Our Well-Loved Cookbooks: How to Cook Everything

Had I realized how often over the last fifteen years I would be referencing Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything I would have splurged for the hardcover edition.

As it stands, our trusty copy of this loaf of paper filled with basic recipes rarely makes it back onto the bookshelf, and is so tattered and splattered, I’ll likely be lamenting it’s numbered days before it stops being useful.

I’ve started a small series of cookbook posts here on castironguy.ca because despite adding to my collection almost monthly, I find that most cookbooks are only useful or interesting in a limited way. Sure, you can learn a great recipe from almost any book out there, and half the fun is picking something that looks like a challenge or a tasty goal, and seeing how well your skills match with the intended product. That said, there are perhaps only a dozen cookbooks on our shelf that would make a cull if I was forced to simplify my library… and these are them.

The best analogy I have for this book is that it’s like my paperback edition of Google.

You know those times you are standing there in your kitchen, hands covered in flour, thinking about how you are actually supposed to be cooking something, say a roast or a whole spaghetti squash or maybe a pie crust.

How long at what temperature?

How much water was I supposed to add?

Should I be covering this?

Today I might Google it, or ask my digital assistant. Hey, Alexa, how do I… ?

But even still, and especially back when I bought this, it was and still is that one reference book that gives solid, simple advice on the nuances of basic food prep.

Sure, there are a few fancy recipes hiding in it’s pages, and lots of ideas about stuff like how to make your waffles more interesting, or how to spice a whole chicken, or variations on making your own salad dressings. But the core function of this book is basically aimed at people like me who mostly know enough to get started, have the ingredients in their hands, but are stumped on locking down the process. The how-to. The what was that one crucial step or ingredient that is going to change the outcome if I get it wrong. A reference guide.

This might not be the exact title for you, but there are a few big reference cookbooks out there with a similar purpose and you should generally keep one on your shelf. I do.

Note: this is a piece of gear that I have purchased privately and that I’ve owned for long enough to offer an opinion about. This post is not an endorsement (at least, it’s not a paid one.)

Our Well-Loved Cookbooks: Flour Water Salt Yeast

So . . . I ordered yet another cookbook yesterday.

I’ve recently been watching a cooking channel on YouTube (perhaps one you have heard of, unlikely one you figured I’d watch) and the host released a cookbook last year, so I splurged. Until a make a few recipes from the book itself, I don’t feel that I’m in a solid or fair position to offer a review or opinion. Hopefully in about a month or so (after I spin up a few of the recipes and get a sense of the style) you’ll see such a post here. Until then…

My lacking of an opinion is not the case with Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast.

I remember when my newly kindled interest in sourdough bread-making started to really heat up. I’d begun culturing a starter and then I went scouring the internet for advice. A lot of people recommended this particular tome. I added it to my collection and spent a few solid days reading the details, pondering the techniques and anticipating my next loaf… mostly because that first starter was still pretty new and not ready to use.

I could write a lot about this cookbook.

I could tell you that the tone has always struck me in the same way as I felt when I worked my way through university and had this one lab-rat job for a boss who had a PhD in molecular biology and couldn’t believe he had to explain this stuff to me and fine, but pay attention and do you mind if I crank up the radio and we’re all going out for beers after work, you in? Pleasantly mentoring? Friendly condescending? Lovable know-it-all-ish?

Or, I could tell you that within the words contained on these pages there is as much elaborate history and detail about bread theory as there is actual recipes, and if this was online everyone would complain that they need to scroll for five minutes to get to the ingredients list but since this is a book it’s as much a beautiful read about bread (and pizza crusts) as it is anything else. Be prepared to read as much as you cook.

I could even tell you that if you read this book, no if you seriously read it and understand it, you’ll change the way you cook and you’ll go out tomorrow and buy a digital kitchen scale and understand that the math and French you learned in high school could serve more than an abstract purpose in your life as you start to refer to bread as having desired hydration levels and calculate flour percentages in your dreams. Shush! My sixty-percent levain is resting!

Basically I could just tell you that if you want to make good bread, I haven’t found a better volume. This is a great cookbook and one that will endure in my personal collection for a long time.

