Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Enameled Cast Iron?

Lately, I have been looking into upgrading my cookware. I do a lot of cooking for myself. Pretty soon, I will have to cook all the time. When I have that Gastric Bypass surgery, there will be no more adventures out for eats for yours truly.

The educational courses I have already had warn us to forget about eating out for about a year or so after the surgery. There is no way it will ever work out. You will either have to carry out 80% your food, or you will throw up. In either case, you will be malnourished. You have to watch your micro-nutrients very closely when you have this surgery.

We have been warned they everyone throws up at least once. Sooner or later, your co-workers lure you out to McDonalds for a Happy Meal. Surely you can eat something as small as a child's happy meal, right? Nope. The grease will make you sick immediately. Remember, they bypass the upper intestine where that grease is processed. You will throw up violently, and then the mere smell of McDonald's hamburgers and fries will make you sick.

No more ventures out for food. Consider cooking for the rest of your life. It will workout better for you that way.

Well... if I am going to cook every damn meal, I intend to get the most out of it. I am going to do the gourmet thing. I am watching the Food Network now more than ever. I am mastering at least one new dish per week. This week I am cheating. I'm learning Alton Brown's apple pie.

Next week Paella. The week after that, engagement chicken.

This brings us back to the topic at hand: Enameled Cast Iron. Just what the hell is it? I am sure you all have seen old-fashioned black cast iron pots and pans. These are the ones traditional american settlers used to cook on the Prairie.

Enameled Cast Iron contains the same core black iron pot or pan. The difference is that they coat it with a robust layer of porcelain enamel. We're not talking about just any old enamel either. We're talking about the good stuff; the same material they make Glock handguns out of. The same material dentists use to make the most robust surgically implanted artificial teeth.

Why would anybody coat iron in enamel? First of all, you get the toughest non-stick surface you've ever seen. It's much more robust than Teflon, which is a cheap substitute. Second it is way more non-stick than Teflon. Teflon is easier to clean than Steel or Iron, but it still isn't easy to clean. Enameled Cast Iron usually wipes clean with a plain cloth. I'm not joking. I tried it. It's stupid easy to clean these things. If you hate washing the pots and pans, try this. It will take the surgeons 3 hours to get the smile off your face.

Just think of how easy it is to clean your toilet brilliant white. With a simple spray and a quick wipe, it's clean. Just think of what it is subjected too. This is what porcelain is capable of doing for you. Toilet porcelain is not good quality stuff either. This is cheap porcelain.

Second of all, enameled cast iron works with induction. I am going to have to write a piece about induction cooking soon. Suffice it to say that electrical coils and gas ovens are obsolete. You know that Viking Oven everybody used to want? Forget it. Totally outdated and outmoded.

Induction is a trip. You put you pot or pan on top of an electromagnet cranking waves at up to 1,800 watts. The electromagnet never gets hot. The pot or pan does. The pot or pan is the heating element. The entire pot or the whole pan becomes the heating element. It doesn't have one hotspot. Chefs who try it praise the amazing evenness of the cooking they get out of induction. They usually switch.

Now the problem with using electromagnets to heat metal is that you must use a metal that responds to magnetism. You have two options: Iron and Steel. No bloody Aluminum. No bloody copper. No bloody glass. This is a shame, to a certain degree, because copper has marvelous qualities to recommend it.

Enameled cast iron is iron. It works fine with induction. You'll love it.

There are some other reason to go with enameled cast iron: acid and base. Lime and Lemon are two very important ingredients in a lot of recipes. Oranges and tomatoes are also. All of these pack a corrosive whallop. They will degrade Teflon and Iron. Tobasco and hot sauces will rip these materials to shreds. Stainless steel is mostly immune if it is good quality stuff. Enameled cast iron survives just fine thanks.

For a guy like Tyler Florence, Bobby Flay, or Alton Brown the choice is simple: 18-10 Culinary Stainless Steel. They claim they don't like anything else, although everyone of these guys has at least one enameled cast iron Dutch oven. Every time they have to braise something, the enameled cast iron comes out from under the counter.

Some of the cooks on the Food Network have been making the switch to enameled cast iron lately. Giada DeLaurentis has been using this gear for her latest shows. She has good reason too. This is is really good gear.

So why the hang-up on stainless steel? There are some reasons, good and bad:
  1. Stainless can take pretty extreme heat. This is presuming your recipe requires extreme heat, which is almost never. This also presumes your grill can produce extreme heat, which is almost never.
  2. Alton Brown claims that you cannot make a pan sauce on a non-stick surface. He's mostly talking about Teflon. He's partially talking about Porcelain. You need sticky steel to produce all that good nasty brown stuff that makes a good pan sauce. I will admit: I like a nice pan-sauce, but I am not at all certain it is impossible to do with a porcelain surface.
  3. Stainless is the traditional weapon of choice. A deep bias in favor of Stainless steel is bred into professional cooks who go to cooking schools. They demonstrate this bias every day on the cooking shows. The bias is passed on.
  4. Steel heats faster than iron. Enameled cast iron takes longer to heat than regular iron. This is mostly a thing of the past. If you intend to use induction, this is not much of an issue. Enameled cast iron heats up very fast under induction.
Personally, I have gotten to the point where I have been convinced that enameled cast iron is the way to go. If you are going to get an induction cooktop, or if you have one already: Consider enameled cast iron.

So how did I discover enameled cast iron? Two pathways of research simultaneously converged on enameled cast iron. First, I was looking hard at induction cooktops. Second, I discovered this French brand of enameled cast iron cookware called Le Creuset at Whole Foods.

Le Creuset pots and pans sell for outrageous prices. The tags say $200 and $300 per piece for each one of these things. I wondered just why the hell rich people would be stupid enough to spend that kind of money for colorful cookware. Well, it turns out there are a few reasons. They claim these enameled cast iron pieces are so durable they will last for generations. Your grandkids can use them. Second, they work with induction. Third, they wipe clean with a paper towel. No need for the washing machine.

It turns out there are several more vendors of enameled cast iron out there in the world. There is a little Tennessee company called Lodge that has been in business for over 100 years that does this cookware also. They do it for a fraction of the cost of Le Creuset. They make good stuff also.

So I am going to buy a bunch of Lodge enameled cast iron and help Tennessee to recover from the flood.