Moving things around the kitchen today, I found myself with one of my favorite pans in hand, a cast iron skillet. I began to ruminate about the many ways I use it, and how many functions it performs. For all its plain Jane looks and low price tag, this is a truly amazing piece of kitchenware.
Of course it’s obvious a skillet is used for frying. My mom’s 12″ beauty came out for breakfast every morning – bacon and eggs during the week, and pancakes on Sundays. Cooking all that bacon ensures your skillet is properly seasoned, and you get the bonus bacon “grease”, as we called it. The rendered fat was poured into a clean can and left out on the stove; bacon fat is highly stable, so there were no worries about it going rancid. Then it was always available for frying the tastiest eggs or for supper, Mom would fry up a big batch of potatoes and onions. Yum! Sometimes she’d fry chicken, and the pan’s even heat conduction did a bang-up job on that.
You can deep-fat fry foods like crullers, donuts, or fried clams in this baby. You can pan-fry food in a quarter to half an inch of oil or fat — think of vegetables or breaded cutlets. You can also pan-broil in a skim coat of fat; my students are surprised when I announce that I’m going to grill (another term for it) without using either a grill or the broiler. Some of the best steaks are made this way – heat the skillet over medium heat, sear the meat on both sides, and then either turn down the heat to continue cooking it to the desired degree of doneness, or put it in a preheated oven to finish it. If your dish requires broiling, your skillet doesn’t flinch.
Because, of course, this pan goes easily from stove top to the oven. It can take a range of heat, from very low to very high oven heat if that’s what your dish needs. I’ve baked deep dish pizza, corn bread, Yorkshire pudding, Dutch apple pancakes, tarte Tatin (an upside down French apple tart), pineapple upside down cake, bread, cinnamon rolls, biscuits … and doubtless other things I’m forgetting right now.
In addition to baking, it’s suitable for roasting — the sides are a bit higher than those of a roasting pan, but you can use a round cake rack to raise the meat or poultry off the bottom of the skillet so it won’t fry on the bottom or steam. I’ve roasted whole chickens and five pound roasts of beef with great results.
Grilled cheese sandwiches acquire a beautiful crust when done in a cast iron skillet; just be careful to keep the heat low. Paninis? You don’t need a press. When you turn your sandwich to brown the second side, put a second slightly smaller cast iron skillet on top of it to weight it, and you’ll get the same result. If you don’t want to dirty the bottom of the second skillet, just place a small square of aluminum foil between it and the sandwich.
Searching for a way to moderate the heat of a burner, or need a double boiler? Simply put a cast iron skillet over the burner on low heat, and then put your thinner pan in the skillet. Voilà, your pan is not in direct contact with the burner, and its contents won’t scorch.
Do you want to cook something on the grill that might fall through the grate? Put your skillet right on the grill. It can take the heat; your peppers and onions to accompany the sausage that’s grilling will cook without incident. Used to the side off direct heat, it will keep sauces warm.
A good cast iron skillet is heavy. You can flatten chicken cutlets with it if you don’t have a meat bat, crush peppercorns roughly for steak à poivre, or lightly smash garlic cloves to remove the skin.
One of my favorite ways to use it is for cooking bacon – not on the stove top, as you’d expect, but in the oven at 350°F. I just lay the bacon in the pan and put it in the oven, set the timer for 15 minutes, and do something else until the timer goes off. Usually the bacon’s done at that point, or almost done, and I haven’t had to stand over the stove, watch, or turn it. The bacon tends to stay flat, a bonus, and the pan is seasoning itself as it cooks. What could be easier?
If someone has bequeathed you a cast iron skillet, count your blessings. Don’t be put off by a crusty exterior – it’s taken time to build up that patina, and by now that pan is virtually non-stick. Unless chunks are falling off it, there’s no need to strip the pan and re-season it. If you’re not so lucky, they’re inexpensive and readily available. An antique one is a very special thing, but new ones are OK, if you avoid cheap ones from overseas. Just remember not to let it soak or wash it with detergent, dry it thoroughly after washing, and give it an occasional coating of oil. You have to love a pan this versatile – I can’t think of another one that is.