If You Can’t Stand the Heat

Our second essay assignment: the history of a classic kitchen tool.

Upon penning the first draft of this essay, my computer decided some critical updates were in order. Upon downloading update 3 of 3, my computer decided that an endless loop of rebooting and attempting update 3 of 3 would be tons of fun. It’s being checked out.

In the meantime, I rewrote the essay. I started Classic Kitchen Tool redux at approximately 10pm; it was due the next morning at 9am. Luckily, again, it was only a page. And thus–

If You Can’t Stand the Heat

A cast-iron skillet is the cornerstone of any Southern cook’s arsenal. So too can it prove invaluable in the professional kitchen. With its unparalleled ability to hold and evenly disperse heat, a cast-iron skillet could be a perfect vessel for holding a warm sauce (providing it’s not a gastrique—the high level of acidity could create a toxic reaction) or searing a perfect pork chop. And since a cast iron pan can go straight from the stove top into the oven, if you’re working with an extra-thick specimen, a sear and a quick roast is only a few steps away.

Cast-iron has, of course, been used for centuries—from pagodas in China to cannons in the British Navy—although its turn in the American kitchen is relatively new.  Around 513 BCE, the Chinese invented furnaces hot enough to melt iron; prior to this method, pots had either been made of brass or had been beaten into shape. The casting process—pouring molten iron into sand molds—created a product with a smooth surface and a sturdy structure. Strangely, this process didn’t gain favor in the west until 1100 CE when the benefits of cast-iron finally shone upon the people of Medieval England. Eventually a New World would be established—unfortunately it was a world devoid of cast-iron cookery, as the first ironworks didn’t open in America until 1619.

Cast-iron would prove to be an essential tool for early settlers & frontiersmen alike. Indeed, “in their expedition to the Louisiana territory in 1804, Lewis and Clark indicated that their cast iron Dutch oven was one of their most important pieces of equipment,” (Rayment). And while every serious colonial culinarian surely had a cauldron hanging from the hearth or a spider (a large bowl with a tripod of legs) sitting above their cinders, it was later still before the cast-iron skillet would appear. Those had to wait, first, for another invention to take hold: the stove top.

Certainly I can’t leave off a discussion of the cast-iron skillet without addressing its most intrinsic use. Making a cornbread in any vessel that’s not a cast-iron skillet is an exercise in futility. A Pyrex dish or your grandmother’s ceramic soufflé pan simply won’t impart that delicious, crisp crust necessary at any Southern table. And unlike the Pyrex that exploded when you set it in a bit of water, or your grandmother’s dish that cracked while sitting alone, unused in the china cabinet, your trusty cast-iron will only improve with use— undoubtedly an added benefit when you’re making 200 pork chops a night.

Works Referenced

Rayment, W.J. “History of Cast Iron Cookery.” Cast Iron Cooking, 2012. Web. 15 January 2012. http://www.holidaycook.com/cast-iron/

“Shaping History: Vintage Cast-Iron Baking Pans.” Martha Stewart Living, October 2009. Web. 15 January 2012. http://www.marthastewart.com/272109/shaping-history-vintage-cast-iron-baking

“Equipment and Utensils Required for a Functional Kitchen.” The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Cuisine. 2007. Print.

“Cast-Iron Cookware” Wikipedia. Web. 15 January 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cast-iron_cookware

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