The tale of an incurable cast-iron skillet collector
I know several people who take in pets that need a good home. These are friends who see an unwanted cat or dog with sweet, sad eyes and instantly make room in their house for a new furry companion. I feel this same way about cast-iron skillets. It hurts my heart to see a skillet that has been discarded in a yard sale or tossed out only because it’s slightly rusty or feels a little sticky. That pan needs a home and that home is often with me. I have quite a stack of pans in my collection, but there is always room for more.
My favorite cast-iron skillet is my grandmother Tom’s. It’s smooth as glass and so shiny I can almost check my makeup while I’m cooking. She cooked everything from fried chicken to cornbread to bacon in that pan for more years than I’m aware of. On most days, you’ll find it in its permanent home on top of my stove.
Because cast iron holds heat so well and evenly, they are efficient and priceless tools in the kitchen. Cast iron has been an integral part of Southern cooking for hundreds of years. George Washington’s mother even included her skillet in her will to make sure it was taken care of after she was gone.
Making your cast iron last for a lifetime is not difficult. Like most things in life, they just require a little thought and care. To cook properly and make the most of the nonstick potential of the pan, cast iron must be seasoned. This means that the pores of the iron have absorbed oil. It’s easy to season a pan: Rub all surfaces with vegetable oil and bake the pan for 1 hour at 400°F. For newer skillets, the seasoning will need to be repeated several times for the best effect.
Just like outdoor iron furniture, water will cause a cast-iron pan to rust. For the sake of all things good and pure in the South, never wash cast iron in the dishwasher. If food is stuck on the pan, clean it with a little water and a stiff brush. Heat the cleaned pan on top of the stove to thoroughly dry all the water and use a kitchen towel to rub on a light coating of oil. For a light cleaning, rub the pan with a kitchen towel and kosher salt, then wipe clean with a damp towel. Make sure to remove all the salt before storing the pan. For added insurance that the pan is dry every time before storing, heat on the stove slightly to dry every last drop of water.
If the pan feels sticky, the seasoning oil has gone rancid. Use soap-free steel wool to remove the sticky film. Then start from scratch and re-season the pan.
Cast iron should be stored in a moisture-free area, if possible. When not on the stove, I keep my collection stacked in a cabinet. I place a paper plate in between each skillet to prevent them from scratching each other. Remember that cast iron is one of the very few kinds of cookware that will outlive you. Keep this family treasure in a condition worthy of the next generation.
I’m one cook who makes almost anything in my basic black. Most cooks put their cast-iron skillets away when the cold winter air starts to warm. Try leaving them out this spring for wonderful seasonal food that’s enhanced by the pan itself.
Rebecca Lang is a food writer, cooking instructor, mother of two, and a ninth-generation Southerner. She is the author of four cookbooks, including Around the Southern Table. She serves as a contributing editor for Southern Living magazine and myrecipes.com. Find more about her at rebeccalangcooks.com.