Devotees of cast-iron cookware are fond of calling it “the original” nonstick pan. But it wasn’t until I lived in Alabama that I came to appreciate the hardworking charms of a humble cast-iron skillet. Southern home cooks are particularly attached to their cast iron, which is often passed down from their mamas and which years of cooking have endowed with a gorgeous dark seasoned patina that’s an amazing stick-resistant surface.
Cooks prize cast iron because it heats slowly and evenly and retains heat better than just about any other material. It’s great for high-heat cooking, to sear a steak or scallops, for instance. A deep skillet is ideal for frying chicken.
If you happen to have a cast-iron skillet languishing in the back of your cupboard, now's the time to rescue it form obscurity and re-season it. If your mom didn’t pass along a family skillet, get one now. It’s a small investment (about $20) for an heirloom-quality piece of cookware. You can find cast-iron pots and pans at any housewares store and many hardware stores, or online. Most new cast-iron pans come preseasoned and ready to cook. But even those will need occasional re-seasoning when you notice food starts sticking to the pan.
There are nearly as many ways to season cast-iron cookware as there are cooks, and everyone swears theirs is the One True Method. Some cooks swear by animal fat (i.e., lard) for seasoning; others say you should never use animal fat. Some sources say you must bake the oiled pot in a high oven; others advocate a low oven. This is the method an Alabama friend shared with me:
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
- Generously coat a clean skillet with fat (I like canola oil, which has a neutral flavor). Rub the pan with a paper towel to blot up any excess oil.
- Bake the pan the oven for about an hour.
- Remove the pan from the oven. Let it stand until it’s cool enough to handle. Reapply oil and bake again. You can repeat the oiling/baking process several times, if you like.
If you use, clean and store your cast-iron properly, you’ll rarely need to re-season it:
- Always preheat the pan and add a little fat to it before adding any food.
- While the pan is still warm, but cool enough to handle, clean it by rinsing it with hot water (no soap necessary) and (if needed) scrubbing it with a stiff brush. If any food does cling to the surface, sprinkle it with coarse salt, and scrub it off. Some people say you should never use dish soap, though the folks at Lodge say it's OK. In any case, never put a cast-iron pan in the dishwasher. Dry the pan immediately and thoroughly to prevent rust.
- Apply a thin layer of oil to the pan’s interior, and store it uncovered. If you need to store a lid with it, or stack other pans on top of it, place a clean folded paper towel in the pan to allow a little air to circulate.
If you've got an old cast-iron pan that needs restoring, here's an easy method from Lodge (yes, it's not exactly the same as the method above, but remember, there's room for variation):
And don’t forget to use your pan often. The more you cook with it, the better seasoned it will be and the less often you’ll need to re-season it!