Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Seasoning Cast Iron -- An eBook Review

I have a lot of cast iron pans.

The five frying pans are the ones I use in the kitchen most often; I also have a griddle, a fajitas pan, and a variety of cast iron pots and Dutch ovens I use in my demonstration cooking.

Caring for them is a bit of work but also a joy as I love to cook in them.  I learn more about them every time I use them.

One big kettle was purchased for nearly nothing because it was very rusty and ugly.  However some time spent scrubbing it with white vinegar and a wire brush cleaned it up well and made it completely useable.  Since then, its maintenance has been minimal.

We all know that cast iron does best when it is seasoned.  So how do you season it well?  I've always cleaned the pan and rubbed it with a bit of cooking oil once it was dry.  I used to dry it quickly on the stove, but this lead to rust issues.  Now I let it air dry and that works for me.

I knew that sometimes you want to remove the old seasoning, especially if you buy a used pan and want to clean it up before using it yourself.  The two good options are baking it in a self-cleaning oven cycle (Two for one!  A clean pan and a clean oven!) or burying the pan in a bonfire and digging it back out once it is cool.

Sometimes my seasoning attempts resulted in a gummy coating that smelled funny if the pan wasn't used for a while.  Something needs to change here.

So I found this eBook, Seasoning Cast Iron by L. R. LaBella.
ISBN 978-1-4658-8895-2
It is free although sometimes you have to search around to find out who is currently publishing it.  Today I found it here:

It is short and to-the-point, with pictures that show exactly what you need to do.

The key is to have flaxseed oil, purchased in health food stores, because "What we're after is a hard, slick, durable finish.  The best way to get that is with a 'drying oil'.  The only edible drying oil is flaxseed."  The author notes that "Other oils can be used, but the finish won't be as durable."

I had to look around in my local store because the flaxseed oil was not stored on the same shelves as the other oils.  They kept it in a refrigerated area to keep it from going rancid too quickly.  After I bought it, I stored it in the refrigerator, too.

Mr. LaBella's steps are this (some steps paraphrased; some are quoted):

1.  Strip the pan to bare metal.  This is not needed if your pan is new.

My Note:  Bare metal means it looks gray instead of black or brown.  

2.  "Put a bit of oil into the pan.  A teaspoonful will be more than enough.  Rub it into the pan, inside and out including the handle.  I use a paper towel."

3.  "Use another paper towel and wipe out as much oil as you can.  You want a shiny pan, with no puddles of oil. ... thin coats are much better than thick ones."

4.  Bake it at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 60 - 90 minutes; expect some smoking.

5.  Let the pan cool for about 10 minutes.  "Put in another dab of oil, rub it around as before, wipe it off as before, and bake it as before."

6.  "For a really good, durable finish", do five coats.

He also points out that "You still need to use a bit of oil or butter when cooking.  The pan's cooking qualities will keep improving as you use it and the seasoning continues to develop."

To clean your pans after this seasoning process, "you can use soap (not detergent) and a brush or Dobie pad (nylon mesh over a sponge) to clean the pan. ... If a quick soak doesn't loosen something burnt on, use salt mixed with a bit of oil as the abrasive."  I use one of those nylon scrapers that comes with stoneware cooking items and that works well.

He then recommends you towel dry the pan and heat it for a few seconds to evaporate any remaining moisture.  He found that air drying leads to rust.

Then he says to "oil the pan very lightly with cooking oil, wiping out excess oil as before."

He gives the pan a flaxseed oil seasoning coat once a year, just one.


I tried this with all five of my frying pans.  They all had been through the self-cleaning cycle of my oven, then washed and scrubbed with the wire brush and scouring powder.  I won't say they were down to just bare metal everywhere, but there was definitely less seasoning on them than before they were baked.  The inside bottoms looked gray.

Bare metal where it is gray
I used a paper towel to distribute the oil; keep refolding it so one side doesn't get so worn that it leaves behind bits of towel on the pan.  Two towels were good for five pans; I put oil in the two biggest and spread it around to all of the pans.

IMPORTANT:  Baking oil at 450 degrees F can get a little smelly, so do this task on a day when you can open up the windows and let fresh air in!  I had my stovetop fan running at the highest speed while the pans were in the oven, too.  At the end of the day, air in the house was still pretty "seasoned" with a cooked oil smell.   This is not for sissies!

