“Homely and definitely old-fashioned, cast-iron skillets have fallen out of favor with many modern cooks because they are rather clunky and look out of place in a streamlined, high-tech kitchen. Before they fade away completely, some of us who admire them need to take a stand, band together in some kind of iron-pot protection society and sing their praises. These skillets have more than enough virtues to overpower their drawbacks. Plus, they cost about $20, and can last forever.
To cooks of our grandmothers’ generation, who had never heard of aluminum cookware, cast-iron pans were indispensable. Both of our maternal grandmothers called theirs Griswolds. We assumed this was a quaint term of affection, discovering only recently that it was the name of the manufacturer.
It was a sure bet that when meal preparation began, the Griswold would appear. In the morning, fried eggs, hash browns and bacon might emerge, at noon a little piece of steak or fried apples or corn bread and at night fried fish or braised chicken. To us, the Griswold became a culinary talisman, its clatter on a burner or oven rack a harbinger of good food to come.
Our grandmothers didn’t seen to mind shifting these heavy pans from burner to oven and back again. In fact, complaining about the heaviness of iron pans seems a bit perverse; if iron were not heavy, it would not have the virtues for which we prize it.
To begin with, iron pans are close to indestructible. We once accidentally left a cast-iron pan outside in the ashes of an autumn fire, discovered it the following spring and had it back in use an hour later.
Perhaps even more important than iron’s durability is the way it interacts with heat — evenly and slowly. Cast iron absorbs warmth so evenly that it provides almost perfectly distributed heat, with none of the cold or hot spots that tend to crop up in other materials. One side effect of this even heating is that cast iron takes a relatively long time to heat. Once it attains the desired temperature, though, iron maintains it particularly well. This quality makes cast-iron pans well suited for sauteeing or stir-frying, in which the heat needs to remain high.
Iron is also very porous, which makes it amenable to a procedure known as seasoning. The pan is covered with a very thin layer of cooking oil that fills the pores in the iron and creates a natural nonstick surface. The initial layer continues to build up over years of use, eventually covering the metal with an even, flat black surface that is the sure sign of a well-loved tool. (If you do not care whether your pan is nonstick, then you do not have to season it and can use it as is.)
As with any folk cooking tradition, there are nearly as many seasoning secrets as there are owners of cast-iron skillets. But the basic method is quite simple. First clean the skillet with a steel-wool soap pad and hot water, then wash it with a detergent and dry it out. Next, pour about two tablespoons of melted Crisco or other vegetable shortening into the pan, brushing it up the sides. Put the pan in a 375-degree oven for about an hour, turn off the oven and let the pan cool there to room temperature. That’s it.
Once the pan is seasoned, it should not be washed with soap or detergent or put in a dishwasher, as this tends to loosen the embedded fat particles and destroy the seasoning. Use hot water and a plastic scrubber.
Rust is the sworn enemy of cast iron, so skillets should be thoroughly dried right after washing. The best way to do this is simply to put the pan on a burner over low heat until it’s dry, then turn off the heat and just leave the pan right on the burner, ready for use.
If you do manage to overpower the pan’s good offices and burn something — say a sugary syrup that you left reducing an extra half-hour, producing carbon that will bond with the iron — you are in for fun, rather than drudgery. In fact, this may be the only pan in the world that is enjoyable to clean. The easiest method is to build a big, hot fire in an outdoor grill or fireplace and just toss the skillet into the coals. Not only does this work well, but the freedom to treat a cooking utensil so cavalierly and know that it will survive somehow increases your faith in it and makes you feel less vulnerable when at the stove.
You could also put the pan through the self-cleaning cycle of an oven: the 500-degree heat will turn any food residue to ash. Once the pan is cleaned, simply reseason it and you’re ready to cook again.
Finally, because iron is very reactive, some cooks advise not to prepare highly acidic foods like tomatoes or wine in these pans. However, we have found that dishes using relatively small amounts of acidic foods do perfectly well in cast iron. The only effect is actually a good one: acidic foods slightly increase the iron supplement that is a bonus of cooking with cast iron.”