A few months ago, I was visiting my aunt’s house in North Austin and, talking about something else, she stopped herself mid-sentence to ask if I wanted one of my grandmother’s cast-iron skillets.
We were standing in her kitchen, the same one I remember my grandma Mimi cooking in when she lived with them for the last few years of her life.
Food and cooking had been Mimi’s constant companions. Having cooked since she was a young girl growing up without electricity or running water in Kentucky, she knew her way around a kitchen and often insisted that her way of doing things was the only way.
My Aunt Leesa crouched down to dig into a cabinet where she’d been storing some of Mimi’s cooking gear since she died in 2016. The pots clanged around as she lifted the heaviest one buried at the bottom.
I was in awe of the size — at least 12 inches in diameter — and the patina nearly took my breath away. "I’ve never seen anything like this," I told her, dragging my fingers across the cold, soft skin that had formed after decades of frying chicken and hamburgers. "Do you want it?" Leesa asked.
I love old family objects, and Leesa knew that I’d get more use out of this one than she would. My cast-iron skillets are in great shape — and I cook with them often — but I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep this one up like my grandmother did. My old cast-iron anxieties returned.
Anne Byrn knows what it’s like to hold a skillet that’s heavy with memories and rich with culinary possibilities.
She’s the Nashville-based author of "Skillet Love," a book that came out last fall celebrating the history, functionality and versatility of cast-iron skillets. The book is a comfort to longtime cast-iron fans, but it’s also compelling for cooks who aren’t yet convinced that they need one or who are frustrated that theirs don’t shine like Grandma’s.
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"People are less interested in having a whole bunch of pans," she says. When she was on tour for the book, she met with dozens of cooks who shared stories about inheriting or buying these skillets, and "they were wide-eyed in excitement about what they can do with it."
They want to wow their friends with steaks and shakshuka or a giant chocolate chip cookie that they can share at work.
One complaint Byrn hears is that cast-iron skillets are too heavy, but the weight is what gives cast-iron skillets their ability to hold heat so well and puts such a nice sear on meats and vegetables.
You can find lighter weight cast-iron and carbon steel skillets today. Byrn also says that many cooks don’t use the "helper handle" that manufacturers started adding to skillets about 40 years go, which allows you to use two hands to carry them. "But don’t store it in the bottom cabinet. It’s like the KitchenAid," she says. "You’re going to use it more if you can leave it out."
Although there is a right way and a wrong way to clean a skillet, they are also more forgiving than their reputation suggests.
It takes years to get the kind of patina that my grandmother’s skillet has, and in order to build up the polymers that form it, you have to cook a lot in the pan and clean it well, with the right technique, Byrn says.
She has more than a dozen cast-iron skillets that she rotates through her kitchen. "If one is looking like it needs some love, I’ll put it on the back of the stove, and that’s what we cook with for the next few weeks."
"You have to commit yourself to reviving it" by intentionally cooking foods that need a combination of fat and high heat. "That’s what makes the natural nonstick coating that makes cleaning a breeze once you get it."
Cast-iron skillets are good for cooking fish, chili, marinara sauce and other spicy or pungent dishes, but high-flavor ingredients such as soy sauce, tomato sauce, brown sugar and lemon juice can be challenging on a skillet whose nonstick surface is still developing.
"You’d be surprised how much you can get out without having to use soap," she says.
A tiny drop of soap on a scrubber or sponge is fine for a really dirty job; you can avoid having to use soap at all by putting a little water in the skillet over high heat and letting it bubble up to release the dirty bits on the bottom.
Use a wooden spatula, a dough scraper or one of those metal chain mail scrubbers to scrape anything that doesn’t come off on its own, she says. Pour out the detritus and any extra water and wipe the skillet with a paper or terry cloth towel. Put the skillet back on the high heat to ensure it’s dry. If the surface is looking a little too dry at this point, drizzle a little vegetable oil or wipe with a smudge of shortening, just like a face moisturizer, she says.
If your skillet is rusty, you can use oven cleaner to remove the outermost layer of rust, but some cooks prefer to cook their way out of a rust situation, again relying on oil and heat to start to "heal" the surface.
If the bottom of your skillet looks dry or splotchy but not rusty, cook something fatty in it and then dispose of the extra fat in a jar and simply wipe out the bottom.
Older skillets and some boutique new ones were sanded smoother than many of the commercially available skillets today; that doesn’t mean you can’t get a smooth surface on what starts as a porous and pebbly surface.
"Skillets really benefit from someone who falls in love with them and who feels like they have ownership of them," she says. "It’s like a pet."
Now that you’re inspired to start cooking with and taking care of your cast-iron skillet(s), here are 10 ways to use them:
1. Searing: Fajitas come out on a sizzling cast-iron platter for a reason. Because skillets can get so hot and retain that heat, they are great for searing vegetables, meat including steaks, hamburgers, chicken and fish, and, one of my favorites, hardy greens and black beans or chickpeas. Your pan is hot enough for searing when you first start to see it smoke or if you sprinkle a little water on the surface and it sizzles.
2. Dry roasting and toasting: Think grilled cheese and quesadillas. I like to make thick slices of toast using my cast-iron skillets, and they are also perfect for par-baking pizza crusts. You also can toast nuts quickly, just be careful not to burn them.
