Monday, October 24, 2011

IRON SKILLET-BAKED BISCUITS

Being a thrifty sort of grandma, I take great pride in having useful things that last for a very long time. I also enjoy a challenge, and when I don’t have the necessary equipment to do something, I like to make do with what’s on hand. One of my dearest treasures is my cast iron skillet. It’s been one of my favorite things for years, and I’ve learned to cook and bake a lot of foods in it.

An iron skillet is a valuable tool in the kitchen
 Even though I don’t have any of the family hierloom cookware, my grandmothers, my mother and my aunts all had and used cast iron skillets that lasted them a lifetime. I remember that my Mom had two of them when we were growing up. One was about six inches in diameter, perfect for frying eggs. The other was an all-purpose 12-inch skillet. Dad claimed that the 6-inch pan was his very own and guarded it closely from any use other than egg frying. I learned to use it at a young age. I had to get a bit older to deal with the 12 inch skillet since it weighed so much.

The one I have now is 12 inches wide with a flat bottom. It’s the standard midnight black one and weighs what feels like 8 pounds. I can do a lot with my cast iron skillet: fry eggs, pancakes, fish or chicken, bake biscuits and cornbread, sautee vegetables and roast chiles. I don’t like to have around a bunch of different pots and pans, and using the same skillet works for me. While it may be heavy, it’s a wonder that heats evenly, is permanently nonstick, and works well on the stove top and in the oven. It sometimes even graces the table - on top an iron trivet, of course. It’s the one that I swear by and have carried around with me for many years. Still, I sometimes wish that I had Mom’s old skillet, the same size. I guess my sister has it.

Getting started with iron cookware
You can find new iron skillets at big box places and department stores. The dutch oven is a larger pot with its own iron lid that - with a bit of practice - can successfully bake almost anything, including cakes. Old iron pans can sometimes be found in attics and at garage sales and flea markets. Until just a few years ago, new iron cookware had to be seasoned before use. Luckily pre-seasoned pans are now available. 

If your iron pan hasn’t been seasoned, it’s a fairly easy process. First rinse with hot water and dry completely. Do not use soap. Coat the entire piece of cookware, inside and out, with vegetable oil or lard. Cook it in an oven at 450-500 degrees for about 15 minutes - until it quits smoking. Take it out, pour out any excess oil and turn it upside down in the oven at 250 degrees for two hours. Let cool. It's seasoned when it's smooth to the touch.

After it’s seasoned, don’t wash it with soap. To clean it, just stick it in water and scrub. If you need to do more because something has burned on it, rub salt around the bottom with paper towels. The rinse with water. To dry it, put it on a stove and heat it until all the water is burned off, otherwise the cookware will rust. If, after using it for a while, you see some rust, rub it with salt and paper towels, then add a teaspoon of oil to the bottom and heat up the pan for a few minutes. Then let the skillet cool. Rub off any excess oil with paper towels.

So, that’s the topic of this post - making good biscuits in a cast iron skillet. The stove top baked biscuits will be a bit denser than their oven cooked cousins but every bit as tasty. My recipe is pretty much a standard one. I enjoy biscuits made this way, and other people regularly praise them. I like to eat them hot out of the pan with butter and jam, and they're delicious with any kind of gravy.

Now, I suppose that you’re using a gas stove – that’s what I use - or an electric stove (may be more difficult but totally possible) to do the skillet, stove top baking. You can also cook this way over on a wood stove top, BBQ grill, or over a camp fire. But, for this last, be sure to put out the fire and do the baking only with the hot coals. Don’t use just bottom heat. Pile the coals around the pan all the way to the top, whenever possible.

Recipe for iron skillet biscuits
Ingredients
Two cups of whole wheat or unbleached white flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon of sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 stick of butter (8 tablespoons) or other shortening. (No hydrogenated oils, please. See "Cooking Oil" post below.)
3/4 cup of buttermilk, yogurt or whole evaporated milk

Method
Preheat your oven, if you're using one,  to 425 degrees F. Or try stove top baking in which case you heat up the skillet (or dutch oven) to a medium hot heat. Stove top baking uses just a fraction of the energy needed to heat up a large oven. Try it. It's an earth-friendly effort.

Mix all the dry ingredients together. Cut the stick of butter into pieces (or pour in the oil) and work it into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or your hands until the mixture has a lot of pea-sized crumbs. Add the liquid and mix everything together. It will be a bit loose and sticky. Pour dough out on a floured surface and knead it for about a minute. You can sprinkle some more flour on the surface if the dough is too sticky.

Roll the dough to about a ¾-inch thickness. Cut into small circles, using a round cutter or a small glass or cup. If you're doing oven baking, put the biscuits in the skillet - no grease necessary -  and bake them for about 15 minutes at 425 degrees. For a crispier, golden biscuit, spoon a bit of hot grease over the tops while they bake. Makes abut 10 small biscuits.


If you're doing stove top baking, take a circular aluminum baking tin of about the size of the skillet (or dutch oven). Just turn the tin upside down and grease the top surface lightly and set the biscuits on top. (Some cooks say to poke holes in the tin - holey side down, smoother biscuit side up - but I have never done that.) The biscuits should lie fairly close together so they rise up and not out. Carefully, using baking mits, put the tin and uncooked biscuits in the hot skillet. Cover the skillet with a good fitting lid. The biscuits should have room to rise and for heat to circulate around them. Cook the biscuits on one side for about 5 to 7 minutes. Then flip them over like pancakes and cover them again to cook for about another 5 minutes. Some people have really good luck (or talent) and can stove top bake their biscuits perfectly in the skillet without even turning them over. Experiment a bit with this and see what works for you.

Related posts
COOKING OIL CONFLICTS.
REDUCED SODIUM DIET: WORTH TAKING WITH MORE THAN A GRAIN OF SALT.
BREAD MAKING IS A HUGELY REWARDING ART
BREAD PUDDING, AN APPALACHIAN AND SOUTHERN DESSERT THAT YOU'RE SURE TO ENJOY.
WHAT'S IN YOUR PANTRY?
IT’S JAM-MAKING TIME – GRANDMA’S PRESCRIPTION FOR A HAPPY SWEET TOOTH ALL WINTER LONG
YOU MIGHT LEARN TO LIKE SALT-RISING BREAD.
COOKING-UP GOOD FOOD FROM DOWN-HOME RECIPES
REDUCE YOUR CARBON-FOOTPRINT
CAN YOU EAT A HEALTHIER, MORE ECO-FRIENDLY DIET ON A SNAP BUDGET?

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