Peek into the kitchen of many a Fine Cooking contributor and you'll see a glossy black cast-iron skillet parked on the stove. Author Bruce Aidells prefers a cast-iron skillet for searing steaks, and we use ours for a zillion other things. Here are some of our favorites:
Pan-frying chicken or potatoes.
Stir-frying on the grill or campfire.
Slow-sautéing vegetables, especially onions and peppers.
Cooking bacon (it seasons the pan as it cooks).
just about anything (the pan goes from stovetop to oven with ease).
Toasting nuts, seeds and spices.
Season it right
Cast iron is porous, so new pans need to be “seasoned” with oil to keep foods from sticking. For the initial seasoning, most manufacturers recommend coating the pan with a bit of shortening and baking for an hour or more. Here’s how:
Heat the oven to 350°F. Meanwhile, heat your pan on the stovetop until hot. With a thick wad of paper towels, spread 1 to 2 teaspoons of lard, bacon grease, or solid vegetable shortening all over the inside and outside of the pan. Apply a very thin coating of fat—too much grease and you’ll end up with a gummy residue in your pan.
Put the pan upside down on the center rack of the oven for 1-1/2 hours. (Slide a baking sheet or piece of aluminum foil onto the rack beneath the pan to catch any drips.) Turn off the heat and let the pan sit in the oven until cool. The pan won’t be deep black right away but will develop a dark patina with regular use.
Preserve the patina
Once the pan is seasoned, it’s quite simple to maintain. Some say that washing cast iron destroys the seasoning; these folks prefer to just wipe the pan clean, using coarse salt as an abrasive for cooked-on residue. From our experience, though, that’s often not enough. So in the Fine Cooking test kitchen, we wash our cast iron with soap and water and immediately towel it dry. Next, we set it on a burner on medium heat until the pan is hot and completely dry. While the pan is still hot, we use a paper towel to spread a thin coating of vegetable oil on the interior. With this extra attention, our cast iron stays perfectly seasoned.
Cast-iron 10-1/4-inch skillets (like the one shown) are available for about $14 from LodgeMfg.com. Lodge also sells pre-seasoned pans for a little more.