cooking in a frying pan, while real frying starts out “fast”.
* I believe i’ve been told that olive oil won’t work because it’s unstable at frying temperature. I’ve never tried it for frying, because it costs several times as much as canola oil, which is healthy and fries things well.
** Apples are high in pectin, which helps protect you from high-cholesterol foods. (See e.g. Castleman, Michael, 1991. The Healing Herbs. [Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press] p. 54) Thus, i usually eat apples with red meat and with eggs and have bananas and oranges with fish or poultry… when i have them. Apples grow right where i am; bananas, oranges, and pineapple don’t.
- 3 cm ↩