October 26, 2018
Taste Egg Icon
The Birth of a Cocotte
paris-414615

A cookbook author goes to France to find out how his favorite cast-iron cookware is made.

The first piece of cast-iron I ever cooked on was a wide, circular pan on which I fried my first egg. Like every new pan that entered my childhood household, this one was christened with a seasoning. My mom grabbed an onion and sliced it in half, stuck the prongs of a fork into the curved end, and dipped the flat side of the onion into a small bowl of oil, which she then painted across the surface of the hot cast-iron pan sitting on the stove. This became the pan in which I would not only fry countless eggs but also learn to make chocolate pancakes and paper-thin dosas made from a fermented rice-and-lentil batter.

A little over a decade later, I moved to America. For my first Thanksgiving in the country, at age 20, I took a classmate up on an offer to dine at their place with their family. The meal itself was exceptional: The creamy green bean casserole smothered with a topping of crunchy fried onions, the warm cornbread stuffing with cranberries, and the bright orange-pecan-crusted sweet potato casserole were all new to me.

But the most unusual part was that they were all cooked and served straight out of the oven in large pieces of the most gorgeous, shiny, dark ruby-red enamel-coated cast-iron cookware.

One of these—a large round pot—was called a cocotte, or Dutch oven, and from what my host explained, it was a highly coveted piece of cookware in her family. It was heavy to hold, but that added to its sturdiness and its resilience—after all, it had endured years of heavy abuse in the kitchen. It still looked as pretty as the day her husband bought it for her, she told me.

Years later, on our first Christmas together after marriage, my husband got me my first cocotte. A round pearly white pot, it was wide enough to hold a large chicken or make a boule of sourdough. It quickly became my most prized possession in the kitchen, so much so that for the first few months, I wouldn’t let anyone else cook with it.

The use of iron to create cookware is not new—iron pots like the one I learned to cook with have been used for centuries in countries like China and India. But in Europe and America, iron cookware arrived a little bit later in the 17th century and became more common after the Industrial Revolution as cheaper methods for mass-producing the iron were developed. Born out of a desire to create a safe cooking surface, enamel coating began to be applied to cookware around the later part of the 17th century.

A few months ago, I got to visit the Staub factory, located in a little town called Merville in the north of France. Francis Staub originally started his company in 1974 in the Alsace region of France, where he began making his own version of the iconic round cast-iron pot called the cocotte. A protective enamel coat eliminated the need to season the pan and also allowed modern cooks to wash the cookware with soap—a convenience that normally leads to rusting in cast-iron cookware.

The pots are made from a combination of new raw iron as well as recycled material, like railroad tracks. The iron is melted in hot furnaces and then poured into various casts to set into their familiar shapes. Once the metal cools, the cast is removed and then subjected to several levels of polishing to remove any jagged edges before it can be sprayed all over with enamel and finally paint.

Each piece of cookware is boiled in acids and heated at high temperatures to test its resilience under the elements. Heavy weights are dropped on the lids to ensure they can resist being shattered, and whatever doesn’t make the cut gets recycled and added back to the furnace. The final result is a shiny, gleaming pot that’s once again inspected, packed, and sealed before it sails off to a home or restaurant.

Because you can cook with cast iron directly on fire, electric burners, or induction surfaces, you can use it for just about anything, savory or sweet. You can even pull a casserole straight from the oven and use it as a serving dish, as my friend’s mother did at Thanksgiving all those years ago. My own growing collection of cast-iron cookware has been used to make stews, roast vegetables, seared steaks, and even cakes.

But to me, the promise of durability and reliability is what’s made me a better, more confident cook. Even that first cocotte that my husband gave me has withstood the intense heat of the stove, the clatter that comes with the slamming of lids, and the occasional mishaps of my kitchen and become my favorite and most treasured pieces of cookware. Sometimes all you need to learn how to fry a perfect egg is the reassurance that you’re probably not going to ruin your mom’s favorite pan in the process.

