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TODAY

Tuesday, March 19

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Editor's note: This column was originally published on April 6, 2004.

Maybe you remember one of your grandparents having a heavy black skillet they would use to fry chicken or make cornbread or gravy. Well, that skillet isn't just for your grandparents, or even your parents: it's perfect for you.

Why? It's cheap. Actually it isn't cheap, it's inexpensive. The value to dollar ratio is much higher than anything you can get in a fancy cookware store on Michigan Avenue.

It's durable enough to last through your life, your children's lives and even your grandchildren's lives. You don't have to buy it new, but this one will set you back $11.00. You can probably find a less expensive one at a thrift store, antique shop or yard sale. If you want an older one, then check Ebay. (If you have to have the best, look for those by Griswold or Wagner. They'll be more expensive than anything you can buy new, but they're heavier and fired to be suitable for burying in hot coals. Perfect if you want to take it on a camp-out or use it to get "NASA hot" on the coals of your barbecue grill.)

Sure those non-stick skillets are shinier, lighter, and they come in matching sets with pretty plastic handles. But they're pretty easy to damage. Not only will most non-stick surfaces scratch easily if you use a fork to scramble those eggs, it will damage by stacking other pots inside it. And unless it is a high-quality skillet it will warp if you decide you want a crust on your chicken and turn the heat to high.

What does it take to ruin a cast iron skillet? A nuclear bomb. Seriously, there isn't much that destroys a skillet permanently. (A childhood neighbor saved their cast iron skillets, and not much else, when their house burnt down.) If you leave water in it overnight you'll wake up to a rusted skillet, but a little bit of steel wool and you've got a shiny new skillet that is ready to be seasoned and cooked to black perfection.

A well-seasoned skillet is actually more non-stick than teflon, the iron-deficient will be glad to know that food cooked in a skillet will absorb iron, and once you have a seasoning layer you don't have to worry about cooking acidic foods. Citrus juices, wine, and tomatoes often result in weird metallic flavors when you cook them in aluminum or copper cookware.

While the skillets are indestructible, their care standards are different from most pots and pans. When you get a new pan, or an old pan that was scrubbed down, it will be medium gray and you'll need to treat it before you can use it. If you get an old skillet that has chunky, gritty, grossness you can clean it by either pouring a can of Coke (not Pepsi) into it and letting it sit for a couple of hours before washing it in hot soapy water. As you cook with it, the color of the skillet will turn black, which means you've reached cast iron perfection.

The surface of an untreated skillet is actually porous and has microscopic peaks and valleys. You want to have the skillet absorb some oil to fill in those peaks and valleys. Our grandparents would smear a tablespoon of lard in the skillet and cook it for an hour and repeat several times. Since animal oil tends to go rancid pretty quickly I'd recommend using some vegetable oil or Crisco. Simply pour some oil onto a paper towel and wipe it on the bottom and up the sides, bake for an hour at 300 degrees; repeat the process twice.

Your skillet now has a thin seasoning layer and is ready for cooking. As long as you keep the seasoning layer on the skillet, you'll find that you end up using less and less oil. It all comes down to how you clean the skillet.

Scrubbing away at a cast iron skillet with a plastic or metal scrubby with lots of soap is the worst thing you can do. Wiping a skillet with a sponge or cloth and a plastic brush is fine. Wiping a hot skillet with some hot water and a cloth or sponge or brush is even better. Cast iron skillets are easier to clean when they're warm. If you decide that you want to eat before you clean the messy skillet, just add a half-inch of water after you're done with dinner and heat the skillet till the water boils -- dump the pan out in the sink and most of the sticky bits will wash away with the water. The rest should come off easily. If you need to scrub, use a plastic bristled brush or the plastic scrubby side of a sponge, but do so as lightly as possible.

Once the skillet is clean, you have to dry it. Rust is its enemy. The surest way to remove water from a skillet is to evaporate it. Put the wet skillet on a medium-high burner until the water evaporates. Now pour a little bit of oil onto a paper towel and wipe the inside of the skillet. This will keep it seasoned. The next time you go to use the skillet, you'll heat it and wipe it with a dry paper towel to remove the old oil layer.

I usually store my skillet on top of the stove or in the oven. No matter where you store it, make sure the skillet is stored without the lid on. This will prevent moisture buildup and reduce the chances of rust.

I use my skillet for everything but boiling pasta, making crepes, soup and... um... that's about it. I rarely use anything else. I can cook things on low heat and I can sear things at extremely high temperatures. I can take a roast, sear it on high heat on the stove-top, then pop the skillet into the oven and roast it.

The best thing about cast iron is that it heats evenly and holds its heat long after you turn off the burner. This tendency needs to be remembered when you're cooking something delicate you don't want to overcook, like a salmon filet. If you don't want something to keep cooking, you'll have to remove it from the skillet.

Keep in mind that you'll want to have a sturdy pot holder. That handle can get just as hot as the inside of the skillet. The only other safety note I want to make is that these skillets get durned heavy when they're full of food, so be careful if you have weak wrists.

Now that you know how to take care of it, you probably want to cook in it, don'tcha? Just use this skillet for anything that you would normally use a skillet for. It does do a couple of things very well, though.

Paul over at Food Blog has a great recipe for cornbread. The black interior heats evenly to give the cornbread the perfect crust while ensuring it doesn't cook too quickly. It's the exact same recipe that my grandfather gave my mother and my mother gave me. If you're from the South, you'll probably want to add two teaspoons of sugar to it.

The skillet is perfect for cooking something called Pineapple Glazed Tofu because the thick bottom and even heating gives you a crusty exterior.

Like deep dish pizza? Want to make it at home? Trader Joe's often has pre-made pizza dough in a plastic bag in their refrigerator section. Oil the outside of the dough and stretch it till it fits in the skillet. Add your sauce, cheese, and toppings and bake for a half hour or so. It's cheaper and faster than delivery.

They're not only perfect for dinner items, they're also great for making dessert. This Pineapple Upside-Down Cake recipe is super-easy and good, if not good for you.

Aside from my rice cooker and my crockpot (which we'll cover next week) my cast iron skillets are the best investment I've made in my kitchen.

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About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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