I did 60 minutes per coat; when I had to leave right after a cycle was done, I turned off the oven and left the pans to cool in it.  When I was able to stay after a cycle, I pulled the pans out, let them cool but left the oven on, then started the process over again.

IMPORTANT:  The pans coming out of the oven are HOT!  Use a tough hot pad to protect your hand and arm and know before you pick them up where the pans are to be set on the counter -- have a trivet ready. 

When the pans have cooled for 10 minutes, as instructed, they are still pretty warm so use protection.  I stopped putting oil on the handles when this happened so not to soil my hot pads.

After one coat
The Verdict

Success!  The process works well.  I could tell that the oil was polymerizing because between each coat because the pan went from shiny to matte and the new application of oil didn't really want to stick to the previous layer.

At the end, each pan was dark brown or blackish.  The seasoning was dry.  One pan looked like I had made the coats thicker than the others but it doesn't seem like a problem.

Five coats.  Brown, not rusty.
I tested one pan by cooking eggs (using a little butter) and they didn't stick.  Also they cleaned up easily.

The downside is the smell of baked oil from five fry pans getting coated five times over the length of an entire day.  Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if it was only one or two pans or just one coat.  Knowing this inspires me to maintain the seasoning properly so I don't have to do it again.  I'm not sure I would do this for my other cast iron pans -- maybe just the inside and rims and maybe just a few coats.

One issue I've had with my Dutch ovens is that the seasoning melts off when I make a stew.  Perhaps flaxseed oil won't do that.  If I continue with the process or have any other observations in the future, I'll post updates.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Jing Char Siu Bau -- Steamed Pork Buns (Part 4 of 4)

And Now for the Finale!  Jing Char Siu Bau

This is it -- the part you have been waiting for:  assembling the bau, steaming them, and enjoying the results.

Your dough should be nearly done resting, the filling is made and is nearby with a spoon in it, and you have some sort of steaming area set up, with the water at a low simmer.  The wax paper squares are cut and handy.

To Prepare Buns (see page 67 of The Dim Sum Book by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo)

1. Roll Steamed Bun Dough into a cylindrical piece 16 inches long.  Cut into 16 1-inch pieces.

2. Roll each piece into a ball.  Work with one piece at a time; cover those pieces not being used with a damp cloth.

3. Press ball of dough down lightly; then, working with fingers of both hands, press dough into a domelike shape.

4. Place 2 tablespoons of filling (*author notes to use 1 tablespoon when you are first starting, until you are used to handling the dough) in center of well that has been created.  Close and pleat dough with fingers until filling is completely enclosed.

5. Put buns on squares of wax paper, 2 1/2 by 2 1/2 inches, and place in steamer at least 2 inches apart, to allow for expansion.

6. Steam for 15 to 20 minutes; serve immediately.

These may be frozen after cooking and will keep 2 to 3 months.  To reheat, defrost thoroughly and steam for 8 to 10 minutes.

My Notes

You can roll the dough out by hand -- no rolling pin necessary.
Both the flat one and the ball.  Maybe the flat one could be thinner.

Too much filling for the size of the dough.

The first batch ready for steaming.  On the second, I put in four buns per level.
Heavenly buns.  The bottom two look like those in restaurants.
Mine all came out ready after 15 minutes of steaming.  The sides looked somewhat dry and the balls were puffy.  There was a little steam coming out of the bamboo baskets but not a lot of it.

The Verdict

Success!  These tasted just like the ones I've had in the dim sum restaurants:  slightly doughy and also sweet and savory.  Lovely!  My first few did not have the filling-to-dough ratio I was used to at the restaurants but the later ones did as I got more confident at filling them.

A cut-away view
When the author says, "pleat the dough," I had a hard time at first so the buns came out as smooth balls once steamed.  But I learned that after I had sealed in the filling, I could pinch the dough to make the pleats -- 5 in a star pattern was perfect -- and the final result looked just like what I've had in the restaurants.

Please don't let the four-part posting and the number of ingredients scare you away from making this lovely dish.  It is less work than you might think; you can spread that work out over several days if you want, and still have excellent results.

The leftovers refrigerated well when covered so they couldn't dry out.  I reheated them in the microwave while covered with a damp paper towel.

