The stock pot. The chef's knife. The cast-iron skillet. These are the stalwarts of classic cooking, the few kitchen utensils every serious chef—or serious home cook, for that matter—really needs.
Cast-iron cookware is one of those ubiquitous, oh-so-versatile kitchen tools that will never go out of style. Beloved by everyone from Martha Stewart to grandmothers around the world, cast iron really is one of the most popular kitchen tools.
Not sure what all the fuss is about? For one thing, a well maintained cast-iron skillet can last decades, even generations. For another, this type of pan cooks everything from cornbread to steak with ease. The secret to its versatility is the cast iron itself; though this material takes longer to heat up, it distributes heat almost perfectly evenly and stays warm for much longer than other pans. Plus, cast iron is extremely durable. These skillets can go from the stove top to the oven without any worries.
Then, there are the health benefits of cast iron to consider. Unlike typical nonstick pans, cast iron doesn't contain any carcinogenic chemicals or synthetic materials to keep food from sticking. What's more, cooking on cast iron actually adds a little bit of iron into food—and though the taste buds won't detect it, the body will benefit from a little boost of this essential nutrient.
But before running to the store to pick up this dynamic piece of cookware, there are a few things to know about cooking with and taking care of cast iron.
Seasoning a cast-iron pan
Though cast-iron cookware isn't naturally nonstick, it doesn't take much to make it so. Seasoning the pan—or baking on a thin layer of cooking oil—creates a glossy, black surface that acts just like Teflon.
To do this, cover the surface with a thin layer of cooking oil (anything from vegetable oil to lard or bacon grease will work). Bake the cast-iron cookware in the oven for an hour at 350 degrees, and allow it to cool. Wipe out any excess oil with a paper towel and the newly seasoned pan will be ready to use.
If that seems like too much work, not to fear—some manufacturers actually offer pre-seasoned cast-iron cookware.
Cleaning a cast-iron pan
Of course, once the cast iron is coated with this beautiful layer of seasoning, the pan should be specially cleaned to so that it stays there.
Essentially, cast iron only needs to be cleaned just enough to get out any leftover food residue without chipping away any of the seasoning. In other words, don't leave cast iron in a sink full of suds to soak, and steel wool or any extremely harsh dish brushes are the enemy.
Most experts recommend washing cast iron in very hot water as soon as the pan cools. For a little extra scrubbing power, coarse salt will do the trick. And though old-school cooks won't support this move, feel free to use a little mild dish soap every now and then on cast iron—soap these days isn't as abrasive as it used to be.
A word to the wise: Since cast iron retains heat so well, it can get blisterning hot. Be sure to use an oven mitt at all times when cooking with it.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont