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The case for cast iron

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Chocalate-chip sour cream coffee cake. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)
Best ever skillet pizza with eggplant parmesan topping. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)
A garden vegetable pizza topped with basil pesto, tomatoes, mini yellow and red peppers, jalapenos and mozzarella cheese. (Arthi Subramaniam/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

House-hunting for much of this year, I confronted at each new property a burning question: Was the kitchen’s range gas or electric?

If the cook’s domain didn’t have gas, I had to pass. I simply couldn’t conscience a cooking surface that wouldn’t accommodate my cherished cast iron pans. And fancy, glass-top electric ranges don’t exactly play well with cast iron’s rough-and-tumble exterior, its unapologetic bulk.

For all my kitchen’s gadgets, appliances and specialty cookware, I am unapologetic in my love of cast iron. Enameled pots and pans are workhorses, too, but expensive compared with their bare-metal counterparts. And their surfaces can suffer from haphazard care. A traditional cast iron’s season, on the other hand, can almost always be coaxed back from the brink.

I’ve spent almost 15 years building up the season on two classic Lodge pans that — while not impenetrable — are serviceable. The skillets have essentially resided on my range, ready to tackle just about any meal I can throw into them. There was no way I could bid them farewell amid my recent move.

Now that they have a new home, the skillets are up for some new culinary challenges. While reliability can confer heirloom status on some cast iron, the material’s versatility inspires modern cuisine.

I’ve recently found inspiration in the work of cookbook author Anne Byrn, whose “Skillet Love: From Steak to Cake” is an ode to her indispensable 12-inch cast iron pan. After baking a pound cake in the well-seasoned skillet, Byrn embarked on her 14th cookbook to fuel other cooks’ cast iron passions. These pans are ideal cooking companions, in Byrn’s opinion, for rookies and experts alike.

Health-conscious cooks can appreciate cast iron for releasing small amounts of its vital mineral into food, not to mention the diminished role of cooking fat on a well-seasoned surface. The best cast iron can even handle eggs, Byrn attests, so long as they are fried whole. Scrambled eggs need to cook over low heat, which is not where cast iron shines.

High heat is cast iron’s strong suit. The pan produces meat with a perfectly seared, brown crust that seals in juices. Even a cheap skillet accomplishes this feat that many high-end nonstick pans simply can’t.

Multitasking cast iron can even stir-fry with almost as much flair as a wok. Because cast iron is heavier than a wok, it’s not so easy to lift and toss a stir-fry. But so long as cooks keep the food moving in a deep skillet and sauté ingredients separately, in stages, the results are comparable.

Oven safe, cast iron is a choice vessel for roasting chicken, potatoes and all manner of vegetables. Start searing the food on the stovetop before transferring to a hot oven.

And when it comes to baking, Byrn confirms that a cast iron skillet can do it all — from cakes and pies to crumbles and cobblers. Cast iron especially elevates fruits, which caramelize on the surface and intensify in flavor. Don’t overlook the pan’s potential for coffeecakes, sticky buns and other sweet rolls.

This coffeecake from Byrn’s book would enhance late-season citrus that have lost some of their appeal as snacks. Choose thin-skinned, seedless oranges for the best flavor. The combination of Cuties and chocolate chips would be a hit with my kids.

Another home run is pizza, less fussy in a cast iron pan than shoveled from a pizza peel onto a baking stone. It’s important, though, to heat the skillet to 450 degrees before placing the dough in the pan. Store-bought dough works well but usually takes slightly less time to cook (15 minutes) than homemade crust (15 to 20 minutes).

Consider these pizza topping combinations:

Garden Vegetable: After spooning on tomato sauce, add 1/2 cup store-bought pesto, spreading it evenly. Sprinkle 1 cup mozzarella cheese on top. Slice 2 beefsteak tomatoes, mini yellow, red and orange peppers (2 each) and 4 to 5 pickled jalapeno slices and place them over the cheese. Scatter the remaining cup of mozzarella cheese and bake according to the accompanying recipe’s directions.

Eggplant Parmesan: After spooning on tomato sauce, add mozzarella cheese. Slice 2 medium Japanese eggplants into thin rounds and put them in a bowl of cold water until they are ready to be cooked. In a skillet, add 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the eggplant slices in batches and pan-fry until they are slightly brown on both sides. Add more oil if needed. Sprinkle eggplant slices with salt to taste. Place slices on top of the crust. Scatter 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved, over the top. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese over the vegetables. Bake according to the accompanying recipe’s directions. After taking the skillet out of the oven, sprinkle on 2 tablespoons chopped basil while the pizza is hot.

Chocolate Chip-Sour Cream Coffeecake

1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted, divided

1-1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided

12 to 16 thin orange slices

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 cups (12 ounces) miniature semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a 12-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter, swirling skillet to distribute butter evenly, for about 2 minutes.

Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the sugar evenly over melted butter. Place the orange slices on top of sugar, creating a decorative pattern, either overlapping them in circles or creating concentric circles of slices.

Heat skillet for another 2 to 3 minutes to allow sugar to dissolve. Remove skillet from heat.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, 1-1/2 cups sugar, the baking powder, soda, cinnamon and salt.

Add remaining 1/2 cup melted butter, the oil, sour cream and vanilla. Mix with an electric mixer on medium speed (or by hand) until just combined, for 1 minute. Fold in the chocolate chips.

Dump batter into skillet on top of oranges. Bake in preheated oven until top of coffeecake has lightly browned and is firm to the touch, for 40 to 45 minutes.

Run a knife around edges of skillet to loosen coffeecake. Invert skillet onto a wooden board lined with parchment paper. If any oranges stick to bottom of skillet, slide under them with a small metal spatula and place them on top of cake.

For a more dramatic look, slide parchment onto a baking sheet and run cake under broiler until oranges and sugar are caramelized.

Makes 12 servings.

— Recipe from “Skillet Love: From Steak to Cake” by Anne Byrn (Grand Central Publishing; October 2019).

Best Ever Skillet Pizza

1 pound store-bought pizza dough

1 to 2 teaspoons cornmeal

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/2 to 3/4 cup tomato sauce

2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Honey, for brushing

Red pepper flakes, as needed (optional)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Heat a 12-inch cast iron skillet on the stove over medium-heat until quite hot, for 3 to 4 minutes.

While skillet is heating, stretch out the dough to get it as thin as possible, about 12 inches in diameter. You can do this in the air or by pressing it out with your hands on a cornmeal-dusted work surface.

Sprinkle the cornmeal into hot skillet. Taking care not to burn your fingers, place dough in pan on top of cornmeal. Press dough halfway up sides of pan (it will shrink back, and that’s OK).

Whisk together the olive oil and garlic and brush mixture over dough. Spoon on the tomato sauce. (Add desired toppings at this point.)

Scatter the cheese all over. Brush the honey on crust edges and sprinkle red pepper flakes on top of honey, if desired.

Turn off stove and place skillet in preheated oven. Bake until cheese has melted and just starts to brown, and crust edges are browned, for 15 to 20 minutes. Carefully run a knife around edges and slide pizza out onto a board to slice and serve.

Makes 4 to 6 servings as an appetizer, 2 to 3 servings as a meal.

— Recipe from “Skillet Love: From Steak to Cake” by Anne Byrn (Grand Central Publishing; October 2019).

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.