Note: this is a piece of gear that I have purchased privately and that I’ve owned for long enough to offer an opinion about. This post is not an endorsement (at least, it’s not a paid one.)

Can I use a cast iron pot or pan to boil water?

One of the adages of cast iron cooking is that to improve your cast iron cookware, just use it.

What is not necessarily clear in that basic advice is that to make any cast iron seasoning better, stronger, and more resilient, the use of your cast iron should follow a couple basic principles about how it should be used. Simply:

Heat and oils are good in that they improve your seasoning.

Soaps and acids are bad in that they degrade your seasoning.

So, where does water fit into these rules? And what do we mean by boiling water?

For example, a lot of recipes call for a portion of water (or broth or wine or other neutral liquid) and instruct bringing it to a boil. Is this bad for the pan?

Or, when I first started using my cast iron dutch oven I was unclear on if I could use it to, say, cook up a big pot of pasta or if I should stick with the steel pot we’d been using for years.

I did a lot of reading on this a number of years ago and the best advice anyone gave me on this topic is simply that the strength of cast iron is not boiling water: there are better tools.

Boiling water is not necessarily going to ruin you cast iron, but it’s definitely not going to improve it. In the same vein of thinking, adding liquid to you recipe is fine, though these are not the dishes that build up the seasoning nor make it better. Water in your pan or pot does not follow the basic principle that heat and oils are improving your seasoning. And some have argued that boiling water alone (or with salt or pasta) can actually loosen the seasoning on your pan and cause it to flake off.

In a pinch (say out camping with a single pot) sure… heat up that soup, steam your veggies over the fire, and just use your iron. That’s what you’ve built up that legacy seasoning for, after all. But know that you’re withdrawing from the seasoning bank you’ve been saving into.

So again, there are better tools. Keep and use a steel pot, and save your cast iron for what it does best. Not boiling water.

Dozens of Dozens of Sourdough

I woke up at 6 am this morning to bake bread.

It had been proofing overnight in my cast iron loaf pan, dusted with flour and lightly covered with a bit of plastic wrap to keep it from drying out for the twelve hour counter-top rise.

It was the one hundredth and fourty-fourth loaf I’d baked since that first pandemic lockdown began back in March 2020. One dozen dozen sandwich loaves.

Bread as far as the mind can see.

Had I not picked the “cast iron guy” as the name for this blog, a close runner up could have easily been something to do with sourdough.

As much as countless people have jumped on the sourdough bandwagon during these times of COVID restrictions and being stuck at home needing something to do I’m going to claim early-adopter status and say I have been dabbling in sourdough bread for half a decade now. My interest sparked after reading a book by Michael Pollan where he discussed the history of fermentation and other slowish food preparation methods. My research didn’t end there, though, and after a couple false starts with starters, I gave rise to my current levain in early 2019.

Yet a mere one year ago my two year old starter was nothing special. I’d been baking bread three or four times a month, usually when we needed a good dome loaf for a holiday or a party or to accompany a nice meal at home.

Then about ten and a half months ago I got sent home from the office to “temporarily” work from home.

On my drive the radio was talking about potential food shortages and the chance for panic buying as people stocked up for the long haul. I stopped and picked up a few groceries, including a big bag of flour. Upon arriving home I pulled the starter from the fridge to let it warm up for a batch of bread.

I’d been tracking my bakes with sharpie tick-marks on the lid of the starter’s container, but I switched colours to track the loaves I was going to cook while the pandemic passed us by. The Kid asked me as I was weighing out the flour if I could make “square loaves” (instead of the usual domes) because it was easier for her sandwiches. We baked those first loaves the next day after a long rise in a pair of cast iron loaf pans. We haven’t really stopped. Multiple times per week fresh bread comes out of the oven, usually two loaves in a batch, and there is always fresh sourdough to be eaten on our counter.

One hundred an fourty-four loaves later, a dozen dozens, sourdough has become our pandemic legacy.

So many sandwiches, breakfast toasts, afternoon snacks, and heels turned into garlic wedges.

A pair of pans.

A tub of cultured flour, water and natural yeast.

And one family fed on a reliable source of delicious bread.