A cast iron skillet is a staple in any Southern kitchen. Period. Ask a Southern chef about his or her cast iron, and they’re likely to show you a collection in varied sizes and states of wear.
The thing is, those uninitiated seem to have some fears about cast iron. Some describe the material as finicky due to its non-dishwasher-safe properties and the need to maintain the surface between uses. Over the years, some folks have seemed to develop some ideas about needing to coddle cast iron due to these characteristics. Our actual reaction whenever someone describes cast iron cookware as “too much trouble:”
Anyone who’s ever inherited Grandmother’s decades-old skillet that cooks like a dream will beg to differ. Think about it: This stuff is far from fragile. Yes, it is susceptible to rust when left in water to soak or not properly dried after washing. However, a well-seasoned pan will rarely need to have stuck-on food removed from its surface, and there are ways of doing so in the rare instance you might have some hard-to-remove residue in the pan. Further, a quick trip onto a hot burner after an initial drying easily takes care of any concerns of rusting. Follow it up with a quick spritz of oil, and your trusty cookware is primed and ready to hit the burner or oven the next time you get the hankering to churn out a golden loaf of cornbread, fry up a chicken or whatever your heart may desire.
Humble cast iron has seen some changes in production in recent years. The process of seasoning, or creating a smooth, nonstick surface on the bottom and sides of the pan, is kickstarted through a chemical means, and new cookware often boasts the description “preseasoned” on the packaging. However, you’re still going to want to follow the steps below to ensure a smooth, even cook surface.
So, why should you invest in a cast iron skillet? First, let’s talk about the magnificent flavor it imparts to just about any dish you can think of. Its ability to sear is like no other, and if you’ve never taken that first satisfying bite into a beautifully crisp cut of meat browned to perfection on a cast iron surface, then – well, we don’t know what you’ve been doing with your life.
Next, there’s the convenience factor. After some proper care and a few uses, they become naturally nonstick. Plus, they can go straight from the oven to the stovetop with no worry.
And finally, cast iron is nearly indestructible. Seriously, it’s the Nokia phone of cookware. From an investment perspective, cast iron is always a smart buy.
Convinced yet? Here’s a primer on caring for your soon-to-be-favorite cast iron piece for those of you who are now itching to incorporate this must-have item into your kitchen.
Seasoning is the chemical process responsible for coating the surface of cast iron, resulting in a smooth and shiny barrier between the material and food. It’s what builds over time to create an unbeatable nonstick quality through the repeated process of cooking fats at very high heat. Here’s how:
- Preheat oven to 400.
- Clean your new cookware thoroughly using warm water and a sponge or brush. It is not recommended to use soap on cast iron, as it will strip the piece of its seasoning, but you may use soap in this initial washing to sanitize the piece, if you wish.
- Rinse and thoroughly dry your cast iron.
- Scoop a generous amount of vegetable shortening onto a clean cloth or paper towel, and coat the cast iron with shortening in an even layer, including the exterior and handle surfaces.
- Place skillet upside-down on the center rack, placing a sheet of aluminum foil beneath it to catch any drips.
- Bake cast iron for one hour, then allow it to cool in the oven. You’re now ready to get cookin’!
To clean seasoned cast iron, run the piece under warm water and clean off any remaining food with a sponge or dishcloth. Do not soak! To thoroughly dry the piece and prevent rust, place it on a hot burner for a minute or two, then spritz it with vegetable cooking spray.
If your cast iron begins to look dull or food starts sticking, simply repeat the seasoning instructions above.
A variety of fats can be used for seasoning in place of vegetable shortening. Our personal favorite? Bacon grease. (Just don’t expect your kitchen to smell like anything but bacon for a couple of days afterward.)
Wait until your pieces are highly seasoned to cook acidic foods such as tomatoes and citrus juices, as these can strip cookware of its seasoning.
Please, for the love of all that is good, do not put your cast iron in the dishwasher. Every time a cast iron skillet enters a dishwasher, a Southerner somewhere begins to say “you all” in favor of “y’all.”
Be sure to store your cast iron uncovered in a dry place.
Should your skillet rust, all is not lost. A local machine shop can sandblast a severely rusted pan back to its original (unseasoned) state, but look to this guide from Lodge on how to remove minor rust spots at home.
Keep in mind that cast iron isn’t just an unbeatable material for skillets; we love a good cast iron Dutch oven, grill pan or bakeware piece to round out our selection of cooking vessels. No matter how you use it, the charm, durability and efficiency of cast iron simply can’t be beat.
What is your favorite piece of cast iron? Let us know your tips and cooking stories in the comments!