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Cast Iron Grill Pans

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An essential city cook tool

My kitchen is small and with little storage, I must limit how many pots and pans I can have.  One I would never give up is my cast iron grill pan.  These inexpensive (usually less than $30) pans usually come in two sizes.  One is a normal fry pan size, about 10 " square and 2" deep, with deep ridges on the bottom surface.  They also come round but the square version will more easily accommodate chops, steaks, pieces of fish, or lengths of vegetables. 

The second size is large and flat, about 18" by 9," a size that fits vertically over two stove burners.  These usually have a ridged surface for grilling on one side and a flat griddle surface on the other.   

How to Cook with a Grill Pan

Cast iron grill pans are perfect for anything you wish to cook at a very high heat, with little to no added fat.  I also love how these pans add those restaurant-like grill marks.  Once a cast iron grill pan has been seasoned (see below), all you have to do is put it on a high flame and let it become blazing hot by putting it on a high flame and let it sit for a couple of minutes.  Add no fat to the pan. 

While the pan is getting hot, prepare a tuna steak or lamb chop or whatever you're cooking by putting a very light slick of olive oil on its surface.  Add salt and pepper, and then place it in the pan.  Depending on the thickness, a fish steak can be done in as little as two minutes a side, leaving crusty flavor on each grilled surface.  If it seems to be cooking too fast or you're getting lots of smoke, turn down the flame but remember that the iron will retain the heat longer than other metals so you won't see an immediate slow-down in the cooking (or the smoke).

Once you place the meat on the heat, let it be.  As a cooking teacher once said to me, "don't fuss!"  Let whatever you're cooking settle down, get its grill marks, and let its surface seal.  Don't try to turn anything over until it lets you -- if you have to tug at it, it's not ready to be turned.  You'll know when it is because the meat will easily release when you go to turn it.

Tip:  A blazing hot grill pan gets hot all over, including the handle.  It's easy to forget this and you can get badly burned.  What I always do when using my grill pan is use it on a burner that lets me angle the handle off the surface of the stove.  I then rest a small potholder on the handle so to partially cover it, leaving the pot holder actually over the counter and not the flame of the burner.  The primary point of this is to be a reminder for me that the handle is hot. 

What to cook in a grill pan

I use my grill pan for :

  • Lamb chops
  • Steaks
  • Fish steaks e.g., salmon, halibut, tuna or swordfish
  • Jumbo shrimp
  • Thick sliced vegetables e.g., eggplant, zucchini
  • Peaches or other stone fruit

A cast iron pan can interact with foods that are highly acidic, like tomatoes.  This doesn't mean you can't cook them in cast iron but it's probably not the pan to use when making a long-simmering tomato sauce.

Seasoning and Caring for Cast Iron

Cast iron absorbs flavors.  So if you're going to use your pan for meat and fish, you won't want to use it for grilling fruit -- unless you want grilled peaches to taste like salmon.  If you want to grill different types of food, and if you have the storage space, consider having more than one grill pan.

Cast iron pans must be seasoned before they're used.  If you've never done this, it's an easy process in which you coat a pan with vegetable oil and then bake it, empty, for about an hour.  When cooled, you wipe out any excess grease and give it a quick, soapy rinse.  Most cast iron pans come with instructions on how to do this. 

After a pan has been seasoned, each time you use it instead of putting the pan into a dishwasher or soaking in soapy water, simply rinse it out with hot soapy water, maybe helped with a stiff brush.  Dry it immediately it so that it won't rust.  Should you get any rust on your pan, just scour it off with something like Brillo.  These pans are tough but still, they need a particular type of care if you are going to get the best result which means developing and then protecting its seasoned surface. 

The more you use a cast iron pan, the more seasoned it becomes.  And the more seasoned, the more non-stick it is -- and we're talking non-stick without Teflon and without added fat.  Finally, if you take care of your cast iron pans, they will last longer than anything else in your kitchen, including you.

Tip:  I strongly suggest that you not buy a non-stick grill pan.  The point of a grill pan is to use very high heat to sear what you're cooking and non-stick pans should not be used at high temperatures for risk of damaging the non-stick coating. 

 
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