What do you think when you see the words "cast iron" on a menu, as you increasingly do these days? I long thought of it as shorthand for a rustic, earthy, back-to-basics kind of cooking, far more aspirational than achievable — sort of like the Pendleton blanket of the kitchen. Do you actually use it/cuddle under it? Probably not. But cast iron is something more than a Ye Olde Signifier: It imparts qualities to food that are tough to get any other way, like an evenly browned crust on a griddle cake or a hard sear on a tender cut of meat.
The trouble, besides cast iron’s annoying campfire-chic trendiness, is its apparent difficulty to use and maintain. Before I read Charlotte Druckman’s new book, Stir Sizzle Bake, my own skillet mostly gathered dust in a drawer. I only used it for the kind of meat dishes that start on the stovetop and finish in the oven, but even those were usually a bust; I’d often end up with chunks torn out of the beef or chicken, stuck to the pan like they’d been glued there. The idea of baking a cake or pie or pizza in cast iron, as this book suggested, sounded frankly revolting. Aren’t you supposed to never wash your cast iron, so that a layer of grease protects it from rusting? Wouldn’t a pie taste like burnt tallow?
I trusted Druckman, though; she’s a veteran writer whose takes on contemporary food culture are always deeply thoughtful. And as the founder of Food52’s annual Piglet cookbook competition, she has read a LOT of cookbooks. (Disclosures: She edited my judgment in Food52’s annual Piglet cookbook competition a few years back and has written for Eater.)
Druckman dispensed with my worries and my mistaken ideas in a few concise, myth-busting pages: Turns out, you can (and should!!) wash your cast iron with soap, getting all the gunk out before drying it, first by hand and then on the stovetop over a low heat. Then give it a little rubdown with a small amount of neutral oil. If food’s really sticking to it, you can use some kosher salt to give it an exfoliating scrub. In other words, you treat it mostly like you do your own body after a soapy shower, except for the part about gently heating it on the stovetop.
Once the weather was cool enough to spend a day re-seasoning my pan, which involves heating it and cooling it slowly several times in a 400-degree oven, I started making some of these recipes, and my pan got slicker every time I cooked with it. By the time I needed to flip it upside down to turn out a moist round of halva fudge bars, a baked good could slide out with every crumb of its nutty-brown crust intact. Where had cast iron been all my life?
Druckman had her own revelatory journey while writing this book: The creativity that once drove her cooking had been systematically deadened by reading too many damn cookbooks, and the accessible kind of baking that’s the only kind possible in cast iron was the cure. As Druckman notes, cast-iron cooking and baking is necessarily free of "foam, fragile paper-thin layers, custards, sugar sculpture." In other words, nothing in this book resembles anything you would see on Great British Bakeoff. The kind of food you can make in a cast-iron pan is the kind that humanity has been cooking in cast-iron for centuries: sturdy, rugged, nourishing, but still — particularly with Druckman’s knack with unconventional ingredients in innovative combinations — sophisticated. "The flavor is there," as Mary Berry would say.
In fact, cast iron and all related tricks and techniques aside, what this book is really about is Druckman’s innovative and ecumenical approach to flavors. Drawing on a deep knowledge of classic and new recipes from chefs and authors of all stripes and nationalities, Druckman uses the constraints imposed by cast iron as the only limit to her experimentation. She particularly loves flavor concepts that translate a classic food or flavor into a new format, like cacio e pepe shortbread and "cornflakes-n-milk" cake — especially if there’s wordplay involved, as in her Indian-spiced "Delhi bialys." If these combinations were just a gimmick, they wouldn’t be very charming, but the more I cooked from this book, the more I came to respect Druckman’s mastery of her flavor vocabulary. Every time I thought that seems weird, are you sure? while cooking, the results eventually won me over.
The book is separated into five sections. The first one, "No-Bake Baking," collects flatbreads and other treats that don’t require the oven. "Easy-Bake Baking" features biscuits, cornbread, brownies, cakes, pies, and other un-yeasted things, then "On-the-Rise Baking" stars breads and more ambitious pastry. Two more chapters feature ways to repurpose or extend the results of the previous chapters, with new takes on ideas like bread pudding and panzanella, and a chapter on condiments — also cast-iron-cooked — rounds things out.
My first cast-iron challenge was lazy cheese arepas with slaw. These arepas are "lazy" because they don’t require the use of a grill or oven — and, as Druckman writes, in no other way: Cooking a thick corn-and-cheese pastry on the stovetop so that it has a perfect cheesy-grits texture in the middle, yet is not charred on the outside, turns out to be fairly daunting.