A bit of history of dim sum:  Wikipedia tells us that
Dim sum is usually linked with the older tradition from yum cha (tea tasting), which has its roots in travelers on the ancient Silk Road needing a place to rest. ...  The unique culinary art of dim sum originated with the Cantonese in southern China, who over the centuries transformed yum cha from a relaxing respite to a loud and happy dining experience. ... While dim sum (literally meaning: touch the heart) was originally not a main meal, only a snack, and therefore only meant to touch the heart, it is now a staple of Cantonese dining culture, especially in Hong Kong.
Chinese New Year is coming up on January 31.  Why not make up a batch or two to celebrate?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Jing Char Siu Bau -- Steamed Pork Buns (Part 3 of 4)

Welcome to Part 3:  The Dough

This stage of the preparation has fewer ingredients and is really quite simple to do.  The main planning part is to let it rest for an hour before you use it to make the buns (see Part 4).  Schedule time to both make the dough and make the buns on the same day.

Steamed Bun Dough (see page 62 of The Dim Sum Book by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo)

2 1/4 cups flour
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
3 ounces milk
1 1/2 ounces water
2 tablespoons lard (I used vegetable shortening)
Barely any ingredients!
1. Mix flour, baking powder, and sugar together on work surface (I used a large bowl); then make a well in the middle.

2. Add milk gradually and with fingers (I used a big spoon) combine it with flour mixture.

3. After milk has been absorbed, add water and with fingers continue to work the dough.

4. Add lard, and, again with fingers (I used fingers), continue to work dough.

5.  Using a dough scraper, gather the dough with one hand and begin kneading with the other hand.

6. Knead for 12 to 15 minutes.  If the dough is dry, add 1 teaspoon of water at a time and continue to knead, until the dough becomes elastic.  If the dough is wet, sprinkle a bit of flour on the work surface and on your hands and continue working.

7. When dough is elastic, cover with moderately damp cloth and allow dough to rest for about 1 hour.

And now to rest; perchance to dream
 This dough must be used within 1 to 2 hours of the time it has been made.  It cannot be frozen.

My Notes

In all seriousness:  Follow these directions and all will turn out well.  It won't take long, either.  You'll know the dough is elastic if you can pinch a part and pull it, and it stretches into a sheet instead of breaking. Note that the dough sits on the counter while it is resting, not in the refrigerator.

While the dough is resting, prepare for making the buns by setting up your steaming area and preparing to roll the dough.  I would cut 16 pieces of wax paper at about 2.5 by 2.5 inches, too.

The Verdict

This is so very easy.  I piled the flour mixture in a big bowl so it wouldn't scatter all over while I worked it.  I used a spoon to mix in the liquids so my hand didn't get all gooey.  I used my hand to mix in the shortening because the dough was too thick for the spoon, but it wasn't all that sticky by then.

Kneading is easy because it is not a large quantity.  Just fold the dough over on itself and push the halves together, then rotate the dough, and start again.

Tomorrow's post will show you how to put it all together.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Jing Char Siu Bau -- Steamed Pork Buns (Part 2 of 4)

Welcome to Part 2, The Filling.

Again we have a recipe with a lot of ingredients but easy preparation.  Once the Char Siu is cooked and cooled, you can do this part.  I did it a few days later so the meat sat in the refrigerator.

The recipe says you can make this a day ahead of the dough and that is what I did. 

The Filling (see page 66 of The Dim Sum Book by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo)

1/2 cup onion, diced into 1/4-inch pieces
3/4 cup Roast Pork, cut into 1/2-inch, thinly sliced pieces
1 tablespoon liquefied pork fat or peanut oil
1 1/2 teaspoons white wine

Combine in a bowl:
     1 tablespoon oyster sauce
     1 1/2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
     2 teaspoons ketchup
     2 1/4 teaspoons sugar
     pinch of white pepper
     2 1/4 teaspoons cornstarch
     2 1/2 ounces chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
And sesame oil

To make the filling:

1.  Heat wok for 30 to 40 seconds.  Add pork fat or peanut oil and heat until white smoke rises.  Add onions and cook over low heat, turning occasionally, until onions turn light brown.

2. Add the roast pork, raise heat, and stir-fry to combine the pork with the onions.  Add white wine and mix well.

3. Lower heat and add sauce mixture from bowl.  Stir until entire mixture thickens and turns brown.

4. Add sesame oil and mix well.

5. Remove pork mixture from the wok and transfer to a shallow dish.  Allow mixture to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate uncovered for 4 hours.

The Verdict

I had no peanut oil or pork fat, so I used canola oil.

Following the directions was easy; the only part I was unsure of was how dark brown the cooked sauce should be.

