`The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook' by mother and daughter, Sharon Kramis and Julie Kramis Hearne, has roots deep in American culinary tradition based on both the subject and the fact that Kramis senior is a James Beard protégé from Beard's western cooking lessons. Based on the Beard / West Coast connection, the authors get a very nice blurb from senior Beard assistant Marion Cunningham.
This is very much of a `comfort food' rather than a `gourmet' oriented book, with many of the potential weaknesses to which this kind of book can fall prey. The best thing about this book is that in spite of some weaknesses in keeping on message, this is a really nice book to have if you like cooking with cast iron cookware.
The most obvious weakness in the book is that even though both the title and the subtitle, `Recipes for the Best Pan in Your Kitchen' suggest that the book is all about the classic ten (10) to twelve (12) inch skillet, the book actually contains recipes for a wide range of cast iron ware, including Dutch ovens, grills, griddles, popover pans, and special molds.
The thing I miss most in this book is a clear explanation of why the seasoned cast iron skillet is better for some tasks than any other cookware material. My understanding is that well seasoned cast iron has the non-stick advantages of a Teflon coated pan without the weakness of teflon in giving a good sear or good color to sautéed protein. Cast iron is not as responsive to heat changes as copper or aluminum, but this is its strong point when it comes to maintaining heat when you add room temperature or cold food to a hot pan. This advantage is especially good when you are cooking on an electric range, where the power to the heating coil turns on and off to maintain a particular level of heat. Thus, the heat in a pan on an electric element may fluctuate much more widely than the same pot on a gas burner. Another advantage is that cast iron is both virtually indestructible and unwarpable. So, a carefully maintained pan is good for one or more lifetimes, at least. According to Alton Brown's excellent `Gear for Your Kitchen', the down side of cast iron is that it is just a bit brittle so that it can literally shatter if dropped hard enough and it is prone to corrosion. It is also highly susceptible to rust, leading to pitting. And, if your seasoning is less than perfect, an acidic dish can easily leach iron from the pot, leading to an unpleasant taste.
It you limit yourself to the recipes for the skillet, you may also feel that many of the recipes are not necessarily optimized in a cast iron skillet. While the cast iron pan is a real champ in sautéing, browning, and cooking quickbreads such as pancakes, I think it's advantages really do not come into play when you are frying in oil or braising. While the authors briefly allude to enameled ware, I personally find that good enameled cast iron may be as good or better than bare cast iron for braising, especially the French `bistro pans' (flat two handled saute' pan shapes with heavy lids) and marmites (large casseroles with heavy lids). The authors' recipes clearly exceed their material when they give dishes such as a paella for which there are classic pan shapes and materials which are not cast iron.
The recipes in this book are almost all relatively simple, with `just enough' detail to enable an experienced amateur cook to be able to execute them. These are not gourmet recipes. They are `good enough' for easy home cooking. This means the recipes include some probably mistaken cooking lore such as the notion that searing protein seals in moisture. It also includes instructions with almost comically mistaken statements such as the Pecan Sticky Buns recipe which instructs us to put the ingredients into a mixing bowl with a dough hook attachment. This will be easily understood by most to be referring to an electric mixer and attachment, but it demonstrates Sasquatch Books typical weaknesses in copy editing.
On the positive side, I am really willing to accept the authors' opinion that a good cast iron pan is an excellent substitute for a wok for stir fried recipes. A cast iron pan will never go higher than the maximum temperature of the burner, but it will maintain a high temperature better than a thinner pan or a pan of more highly conductive material.
The selection of recipes is wide enough so that this little book will go a long way toward filling several different cooking application niches. The two most useful applications by far are the recipes for breakfast and for outdoor cooking. In fact, the authors would have done well to devoting more space to outdoor cooking, as cooking over an open fire is where cast iron can really come into its own. And, the book does not limit itself to all the conventional classics. Some of the more interesting recipes for breakfast are the Dutch baby and the savory Dutch baby, both of which are dishes that fill the pan. Other dishes that fill the pan such as apple tarts and skillet breads are just the thing to have handy for outdoor cookery.
There are some breads that I would not do in cast iron. I have reservations about an Irish soda bread getting the right kind of heat when baked in a pan with 3 inch high sides. The scones recipe is also a little suspect for the same reasons. The scones recipe is also suspect in that it calls for margarine instead of butter or lard and incorporates this fat with an electric mixer, where most pastry experts would call for the fat to be worked in carefully with the fingers or a pastry cutter.