The Hot Rock
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Thumbing recently through an old edition of “The Joy of Cooking,” I noticed several recipes calling for a soapstone griddle. Always curious about food technologies old and new, I picked one up at the earliest opportunity.
Prized for its slick surface, the centuries old cookware technology lost some popularity when Teflon arrived – it’s been purged from the latest “Joy” – but the material’s crystalline structure, very different from metal, gives it unique properties. Soapstone retains heat twice as long as cast iron, which makes it ideal for a wide variety of cooking, including table-side cooking. Centered on a burner, my inch-thick griddle heats miraculously evenly, with no hot spots, so items on the edge cook just as smoothly as the ones in the middle. It’s also chemically inert, whereas iron can react with some acidic foods.
The utensils, which are lathed from blocks of stone quarried mostly in Brazil, start out pale gray; they darken with repeated use to a sultry, display-worthy greenish-black gloss. Use hardens the material, but it always remains somewhat crack-prone and vulnerable to sudden temperature changes. A copper band around my griddle’s circumference sports convenient handles, and also promises to keep it together if it does crack.
So what can it do? I put my new soapstone through its paces with what is for me the quintessential griddle application – a batch of pancakes. I preheated the griddle for 15 minutes on the stove, buttered it just a smidgen, and ladled on some batter. As expected, the cakes cooked evenly, bubbled, released smoothly, and revealed a lovely golden underside when flipped.
Next, the exciting part: I hoisted the sizzling, 10-pound griddle off the stove and onto a waiting trivet on my counter. Its surface was a keen 380 degrees. Off the stove, the stone’s stored heat sufficed to cook quite a few more pancakes; after 25 minutes off the flame it still did a passable, if slower, job. Even an hour after that it remained warm to the touch. Compare a cast-iron griddle, which, heated to a similar 380, loses all its cooking power within 10 minutes.
Incidentally, that initial application of butter almost sufficed to keep all my pancakes from sticking to the griddle. I wound up dabbing on a little more from time to time, but the slipperiness that gives soapstone its name was impressive nonetheless. Soapstone is no Teflon, but, especially in light of recent questions about the latter’s carcinogenicity, it can make a reasonable alternative.
Soapstone cookware comes in various forms, mostly suited for the oven, where its heat retention makes many tasks easier. A thick-walled stone stock-pot can slow-cook a stew, or a hot pizza stone crisp a crust, with equal aplomb. When I’m not using my griddle, I keep it on the floor of my oven, where its temperature stabilization is an asset for baking. Soapstone is also shaped into mugs to keep coffee warm, serving platters, wine goblets, and even into freezable cubes for chilling drinks.
So why, with all its talents, isn’t soapstone more popular? Breakage is a problem for retailers, according to Patricia Lehnhardt, the author of “Cooking With Stone,” a soapstone cookbook. That factor, combined with its cost – often three or four times more than a comparable cast-iron piece – and its significant weight, constitutes a definite obstacle to widespread use. But it unquestionably deserves at least a share of the attention cast iron gets. Aside from the physical advantages, cooking with the heavy, shiny stone is an aesthetic delight. Soapstone cookware can be purchased at Broadway Panhandler, 477 Broome St., 866-266-5927, or online from brazilonmymind.com.