Having lived off-grid for over 40 years, I’ve always used a wood cookstove for all my cooking, baking and canning and have found that cast iron cookware for the homestead kitchen can’t be beat.
The Virtues of Cast Iron
Cast iron cookware holds the heat better than other cookware. It’s the ideal cooking vessel for use on a woodstove although it can be used on any other type of range as well. A stew or pot roast simmered in a cast iron dutch oven set atop a woodstove makes for a delicious meal. Cast iron coupled with a slow fire gently simmers the meat virtually eliminating the need for an electric slow cooker.
If seasoned properly, cast iron has a nonstick quality as good as any Teflon type pan without the worry of ingesting bits of nonstick coating that tend to flake off over time. From a nutritional point of view, we boost our iron intake since food, especially if it’s acidic in nature, will absorb iron from the pan.
Cast iron is versatile. You can use it on the stove top or in the oven. In fact, it can go from the stove top preparation step of any recipe right into the oven for the final cooking period. This can be done with either skillets or dutch ovens.
You can even bake with cast iron. Cornbread, muffins and upside down cakes can be made with specialty pans such as the corn stick pan or simply baked in a skillet. Here’s our favorite recipe for corn sticks.
1 cup flour
¾ cup cornmeal
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2/3 cup milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil or melted butter ( butter makes it better of course)
Mix dry ingredients. In separate bowl mix wet ingredients then pour this into the dry mixture and stir just until the flour is moistened. Don’t over mix. Quickly pour batter into either a preheated skillet or corn stick pans. Bake 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes for sticks or about 25 minutes for a 9” skillet. Makes 12 sticks that are golden brown and crispy on the outside. Serve hot from oven with butter. Yummy!
If you do any outdoor cooking over a campfire, cast iron is far and away the best choice. Twice we’ve lived in tents while we built 2 of our houses and I cooked many a meal over an open fire. My cast iron skillets and dutch ovens were invaluable for preparing hearty meals after a long day of hard work. Whether it was a pot of chili, baked beans, a stew, pork chops or roasts, I used several pieces of cast iron to prepare each evening meal over the campfire.
An excerpt from Ron’s book Off Grid and Free- My path to the Wilderness extols the virtues of cast iron:
“We have good, heavy stainless steel pots, but our favorite cookware is the antique cast iron skillets passed down from both of my grandmothers and Johanna’s mother. For ease of cooking and cleaning, properly seasoned iron cookware can’t be beat.
Seasoning is the process of baking on a thin coating of grease that protects the pan, and gives it a no-stick quality that rivals the best of Teflon pans. Additionally, we get a little added iron in our diet by ingesting food that has absorbed iron from the pan.”
Selections and Uses of Cookware
Cast iron cookware and bakeware come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. I have an assortment of skillets ranging from 6” up to 12”, a muffin pan, a griddle, 2 corn stick pans, an antique waffle iron and various sizes of dutch ovens with lids. Depending on what I’m making, I’ll employ several dutch ovens differing in size from 8″ to 13″ in diameter. The largest dutch oven can accommodate our Thanksgiving turkey as well as our Christmas ham. After butchering, I also use it to render fat scraps prior to soap making. The medium sized, 10” diameter dutch oven is perfect for a pot of old fashioned baked beans, roasting a chicken, baking stuffed peppers or simmering a pot roast. The smallest one is just right for baking a pork tenderloin, scalloped potatoes, baked cabbage or winter squash.
Lids for dutch ovens can be either glass or cast iron. I have one of each. The cast iron lids are self-basting, meaning instead of the under side of the lid being smooth, it has nubbins or tips that encourage the moisture that collects on the underside of the lid to drip back down on to the meat in effect basting it.
I prepare a myriad of items with my cast iron skillets matching the size skillet to the task at hand. The small ones are perfect for sauteing onions or making eggs while I use the bigger ones for stir fries, preparing pork chops, burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, swiss steak or fajitas. Our homegrown potatoes oven roasted in one of the medium size skillets come out crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. A favorite in the fall once I harvest the garden is roasted vegetables, a combination of carrots, onions, potatoes, Brussels sprouts and parsnips all cooked in the same skillet. I even use the big 12” skillet to make whole wheat tortilla wraps and homemade English muffins. It’s also my go to skillet for pan fried chicken.
We recently acquired as a gift what is known as a combo cooker. This is a dual purpose piece as the bottom is a dutch oven type pan but the lid can be used as a skillet as well as the cover. Obviously this lid doesn’t have the self-basting nubbins, but if you can only get one piece of cast iron this would be a good choice due to its duality.
Muffins baked in the cast iron muffin pan come out golden brown with a crispy crust as do corn sticks prepared in my corn stick pan.
The griddle is ideal for making pancakes, grilled cheese, homemade tortillas or English muffins. Because it heats evenly the finished product comes out perfect.
My most prized piece of cast iron is my antique waffle maker probably because I’m not aware of anyone who makes them anymore. A ring holds the lidded waffle iron in such a way that I can pivot the waffle iron back and forth so both top and bottom of the waffle cook evenly over the open fire of my kitchen wood cookstove. What a neat device!
Care of Cast Iron
To use cast iron, first preheat the pan but do so gradually. A long time ago when I was in a hurry I put a big griddle over the direct fire of my cookstove and it cracked. I’ve not been able to find one like it to replace it.
Once preheated add just a touch of oil. If you have a spritzer for oil, use that or you could use cooking spray as I often do. Now you’re ready to start cooking.
To clean cast iron, never put it in the dishwasher. Always wash by hand. Contrary to popular belief you can use soap and water to wash cast iron. Over time this will remove the seasoning but that’s not a big deal as re-seasoning is very easy. I do it all the time. Use a nylon scrubbie, never a steel wool soap pad, for scrubbing, then rinse. If there’s stubborn stuck on bits, add some water to the pan and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes. Once clean, dry well then smear with a thin coating of oil.
When re-seasoning becomes necessary, I coat the pan thinly and evenly with oil then put it upside down on a parchment lined baking sheet that I put in a hot oven (400º F) for an hour. The lined baking sheet will catch any excess oil that drips off. Excess oil can make the cookware sticky.
Hopefully you’ll consider cast iron cookware for your homestead kitchen. Personally I wouldn’t have any other kinds of skillets or dutch ovens.
Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!
Ron and Johanna
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