Cast iron skillets are some of the most versatile and useful kitchen tools out there, but many people pigeonhole them as belonging in their great-grandmother’s kitchen, circa 1930. These unfortunate cooks are missing out. Cast iron is a culinary workhorse, often preferable over more expensive cookware for its superior capacity for heat retention and heat transfer, its ability to move from oven to stovetop to the grill with ease, its longevity, and its simplicity of care. Most southerners will say that corn bread isn’t real corn bread unless it was baked in cast iron, and if you haven’t seared or roasted chicken in a cast skillet, try it. I won’t roast mine any other way. Start using one, and you’ll find yourself making frittatas and gratins when you didn’t plan to make them, rustic desserts will make appearances on the dinner table, and your pancakes will never be the same (in a very, very good way). The praises could go on nearly endlessly, but what most people want to know is how to care for their skillets. The answer to that, in one word, is fat.
In short, you coat your skillet with fat, bake it at a high temperature, then repeat. This process, known as seasoning, creates a nonstick layer on the cooking surface of your skillet that will surpass your best nonstick skillet. Some brands of skillets are sold preseasoned, but you should still season these at home just as you would an unseasoned skillet. Older skillets , usually found at antique stores or inherited as a family heirloom, are especially nice as the cooking surface on an older pan is usually more polished than the rougher cooking surfaces on a newer pans, making them smoother and less prone to sticking. There are different methods to seasoning a skillet, many of which are less tedious than what I am about to describe, but considering that cast iron can last for generations if well-cared for, it’s worth taking the extra time to ensure a good foundation of seasoning on your pan.
Before you use your skillet, wash it with dish soap and hot water, towel dry it, then place it in the oven for 15 minutes at the lowest temperature your oven will allow (usually around 200 degrees). This ensures that the pan is totally dry before you start the seasoning process, which is important as even a little bit of residual water can handicap your efforts to season the pan. Remove the pan from the oven and apply a thin coat of flaxseed or canola oil all over the pan, including the bottom and the handle, then wipe thoroughly with a clean towel. This will leave just a thin layer of oil on the pan, which is precisely what you want. Too thick of a layer of oil will give you a sticky, uneven, goopy finish. Place the pan upside down in the oven, then heat the oven to 500 degrees. Once the oven is fully preheated, bake the pan for an hour, then turn off the oven and let the pan cool for a few hours until it is cool enough to handle. Repeat the oiling/wiping/baking process four to six more times until you have a glassy surface. You may feel like this is a pointless exercise, but stick with it. As those thin layers of oil heat past their smoking point, they transform (via polymerization, for those of you who are interested) into a hard, glassy surface to which even a fried egg won’t adhere.
As long as your skillet is well-seasoned, caring for it is a cinch. After each use, simply wipe it down with a damp cloth and dry it, rub a very thin layer of oil onto it, then store until the next use. If food does stick to your pan, use a stiff brush for scrubbing, or boil some water in it for a few minutes and scrub the food free from there. Storing food in cast iron is not recommended, as the food may take on a metallic taste and can damage the skillet’s seasoning if it sits in the pan overnight, especially if the food is particularly acidic.
On a budget: Lodge L10SK3 Pre-Seasoned Skillet, 12-Inch
Best quality: Find an old Griswold or Wagner cast iron skillet. This might require some searching as they are no longer made, but antique stores, Ebay, Craigslist, and garage sales are a great place to start.