Even with Druckman’s extremely specific, down-to-the-second instructions, I still managed to scorch the outside of my first batch. Cast iron has a learning curve, and my stove’s medium-high setting was too hot. On my second batch, I achieved the perfect textural contrast of melt and crunch, and the accompanying slaw, which uses fennel in place of cabbage, and which I would happily eat a big bowl of on its own, distracted from the less-than-perfection of my trial-run batch.
One technique used in that recipe and throughout the book is to pre-heat the dry skillet gradually but thoroughly, either on the stovetop or in the oven. On the stovetop, you gradually crank the temp, while in the oven, you stick the pan in there before turning it on so that it preheats as the oven does. I’d never bothered to do this before, or even thought about it, and now I always will; it makes a huge difference in terms of even heat all over the pan’s surface, even if your burners are wonky or your stovetop is tilted, like mine is.
The next recipe I tried was a flatbread that went into the oven, then got a lamb topping that had been cooked, in advance, on the stove — a Middle Eastern take on the chickpea crepe known in France as socca and in Italy as farinata, which Druckman calls a "soccanata." This is a satisfying and rich one-dish meal, with a more-than-passing resemblance to the "pitzas" you might find at the kind of Middle Eastern restaurant that is mostly frequented by college kids. The only step I’d skip next time would be roasting the zucchini for the chickpea-flour batter in the same pan as the lamb; despite my pan’s near-nonstickness, I still had trouble scraping out every bit of zucchini. This was the sole moment when the book’s insistence that you only needed to dirty one pan seemed counterproductive — it wouldn’t have killed me to wash a sheet pan
Druckman features flours made from a variety of grains in this book, using their different flavors and textures to add interest to plain all-purpose flour in many of the recipes. Especially in the flatbreads section, she often skips wheat entirely. Still, to treat the cookbook fairly, since I have celiac disease, I had to enlist the help of a wheat-eating friend to cook and eat a few recipes, so I called my friend Emma.
Emma is the kind of woman about whom Joni Mitchell once sang, "She may bake some brownies today." She has backyard chickens and cuts her own hair quite skillfully; I guessed correctly that she would own a perfectly seasoned cast-iron pan. She assigned herself three recipes: the Irish soda farls from the no-bake section, plus skillet pancake soufflé and the flying duck pie from the on-the-rise section. The lattermost is probably the most ambitious recipe in the book, involving confit duck legs and choux pastry, but Emma once choreographed an avant-garde opera with a nine-month-old strapped to her back.
As someone who loves baking bread but is often pressed for time, Emma found the farls quick and easy, and said she would add them to her repertoire: high praise. She also loved the skillet pancake souffle — a take on a Dutch baby that doesn’t collapse but stays full of doughy fluff, with an accompanying Grand Marnier-spiked buttery maple syrup that Emma says she would eat on anything. The flying duck pie proved more of a challenge, even for someone who once washed her son’s cloth diapers in a stream when the washing machine of the house where she was vacationing broke.
On her first read, she neglected to notice that the pie contained, in addition to its other filling, confited duck legs — a whole other recipe that involves brining the legs for two days, then cooking and cooling them in a pound of duck fat, which is then strained and used in the choux pastry that tops the pie. Emma accidentally made the choux first, then had to double back to the butcher to find more duck fat. "It was like running the Appalachian Trail when I expected a half marathon," she told me. "I would have appreciated a ‘prep time/cook time’ line." The fruit of all her labor, and the result of all that duck fat, was, she admitted, was worth the extra effort though, "both decadent and light," she said. "A crust with the rare quality of croissants — equal parts fat and air."
Lastly, I made the banana-matcha butter mochi cake while the rest of the world was watching the second presidential debate, and I stand behind this decision wholeheartedly. This cake is made, like mochi, with sweet rice flour. It is incredibly weird-looking: green with a brownish-green crust, while the little slices of fresh banana in it turn grayish-brown when cooked. You serve it warm, so that its spongey texture is unctuous, not straight-up gummy. It’s so good that I’m actually drooling remembering it, and I’m already plotting the next time I’ll make it. It jumped right out of the pan with its perfectly browned crust intact, leaving me with nothing to do but give my now-trusted pan a quick rinse and a toast on the stovetop, where it now resides, banished to the cabinet no longer.
I am still irritated when I’m eating at a restaurant and mac and cheese comes to the table in its own wee cast-iron skillet for no reason besides maximal tweeness. But there’s a reason that people have been using cast iron to cook on for thousands of years: It works really well! My cast-iron conversion has led me to accept the possibility that trendiness might dovetail with something genuinely valuable, but probably only in this one instance.
Emily Gould is the author most recently of Friendship, a novel. She works at Emily Books, a bookstore and publishing imprint.
Editor: Matt Buchanan
Images reprinted from STIR, SIZZLE, BAKE. Copyright (c) 2016 by Charlotte Druckman. Photographs copyright (c) 2016 by Aubrie Pick. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.