I love cast iron skillets.
At least one of mine has a permanent home on the top of the stove. I have little ones small enough for individual servings, up to a large 15.5″ Lodge that will feed a dozen people. I have a set that was my grandmothers – so well seasoned the inside surface is that beautiful glossy nonstick black. My mom gave me her large cast iron skillet when the farm was sold. These are my treasures. Cast iron pans last forever if cared for properly, and get passed down from generation to generation.
I also have a collection of Le Creuset large dutch ovens. I love them, but they aren’t the same as the basic black. I also have a classic black dutch oven.
Cast iron is beautiful to use, but it does require care that the enameled cast iron does not. First, it must be seasoned. I’ve found even when a piece comes “pre-seasoned” it still helps to do this process again once you get it home. Seasoning is a process of treating the iron with oil, and then heating it so the iron starts to absorb some of the oil. Wash a new piece with warm water and dry well. I heat up the oven to about 350 degrees, rub the cast iron with vegetable oil or olive oil, and then put it upside down on a cookie sheet. Bake it for about an hour. With repeated use and seasoning, the oil forms a relatively nonstick surface on the inside of the pan.
Don’t soak the whole pan for a long period of time, and don’t let it sit in a damp sink.. It will start to rust, and then you are back to seasoning it like a new piece. Water is an enemy of cast iron.
It must be wiped out clean after use. If wiping doesn’t take out all the food, then wait til it cools and then add some warm water and let it sit a bit. It’s important not to pour something cold into a hot piece of cast iron – this can warp the bottom. Once the bits of food release, just wipe out and dry well. You can also use salt to scrub it, but never a scouring pad. I often put a clean skillet back in a warm oven after dinner to dry, and then lightly coat it with oil inside again.
it’s then ready for the next use.
So what to use it for? Cast iron can get really hot, so it’s great for searing meat, roasting vegetables, making casseroles or baking bread. Heat up oil for french fries. Make potato hash.
Most of the time a moderate temperature is high enough heat for use, but it can help to let it preheat well before you put any oil or food into it. The most heat will be concentrated over the heat source, so I sometimes move the pan around a couple times to make sure it entire bottom heats up. Once it gets hot, cast iron stays hot. Remember it eventually gets hot all over, including the handle, so be sure to have a towel or oven mitt handy.
It is not good for tomato based recipes since the acid from the tomatoes can develop an iron taste. That said, once a piece is well seasoned I use it to make chili with no noticeable change of flavor. Same goes for meats being roasted or braised with wine.
So what kind to buy? And what size? if you want to tackle an old piece, look for a Griswold or Wagner. Flea markets and garage sales can be a good place to look. As long as the bottom is flat and there are no cracks, ignore the rust. Most about old pans in a minute. The Griswold and Wagners aren’t made any more, and Lodge cookware is probably the easiest to find, but there are several good quality brands out there.
It’s large enough for hash, frying meat or potatoes, and casseroles to serve 3 or 4 people. It’s quite affordable. Once you feel comfortable using a cast iron piece, and if you are like me, you’ll acquire more. Besides round skillets of all sizes, there are cast iron pieces for bread, muffins, griddles, square skillets, bacon /steak presses, dutch ovens …if it can be made in cast iron, it’s probably out there.
Restoring an old piece: The easiest method I have found is this:
Use a wire brush or steel wool to remove any rust, and dried on food as much as possible. The spray well with oven cleaner and put it inside a plastic garbage bag (a tall kitchen line is usually about right). Do this in a well ventilated area wearing rubber gloves and eye protection.
Let it sit 24-48 hours. Rinse it off, and scrub off all the loose gunk. It should look grey when you get down to the original cast iron. If not, spray it again and wrap up in the plastic for another day or two.
Once it’s cleaned up to your satisfaction, wash well and submerge it in white vinegar. This will remove any final rust. Let it sit 8-12 hours, but never longer than 24 hours. The vinegar, as an acid, could cause pitting of the metal. Wash well again and dry.
Then get out the oil, and get ready to season it anew.
For detailed instructions and photos I refer you to this site on the Serious Eats site.
Remember, any damaged cast iron pieces will not be renewed by this process, so look for warped bottoms, cracks, and severe pitting before buying an old piece to restore.