Kitchen must-have: a cast iron skillet

Some chefs stock their kitchens full of every gadget, trinket and tool. Others keep just a minimal supply of absolute must-haves. I consider myself somewhere in between.

And I recently left my part-time job at Sur la Tab so we can have leisurely family time on weekends. And that means I can now give my personal advice on what kitchen items are absolute must-haves.

My first item is a cast iron skillet.

Cast-iron-skillet

Cast iron skillets are just that – straight iron. These skillets, seasoned and maintained properly (more on that later), are safer and longer-lasting alternatives to non-stick cookware. Here’s why:

  • If the surface of your cast iron piece gets damaged in any way, you can just sand down the cookware to reveal a fresh surface. That’s the beauty in it being just one material.
  • Another benefit of cast iron is that there is no surface to wear down, scratch off or end up in your food.
  • Seasoned cast iron is just as non-stick as non-stick cookware, without the coating that can (and probably will) wear down.
  • You don’t wash cast iron cookware. I mean you can, but regular maintenance just wiping the surface with a wet paper towel and at most using a pan scraper to release anything left behind.
  • Cast iron is black and sturdy. Perfect for using on the stove top, in the oven, on a gas or charcoal grill or directly on a campfire out in the woods. This also makes it a great tool to have on hand in case of emergency. The cookware being straight iron also means it will work on an induction stovetop.
  • Straight cast iron pieces are inexpensive. Lodge (my favorite brand of straight cast iron, everything made in the US of A) has an 8-inch skillet for $18.
  • Cast iron comes in all shapes and sizes. I think the most necessary piece is to have one skillet, 8 inch if you’re planning perfectly round omelettes but larger if you want to do other things. My favorite thing ever is the Lodge grill/griddle that covers two stovetop burners.

Let’s say I’ve convinced you. Now for the most important part, how to properly use and care for cast iron.

Keep the surface seasoned. Most cast iron pieces will come partially seasoned. Seasoning means there is a built up of fat (usually oil) that both keeps moisture away from the iron and keeps your food from sticking.

If any part of your iron piece does not have a layer of oil or fat on it and if it exposed to even just humidity in the air it will start to rust. Yes, even if left to dry overnight on the stove. This means that right after rinsing your cast iron you need to dry it thoroughly before re-seasoning.

Also, keep in mind that using soap on the surface should be done with caution. If you introduce soap to seasoned cast iron it will both wear down the seasoning and whatever seasoning is left will absorb the soap resulting in soapy-tasting food ewww! If you need to super-clean your cast iron really really wash it thoroughly. That means getting all the seasoning off. Then immediately dry it. And re-dry it with paper towels until there is absolutely no moisture left. Then immediately re-season it (see seasoning tips and steps below).

Oh, and also just so you know. Cast iron is, well, iron. So cooking with cast iron will naturally increase your daily intake of iron. This means you can hold off on buying iron-fortified breakfast cereals. But if you have any advice on increasing or lessening your iron level, be sure to talk to your doctor first. And for pregnant women, iron is usually lacking and you are recommended to take a supplement – so feel free to ask your doctor if cooking daily with cast iron would replace this need.

Also, use metal utensils with caution. Scraping metal on the surface erodes the seasoning and exposes your cast iron to moisture. My favorite cooking utensils (which I’ll get to in the future) are silicone (nylon can melt). Wood is another great option.

Watch out for acidic foods such as tomatoes. Acidic foods will eat through your seasoning and go straight to the metal, exposing your iron and resulting in metallic-tasting food. Gross! You can cook with tomatoes once your pan is really well seasoned but cast iron is never gonna be your best choice for making marinara sauce. I’d probably limit acidic foods to a handful of tomatoes thrown on top of eggs for making a frittata. And I’d cut out cooking with vinegars.

Here’s my seasoning routine:

  1. When I get a new cast iron piece I start by rinsing it under hot water with NO soap.
  2. Use a vegetable oil or other similar oil with a high burning point. Olive oil, however tasty, burns at a  very low temperature. Rub the oil into every nook and cranny on top, under and on the handle of your cookware. Don’t cake it on, but coat every surface.  A paper towel works great for this purpose.
  3. Turn the oven on to 300°. Leave your cookware in the oven for about an hour. This time is to help adhere the oil to the cast iron. Most cast iron companies recommend a higher temperature, but I’ve had better luck at lower temperatures. Make sure to check every 10 minutes to make sure the oil does not start to brown or smoke.
  4. Let the cast iron cool on the stove top. It now has a good first seasoning.
  5. When I go to cook, I always start by pouring a little oil before starting the heat and rubbing it on with a paper towel. Watch out for oil that comes in a spray can because some have other elements inside that will actually damage the surface.
  6. Watch the heat while you cook. Cast iron absorbs heat really well. Quite a bit different than your nonstick cookware. Start on medium heat and always, always move to low heat. Towards the end of cooking, feel free to turn off the heat. Things can burn pretty quickly in cast iron.
  7. When you are finished cooking, let the piece cool on the stove.
  8. Once cool, use a paper towel or a non-soapy pot brush or a pan scraper to very gently rinse the surface. Get rid of any food residue (unless it’s bacon grease – which you can then use to make bacon-infused foods such as cornbread).
  9. Wipe the piece dry completely. Rub in a little vegetable oil with a paper towel to re-season.

Sonya Quick

Full-time mom, freelance journalist and dancer. Loves cooking, listening to good music and drinking craft beer.

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