I don’t know about you, but I’ve been resisting the urge to put up my Christmas decorations for a few weeks now. 2020 has been such a weird and challenging year, and looking forward to Christmas and Thanksgiving has lifted my spirits recently. I’ve already put up one small tree in my dining room for some “cozy winter light” and we’ll see if I can make it until after Thanksgiving for the rest of the decorations.
With Christmas and the holidays comes gift giving season. I love giving gifts but I’m sometimes unsure of what to get someone if I don’t know a lot about their hobbies. My husband for example is a musician and I find it challenging to purchase music related gifts without him specifically telling me something that he wants. I usually search for gift guides on the internet related to various hobbies where someone familiar with them lists some items that your loved one may be interested in. I have put together a series of post to inspire some gift giving for the aspiring chef and home cook in your life, or pickup some items for yourself 🙂
My first post in this series is about my love for cast iron, and the story behind my favorite cast iron pan.
The History Behind My Cast Iron Skillet
My family is from Texas, and I have a lot of special memories of cooking with my Grandmommy when we would travel there for visits. She shares in my love of thrift store shopping and collecting cookbooks.
I remember the best cheeseburger I ever had was one that she made for me on one of her iron skillets. She used a tortilla iron skillet, or one with really short sides. The skillet retained the heat so well and gave the burger a perfect sear. Then she melted the cheese on top and the little bits around the edge that melted onto the skillet got crispy. Then she spread some butter on the buns and toasted those as well. WOW! I’m salivating just thinking about those burgers. I remember that summer we went to some flea markets, and I just had to have one of these tortilla iron skillets. I found one, and it’s the one I still use when I make burgers or warm up tortillas. Every time I use it, I think of her and my memories of that delicious burger she made me. I also bought a small 6 inch skillet to take home that summer and those two pans were the start of my cast iron collection.
Years later I was in search of a larger cast iron pan that I could cook a chicken in. I had been searching for one and had asked for a new Lodge pan for Christmas. She got wind of this, and in her love for wanting to bless others, she found a way to get me one of her large cast iron pans all the way from Texas.
The special thing about cast iron is that as long as you take care of it properly, it will just get better with age. More seasoning is added every time you cook with it. Every time I cook with that pan I feel like in a way I’m back in my Grandmommy’s kitchen cooking with her because her seasonings are also the pan. Someday I will be able to pass it down to the next generation and share with them the stories of the meals that have been prepared, and the conversations shared around that skillet.
Pros of Cast Iron
- It’s a great pan for searing meat and finishing it in the oven. I cook my pork tenderloin in cast iron by first searing it on the stove, then transfering the pan to the oven to finish cooking. This is also an excellent way to cook a steak or pork chop.
- It just gets better with time as you cook with it. Every time you cook with your cast iron, you’re adding seasoning and increasing the non-stick layer of the pan through the fat that you use. I can fry an egg in my cast iron skillet without it sticking because I have built up a nice non-stick seasoning layer.
- They’re great to bake in. I bake biscuits in them or if you have a smaller one you can bake a giant cookie. Skillet pies are also delicious… Cobblers… you get the idea.
Cleaning Cast Iron
I think people can be intimidated by cast iron because they’re unsure of how to clean it. NEVER put your pan in the dishwasher. I’m cringing just thinking about that… I like to clean mine while they’re still hot because the gunk comes off easier that way. I use a metal spatula, or a hard rubber scraper to scrape up any bits that are stuck on the bottom. I may even add a small amount of water to help loosen up any stuck on gunk. Then I use a paper towel to wipe out the pan, and wipe again with a clean damp paper towel. Usually that’s all it takes!
For the bigger messes, you can use a small amount of soap and water, but always make sure you season it afterwards to make sure your pan doesn’t get rusty. Seasoning requires adding a small amount of oil, smearing it around with a paper towel, and heating the pan up again. This is good practice to do periodically anyway to keep you pan in good shape. Use an oil with a high smoke point such as canola. Something like olive oil will start to smoke before it really gets hot enough to season the pan.
I think a classic 12 in skillet is a great place to start if you’re interested in experimenting with cast iron. A 12 in is large enough to hold an entire chicken, yet still versatile enough that you could cook breakfast eggs in it. Lodge makes quality cast iron for affordable prices. Here is a versatile skillet that would make a great purchase or gift.
Another option for cast iron is a double burner griddle/grill pan. Mine has a permanent residence on my gas stovetop. It makes excellent pancakes and toast for breakfast and I also use it a lot for grilled sandwiches. Flip it over and you have an indoor grill pan! I cook chicken breasts on mine to slice up for salads. One note on the double burner griddle- our old place had a glass top stove and this pan did not work well. Consider the type of stovetop you have before buying a pan like this. This is the one that I was gifted a few years ago.
If you’re scouring the thrift store for cast iron these are the characteristics I would look for:
- Look for an assist handle if buying a larger skillet. This is a small handle opposite from the larger handle. These skillets can be very heavy, and having that assist handle provides two hand holds when pulling something heavy from the oven.
- A smooth shiny cooking surface. A well-seasoned cast iron pan will have a smooth and shiny finish. If a pan hasn’t been cared for properly it may have rust or an uneven finish. Some of this can be remedied with a little elbow grease and a good seasoning but unless you find a Griswold or a Wagner pan I would just skip over the rusted poorly seasoned ones.
- Make sure it’s not warped. Try to set it on a flat surface and wobble it a little. A warped pan will have hot spots and won’t provide an even cooking surface.
Now what about this enameled stuff?
Enameled cast iron tends to cost more because it has an enameled surface. I don’t know the science behind it, but it’s a layer over the cast iron that assists with making it non-stick. It’s also what you see when you find a cast iron pan that has color on the outside. I have an enameled dutch oven that I use to bake bread or for stews. I love it! I would recommend a 6 qt like this one.
Whether you’re buying cast iron for yourself or as a gift, you won’t be disappointed. They can become family heirlooms where generations are cooking off seasoning that was developed years ago. What a special way to feel connected to others in the kitchen!