As far as kitchen utensils go, it’s certainly hard to beat the utility, affordability and time-testedness of the cast iron skillet. It’s one of the few pieces of kitchenware that has resisted improvement for centuries; it’s an apostasy to the modern cult of the kitchen gadget obsessed. If you don’t own one, you probably should, though this directive isn’t without controversy 1 — some cooks think the maintenance is more trouble than it’s worth.

Cast iron is cheap, will last forever if you care for it properly and can be found just about anywhere. I’ve seen skillets in grocery markets, high end food emporia, hardware stores and camping catalogs. You can, of course, buy one online. In the U.S., Lodge makes a wide range, and has since 1896. The most marked improvement in the development of the cast iron skillet is that they now come pre-seasoned, meaning you don’t need to rub it down with fat, heat it, and let it cool down before you can use it for the first time, though you should later (more on seasoning in a moment).

(To be perfectly clear, we’re talking about gray-black iron pans here, not the brightly-colored, and much more expensive, enameled cast iron you may have seen sold by Le Creuset or Staub, which are also excellent but meant for another post.)

As for versatility, it’s hard to find a better deal. You can bake, roast, sauté, fry and broil in a skillet. Cast iron will work on electric, gas and induction ranges and is particularly well suited for a hot oven. A properly seasoned model will be non-stick enough for eggs without all the worry of teflon. You can set it on your stove to fry chicken legs or in an oven to roast a whole bird. All for less than $20 new. As luck would have it, though, cast iron skillets get better with age and seeking out an old, properly cared for pan is well worth the effort; you can usually find good ones in antique stores or garage sales for $10-15. Look for anything 8-12” in diameter, all iron (no wooden handles or plastic knobs, please) forged as a single piece, preferably with a pour spout on one edge and a second helper handle opposite the main one for negotiating while full. A lid that fits nice and snug is worth having but not strictly necessary.

Because your skillet is a single piece of heat conductive metal, the handle will inevitably heat up — you’ll want to use pot holders or, better yet, a dry, heavy duty kitchen towel folded over on itself several times. A good kitchen towel is worth keeping on you at all times, preferably slung over your shoulder for ease of reach and maximum kitchen fashion cachet. Keep the towel dry, otherwise the water will heat up and could burn you.

It’s best to avoid cooking highly acidic foods in cast iron, especially for long periods of time, as the acid tends to eat away at the seasoned coating. Save your tomato-butter sauce for (preferably anodized) aluminum or stainless steel pots.

If there’s anything at all controversial about cooking with cast iron, it’s the proper way to clean it. You may have heard tales of someone’s grandmother who never cleaned her skillet, not once, just wiped it out with a rag, which is the secret to her amazing fried chicken. Personally, I don’t put much faith in this theory, if only because the thought of generations of rancid grease in my pan doesn’t strike me as particularly appetizing. My process goes something like this:

  • drain off any leftover grease, wipe it out with a paper towel
  • drain the sink of any leftover soapy, scummy water
  • rinse the pan with hot water then scrub any stuck on bits with a synthetic brush or, better, folded over heavy duty paper towel
  • DO NOT use soap, harsh cleansers, brillo, barkeeper’s helper, steel wool, etc.
  • dry immediately with a paper towel
  • apply a light coating of a neutral oil, like canola (NOT olive oil) with a dry paper towel while it’s still warm
  • let the pan cool completely
  • wipe down one last time with a paper towel to get rid of any excess oil, store in a dry place
  • DO NOT leave your cast iron in a sink full of water and absolutely DO NOT run it through the dishwasher.

This process, which is really much easier than it sounds, will continue to improve your skillet’s seasoning. Just remember that cast iron will start to rust in a matter of hours, or less, if left in water. You certainly don’t want to season your cornbread with rust, do you?

Occasionally, maybe once a year, you’ll want to season your cast iron to help develop its non-stick qualities. Seasoning is a process that superheats fat so that it breaks down and then reform into polymers that bond with and coat the surface of your pan. Because oil is by definition hydrophobic this creates a natural, non-stick surface on your pan — the French Culinary Institute has more about the science of cast iron cookware if you’re interested.

To season, set your oven 400°F then wash and completely dry your pan. Coat every surface with a neutral fat like melted vegetable shortening or even (melted) lard. Put a foil-lined cookie sheet on the bottom rack of the oven (to catch any drippings) and then put the pan upside down on the top rack of the oven. Bake for an hour then let the skillet cool in the oven.

A well-loved cast iron skillet will almost certainly outlive you. If you take to the skillet, you’ll likely want to explore cast iron grill pans, dutch ovens and griddles.

  1. In fact, there’s even disagreement among the proprietors of this very blog about the necessity of cast iron — half of us find it to be completely indispensable, the other a fussy and overbearing piece of equipment. We’ll leave the final decision up to you.