3. Not-so-dry roasting, especially for vegetables: "There’s no vegetable that’s not improved in a cast-iron skillet," Byrn says. Most skillets are either 10 or 12 inches in diameter, which means they can hold 3 to 5 cups of chopped veggies. Don’t crowd the pan or else they’ll steam instead of frying or roasting. You can heat the skillet first and then throw in chopped veggies that have been tossed in oil. Because the skillet can go from the stove-top to the oven, you can start with a saute and then finish in the oven.
4. Grilling: Byrn will often take her cast-iron skillets outside to use on the grill, where they hold and concentrate the heat (and infuse the food with a smoky taste) while also protecting whatever she’s cooking from flare-ups.
5. Caramelizing onions: Getting a deep brown color in onions takes a long time, no matter what pan you’re using; a cast-iron skillet can heat them evenly over a low heat, making the process a little easier. With a hearty drizzle of olive oil, this is a great way to start to restore a cast-iron pan that needs a little love.
6. Baking: Cornbread and frittatas are among the more popular dishes that cooks bake in cast-iron skillets, and sweet treats like skillet-size cookies and cinnamon rolls also bake nicely in them.
7. Thawing frozen meat: Placing a frozen steak on a room-temperature cast-iron skillet (and better yet, placing another cast-iron skillet on top) allows the relative heat from the skillets to thaw the meat faster than if it’s simply sitting on the counter.
8. Cooking crispy bacon, with caution: When cooking bacon, start with a low temperature so the sugar in the bacon cure doesn’t stick to the surface before some of the fat has had time to render. This can be a good way to infuse a not-so-great skillet with fat, especially if you can saute some Brussels sprouts or another vegetable in the meat fond that’s left behind.
9. Cooking eggs (maybe): I have found eggs to be tricky in a cast-iron skillet that isn’t seasoned to perfection. Byrn has fried many eggs in her highly patinated pans, but I’m more likely to make a Spanish tortilla in mine.
10. Passing them on: Byrn says that a common refrain she heard from readers was regret that they’d sold their cast-iron skillets in a garage sale or donated them to a thrift store. Taking care of a quality skillet isn’t difficult once you find your own groove, and you’ll end up with an heirloom worth passing on to your own kids, grandkids, a young neighbor who is just learning how to cook or one very appreciative niece.
This spicy Tunisian tomato-pepper medley (sometimes spelled "chakchouka") is popular throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. It’s the perfect brunch dish, because burrowed into the thick, peppery tomato stew are eggs, allowed to poach to soft doneness. The big flavor here is harissa, the North African blend of chili, garlic, cumin and caraway that you can make or buy in paste or powder form. And the iron skillet does it all — from simmering down the sauce to evenly and slowly poaching those eggs. Serve with plenty of crusty bread for dunking, and add a green salad to round out the meal. When cooking eggs in sauce, choose medium eggs instead of large because they don’t take up so much room in the skillet. This stew is also delicious with shrimp. Instead of adding the eggs, burrow 12 extra-large peeled and deveined shrimp into the sauce, cover the pan, and let them cook to doneness, 4 to 5 minutes.
— Anne Byrn
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups thinly sliced onions (from about 2 large onions)
1 (28-ounce) can whole Italian plum tomatoes
2 teaspoons harissa seasoning or paste
2 cups diced bell or Anaheim peppers (a mix of green, yellow and red)
6 to 8 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
4 medium eggs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Crumbled feta cheese, for garnish (optional)
Crusty bread, for serving
Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. When it is hot, add the onions and saute until they are soft and just beginning to turn golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, drain the tomatoes and reserve the tomato liquid. Cut the tomatoes into 3 or 4 pieces each and add them to the pan. Stir in the harissa. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes lose half of their liquid and cook down, about 10 minutes. Add the peppers and garlic. Cover the skillet, reduce the heat to low, and let the mixture simmer until the peppers are soft, about 15 minutes. Add some of the reserved tomato liquid if necessary to keep the mixture from sticking to the pan.
Make four depressions in the sauce with the back of a big soup spoon. Crack one egg into each depression. Cover the pan and cook until the egg whites are nearly set but the yolks are still soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat (the eggs will continue to cook from the residual heat of the pan). Season the eggs with salt and pepper and garnish the top with feta, if desired. Spoon onto plates and serve with crusty bread. Serves 4.
— From "Skillet Love: From Steak to Cake: More Than 150 Recipes in One Cast-Iron Pan" by Anne Byrn (Grand Central Publishing, $30)
Creamy Broccoli With Pancetta and Pecorino
I love cooked broccoli, but this recipe really transforms it into something special. Pancetta brings so much flavor, and the creamy sauce is rich and luscious. Even your kids will like this one! When cutting the broccoli, make sure you slice the florets in half along the "tree trunk" so there’s more surface area for the broccoli to have contact with the pan. The same is true with cauliflower, which is a good substitute in this recipe.
— Kristy Bernardo
8 ounces pancetta, cut into cubes (can substitute bacon)
1/4 medium-sized onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 head broccoli, broken into small florets
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated pecorino
Heat oven to 400 degrees.
Heat a large, oven-safe skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until almost crispy, about 7 minutes. Add the onion and cook for 2 minutes, then add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for 1 more minute.
Add the broccoli, cream, mozzarella and pecorino to the pan, then toss gently to coat. Bake the broccoli for about 15 minutes, or until cooked through.
— From "Weeknight Keto: 75 Quick & Easy Recipes for Delicious Low-Carb Meals" by Kristy Bernardo (Page Street Publishing, $21.99)