Beef Bourguignon

Beef Bourguignon

6-8 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 ½ pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 ounces bacon, diced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 6 carrots, diced
  • 4 celery stalks
  • 1 pound cremini or button mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ cup Cognac
  • 2 cups dry red wine, such as Pinot Noir
  • 2 cups beef stock
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

This quintessential French dish is an essential to get through the winter. Beef simmers succulently in mushrooms, herbs, and red wine—bourguignon refers to Burgundy, France’s famed wine region. Don’t be intimidated by the number of ingredients—every step of this recipe happens in the same pan. That’s why cast iron is choice, boasting both beautiful browning and braising capabilities, plus it holds in the heat of this comforting stew.

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. In a large bowl, toss the beef with the flour and a large pinch of salt and pepper. Set aside.
  3. In a large cast-iron cocotte, render the fat from the bacon over medium-low heat until the edges of the bacon are crispy. Remove the bacon to a large bowl, leaving the rendered fat in the pan. Increase the heat to medium high. Add the beef to the fat in the pan and brown it on all sides. Remove the beef from the pan to the bowl with the bacon. Add the onion, carrots, celery, and mushrooms to the pan. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until softened. Add the garlic and cook for another 30 seconds, or until aromatic. Remove vegetables from the pan to the bowl with the beef.
  4. Deglaze the pan with the Cognac and cook until reduced by half, scraping the bottom of the pan to release any browned bits. Add the wine, stock, tomato paste, thyme, brown sugar, and a big pinch of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat. Return the bacon, beef, and vegetables to the pot, cover, and place in the oven. Cook for 1 1⁄2 to 2 hours, until the beef is fork-tender. Remove from the oven, taste, and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if needed. Serve garnished with parsley.

Ingredients

  • Pancake
  • 1 firm but crisp apple, such as Honeycrisp or Granny Smith, cut in half, cored, and thinly sliced
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • ⅔ cups whole milk
  • ⅔ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ¾ teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Cinnamon Maple Syrup
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • For Serving
  • Whipped cream (optional)

Tieghan Gerard serves up her tasty blog, Half Baked Harvest, from an idyllic Colorado log barn. The self-taught chef learned to cook while preparing meals for her large family. You can taste the love in this recipe, which combines the best fall flavors into one delicious breakfast dish. The result is something between a Dutch baby and apple pie. It is the perfect pancake for a brisk autumn day.

  1. Set an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 425°F.
  2. Make the pancake: Arrange three-quarters of the apple slices in the bottom of a medium cast-iron fry pan and drizzle 4 tablespoons of the butter over the apples. Sprinkle on the brown sugar, place the pan in the oven, and bake for 10 minutes, or until the apples have begun to soften and caramelize.
  3. Meanwhile, in a blender, combine the eggs, milk, flour, vanilla, cinnamon, salt, and the remaining 2 tablespoons melted butter. Blend on high speed for 30 seconds, or until the batter is smooth. Remove the hot fry pan from the oven and pour the batter into the fry pan.
  4. Return the fry pan to the oven and bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until the pancake is puffed and browned on top. Do not open the oven during the first 15 minutes of cooking, or you might deflate the pancake.
  5. While the pancake is baking, make the cinnamon maple syrup: In a petite French oven, combine the maple syrup, butter, and cinnamon and bring to a boil over high heat, whisking until incorporated. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Set aside, keeping it warm.
  6. Remove the pancake from the oven and top with the remaining apple slices, some whipped cream, and the cinnamon maple syrup. Serve immediately.

Nik Sharma

Nik Sharma is an award-winning freelance food writer and photographer. He also writes a recipe-based food column for the San Francisco Chronicle called A Brown Kitchen and is also the author of the blog A Brown Table. His first cookbook, Season (Chronicle Books), was published in October 2018. He lives in Oakland, California.

[email_signup id="3"]
[email_signup id="3"]