Success!  It looked good and smelled good.  A little nibble confirmed it tasted good.  It doesn't make a large quantity but the final part of the recipe says to put in one tablespoon of filling into the dough.  This should be plenty.

Come back tomorrow for the next part:  The Dough.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Jing Char Siu Bau -- Steamed Pork Buns (Part 1 of 4)

Happy New Year, 2014!

This is the beginning of my third year of blogging and I'm pleased to report that in the first two years I have had over 6200 page views, 5200 of which were in 2013 alone.  I'm flattered that people find my posts interesting and useful.

In reviewing my efforts, I realized that the majority of the recipes I chose were from either America, Colonial America, medieval England, or Renaissance England.  While there is nothing wrong with that (they were tasty and fun!), I decided my challenge for 2014 was to explore other cultures.

So I hope to post at least once a month recipes that explore the international part of my cookbook collection.  A good way to start is with my favorite dim sum dish, a Chinese specialty that uses roast pork mixed with onions and a sauce and is tucked inside a ball of dough.  Then it is steamed.  One dim sum house I've been to calls it a "Chinese hamburger" because it is as popular as an American burger.  I find them wonderful!

My guide in this adventure is The Dim Sum Book by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, published in 1982.

ISBN 0-517-54581-0
It takes a bit of planning to make bau, so this first post is on preparing the roast pork, called Char Siu.  The second post (tomorrow's) is on making the filling, the third post is about the dough, and the last on creating and steaming the buns.

I've learned that the secrets to following a Chinese recipe are (1) not to be intimidated by the list of ingredients and (2) recognize that once everything is put together, the cooking part is generally straightforward and easy.

Plan ahead!  How will you steam the final product?  I have a set of stackable bamboo steamers that fit on top of one of my saucepans and in my wok.  What else could you do?

Here's the recipe for the Roast Pork (Char Siu), page 64:

4 1/2 pounds lean pork butt

In a bowl, combine and mix well:

3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
3 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons blended whiskey
3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cake wet preserved bean curd * (see note below)
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
The white jar holds the five-spice powder
1.  Cut the pork into strips 1 inch thick.  Using a small knife, pierce the meat repeatedly at 1/2-inch intervals to help tenderize it.

2. Line a roasting pan with foil.  Place the strips of meat in a single layer at the bottom of the roasting pan.

3. Pour the remaining ingredients from the bowl over the meat, and allow to marinate for 4 hours or overnight.
Ready for the 'fridge!
4. Preheat the oven to broil.  Place the roasting pan inside and roast for 30 to 50 minutes.  To test, remove one strip of pork after 30 minutes and slice it to see if it is cooked through.  During the cooking period, meat should be basted 5 or 6 times and turned 4 times.  If the sauce dries out, add water to the pan.

5. When the meat is cooked, allow it to cool, then refrigerate it until you are ready to use it.

Char siu can be made ahead.  It can be refrigerated 4 to 5 days, and it can be frozen for 1 month.  Allow it to defrost before using.

My Notes

I only had dark soy sauce so I used 6 tablespoons of that.  I also used black pepper instead of white.

The "wet preserved bean curd" was a challenge to find but I got it in a Chinese specialty store.  It is actually a fermented bean curd and you want the kind with no chili added.
This is what I used
*The author notes that "Wet preserved bean curd comes in both cans and jars.  ... If you use the canned curds, only half a cake is required for this recipe; if you use the curds in jars, use 2 small cakes.

I handled the "cook for 30 minutes and baste and turn" part by setting two timers.  One was for 30 minutes, the other for 5 minutes and when it went off, I turned the pork, which basted it at the same time, then reset the timer for 5 minutes.  I did this five times.

I put the pork about 10 inches away from the broiler and that seemed to be just right.  It cooked and even browned without burning.  30 minutes was all that was needed for the meat to be done.
*Sigh*  Yum
The Verdict
Oh my.  Yum!  Yes, success!

The meat is flavorful -- I can taste the honey and the star anise (from the five-spice mix) and the hoisin/oyster contributions.  I was worried it would be too salty but that was not a problem.  The marinade is rich and deep with a variety of flavors which go well with the pork.  I managed to get the meat thoroughly cooked (no longer pink in the middle) but not dry.

I look forward to using it in the bau recipe.  Note that the bau requires 3/4 cup of the roast pork and we started with a 4 1/2 pound chunk, so there is plenty to snack on, put in other dishes, and to freeze.

Come back tomorrow for the next step:  The Filling!