When I was a child, my sister and I spent long summer vacations staying with our maternal grandparents in their giant old house. The memories of that house and our days spent there stay with me still. One of the most vivid memories I have is waking up on Sunday mornings to the sound of old time gospel music playing on the record player and the air filled with the smells of coffee brewing in the percolator and breakfast frying in a black cast iron skillet.
That skillet hardly left the stovetop. Like most Appalachian women, my grandmother used cast iron cookware for nearly all of her cooking needs. Cast iron is an ideal heat conductor and so heats evenly and consistently, making it ideal for cooking, frying, searing and even baking. The versatility of the iron pot or skillet is unrivaled – it can be used on the stovetop, grill, oven or over an open flame. Cast iron cookware went from the hearth to the wood stove to the gas and electric range with ease, adding a kitchen touchstone as times changed in the mountains.
For early mountaineers, cast iron pots also served important roles outside the kitchen. The larger cauldrons were used throughout the hills for boiling water for laundry, making soap, cooking apple butter and hominy and rendering lard.
Cast iron cookware remains widely available and still is incredibly inexpensive. Most hardware stores, general stores and old-timey gift shops sell national brands for $4-$20. Unlike cheap aluminum pans, cast iron will not buckle or warp. Some research has shown that aluminum pots leach aluminum molecules into food, which can lead to serious health problems. Not so with cast iron, which adds only small amounts of safe iron to cooked food.
With proper seasoning and care, cast iron skillets can last for generations. When I was five years old, my great grandparents’ farm burnt to the ground during a blizzard. Weeks later, family members sifted through the ashes hoping to find some intact items. My step dad found a 12-inch cast iron skillet. He re-seasoned it and uses it to this day. I think it’s safe to say that most other cookware could not withstand a house fire and three generations of use. Appalachians’ beloved cast iron cookware truly is remarkable.
I love my three cast iron skillets. I use the large and small for cooking and frying and the medium-sized skillet for baking corn bread. All have been seasoned and now have non-stick surfaces. Besides being an incredibly practical kitchen tool, I also adore cast iron skillets because they are traditional.
1. Purchase a cast iron skillet in a size that best fits your needs.
2. Thoroughly wash the skillet, using a stiff brush, hot water and a bit of soap. Dry.
3. Assemble paper towels, oven mitts and a high-quality cooking oil near the stovetop.
4. Place the skillet on the stovetop over very high heat. Allow the skillet to get very, very hot (Plan on the skillet smoking a bit – open a window and run the range hood vent).
5. When the skillet is too hot to hold your hand a few inches above it, remove from heat. Immediately pour a few tablespoons of oil into the skillet. While wearing the oven mitts, use paper towels to rub the oil into the entire inside and outside surface of the skillet. Wipe out excess and allow skillet to cool completely.
6. The skillet is now ready to use. You may have to repeat this process 1-2 times more for the skillet to be properly seasoned.
7. Finally, proper long-term care is vital. Use solid fats in your cast iron skillets as much as possible. Cooking sprays and oils tend to build up a sticky film in the skillet. And never wash a seasoned skillet with soap or place in a dishwasher. Simply scrub out the skillet with a stiff brush and very hot water. Dry completely with a paper towel and store in a dry place.