I’ve lived through the age of non-stick pans, the new fashion for gleaming copper, the advent of every conceivable surface for skillets from glass to stone and a thousand synthetic concoctions, such that today you face a blithering array of choices at any cookware store.
Truly, despite it all, I’ve never found anything as wonderful as a cast-iron skillet. And not just for frying. It works for baking too. It’s a case of how the oldest technology remains the best technology. I treasure my pan, which belonged to my mother’s mother and perhaps hers before that. It is still in perfect condition, and will apparently remain that way forever.
I see now that there are many available on Amazon, most selling between $15 to $30, differing only by size and shape, because otherwise the quality is the same. It’s just cast iron. Nothing more. And that is precisely what is so great about it. The wonders of the free market have put this beautiful item in the reach of everyone.
Your children will be fighting to inherit yours once you have left this earth.
In a time of improved everything, when I carry around technological wonders in my pocket, when I can access all existing music with a voice command and tell the same device to turn on the coffee pot, the cast-iron skillet stands out as a strange anomaly. So far as anyone knows, they were a thing in the ancient world. What we call the Iron Age lasted from 3000 BC to 1850 AD, finally ended only by the commercial availability of steel.
And yet here we are, needing to fry an egg or bacon, make cornbread, bake some fish, get a sweet finish on a steak, blanch some veggies, what do you reach for? The cast-iron skillet. People who know about cooking swear by it. I’ve personally never found anything better for all these tasks. So far as I’m concerned, when it comes to cooking, it is still the Iron Age.
What is the appeal beyond that it is a great cooking tool? Maybe it appeals to the primal in us. Maybe it makes us all feel like the frontiersmen were were not. Maybe it represents a desire in all of us to touch what we imagine to be our roots, a getting back to what matters. Far better that we fulfill this desire through consumerism than politics. Cast iron offers us all a means of discovering who we are.
Proper Care and Feeding
Stil, I’ve noticed friends of mine are slightly cautious about trying it out. There is a lot of mythology about it and people can be intimidated. For example, you hear that new pans don’t work because it takes an arduous process to season them. This is completely untrue. Seasoning a new pan takes 30 minutes at most, in a hot oven, and continues with the use of the pan. The more you use it, the better it gets.
Another thing you hear is that using soap on the pan will ruin it. This is preposterous. Iron is nothing if not hearty, indeed indestructible. Too much can tear through the oils on the surface of the pan but it is easy enough to add them back in. And it’s a beautiful thing, after so many years of fuss over what kind of spatula you can use on the delicate surface of your $300 pan, to dig into the iron hard with an old-fashioned steel utensil.
There is another secret to cleaning the iron skillet. Users know this. The point of the iron is that it breathes with the change in temperature. The heat opens it up. The cold closes it up. So when you are cooking with it and complete your tasks, you can unstick everything that is stuck simply by splashing some cold water in the pan. Another trick I use: grab an ice cube from the freezer and let it melt. The muck lifts off quickly and easily.
This breathing quality of the iron is ideal for deglazing. Let’s say you have a steak cooking away and it is starting to stick. You put a few tablespoons of cold water on the surface and all the sugars are released and glaze the meat, giving it a sugary coating and a beautiful shiny finish. You can do this with pork, fish, or beef, or, really, anything you cook in the pan. This allows you to achieve gourmet status even as you have cleaned the pan.
Once the pan is clean, it needs to be dried before you put it away. Why? It’s iron: it will rust. If that happens, it’s not really a big deal. Clean off the rust and re-oil the pan. To prevent this, put the pan on the stove burner for a minute or so. This will take away the water. Then you have a surface for adding oil (I like to use olive oil but any cooking oil works). Once it cools off, you can put it away.
This might sound fussy but it is not. It becomes a beautiful ritual, one you are reenacting from antiquity. Nothing you do to the pan can hurt it.
It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that cast iron cookware is hugely fashionable again. The Lodge cast iron refinery is the last one in the US and it has been undergoing a huge expansion in recent years. The pans are cheap and the best investment you can make in cookware.
On the other hand, you can slip over to the local Goodwill and likely find a used one there. Some people are scared off by rust. But these can be restored very easily and quickly with some steel wool and some effort at re-seasoning it with oil. You can probably find one at any rummage sale too, for just a couple of bucks.
The continued popularity of the cast-iron skillet illustrates a point. The purpose of technology is not to be new. It is not to complicate your life. It is not to do something never done before. It is not to confound, confuse, or disorient. The purpose of technology is to make your life better than it is. In this case, technology can come from any age, even the ancient world. As the slogan of Lodge pan company says, iron is forever.