Rustic Cooking with Cast Iron
Ok, so, I know I have been on a serious hiatus from my writing on Prime Cuts but I am coming out of hibernation and am gearing up to hit you guys with a slew of fresh info pertaining to the meat-centric way that I cook food. I had been racking my brain and trying to come up with the perfect topic for my first post back and then it hit me, I should share the rustic cooking method that I have been working on perfecting over the last year.
This cooking medium/method has really changed the way I think about food: and is best explained in two short words: cast iron. I purchased a flat surfaced cast iron griddle last Fall and since doing so, I have tried cooking just about every food imaginable on it. With this post I hope to spark some cast iron interest in you and help you key in on points that will help you when experimenting with your griddle techniques.
I think most of us have stashed away somewhere in our house, a dusty old heavy cast iron skillet which we may not have used in ages (or ever). But this should truly not be the case. Cast iron should be a regularly utilized part of all our cooking routines. Cast iron heats up evenly, retains its temperature for a really long time, and when seasoned properly is nearly stick proof. This last characteristic is what has been so crucial to me lately. When you can get food to cook evenly at high heat without sticking to the cooking medium, you allow yourself an amazing range of browning/searing/charring that would simply not be possible with other conventional cooking surfaces.
In Argentine cuisine next to the wood burning grill (Parrillia) the cast iron griddle (Chapa) is perhaps the most important cooking surface in the kitchen. This is what prompted me to really start getting comfortable with my cast iron griddle and after much practice I can honestly say that I am able to sear just about any food on my chapa and create the perfect amount of char. The advice I would offer to any new cast iron cookers is to practice cooking at medium/high heat and really get comfortable working at this temperature. Get to know the speed at which different foods cook and note the resulting amount of char produced. You will need to keep a mental record of how everything chars but as a general rule of thumb, remember that the higher the sugar content/the quicker and darker the resulting char will be.
My personal recommendation for a cast iron griddle is something flat with a good amount of surface area such as one from Lodge Cast Iron which has two surface styles and fits securely on most modern stovetops. But by all means if you already have a cast iron pan hiding in your house, use it before you buy anything new. Practice getting your sear down in small batches and then if you still need to upgrade, you will have a good idea of exactly the griddle size and style you are looking for.
In my restaurant I use my griddle the gaucho way: directly on top of my wood fire. However you can replicate this traditional method using your gas or electric stovetop and often with more consistent results as stovetops heat more evenly than a wood fire. Cast iron will take a while to heat up, so at med/high give it a good 5 minutes pre-heating time if using a gas stove and 10 minutes if using electric. Before adding any food to your griddle, place a drop of water on the griddle. The water should spatter and evaporate almost instantly and your griddle should be just about smoking. When this ideal temp is reached carefully apply a thin layer of vegetable oil to the griddle (watch out for flare ups) and begin searing away, while always being careful not to over crowd the cooking surface.
As for getting the food off of the griddle, my personal suggestion is to invest in a new metal putty knife or paint scraper with a flat flexible scraping surface. You want a tool that will make even contact with the cast iron surface and then cleanly get under the food and enable you to best flip and remove items from your griddle without disrupting the charred surface you have worked so diligently to create. Practice and experimentation will be your biggest allies when cooking with cast iron. But remember that any food that can be pan seared, fried, or grilled can just as easily be griddle/seared, and what a difference in both appearance and flavor it makes!
Coming up in my next post, my two favorite griddled foods: Provoleta a.k.a. charred-aged provolone with oregano and tomatoes and smashed griddled red potatoes with olive oil and sea salt!
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Photo Credit: buchman