If you are not harangued by a debilitating physical ailment that makes picking up heavy things very difficult, you have no excuse not to own a cast iron skillet. As some of my favorite kitchen tools, I almost didn’t think to write about them as they are in front of me all the time. I suppose it’s easy to take something you love for granted when it’s always right in front of you.

Cast iron is “old school.” I’ve met many people who own cast iron cookware that have been handed down in their families for generations. The technology behind them is so simple that with basic care, little will go wrong with them. Even if you do find your way to ruining the patina coating that makes them become non-stick and protects them from rust, with a little effort and some patient care, they will be good as new again. Their extremely high heat tolerance, ability to distribute heat evenly and relatively low cost makes them a fantastic tool and a great value… As long as you are willing to adhere to a few rules.

Just to be clear, I am writing specifically about seasoned cast iron skillets in this post, not enameled cast iron. Seasoned cast iron is sealed and protected from oxidizing by a patina that forms on the surface over time as oils and fats fill “pores” on the surface, rendering it both non-stick and rust resistant. Over time, this “seasoning” layer builds up and becomes smooth and shiny. Eventually it will be seasoned enough that it will require little or no fat at all to cook with.

Best Performance Suggestions

To get the best performance (even heat distribution) out of cast iron I heat the pan slowly on a low flame. The cast iron will spread the heat evenly across the surface but it can only spread that heat at a limited speed, so if you warm your pan with the heat on high, the pan will be hotter in the center than on the edges. The best policy here is to have the patience  to let the pan get hot over the low flame.

Limitations

There are some important limitations to seasoned cast iron skillets. Chief among them is their poor suitability for pan reduction sauces. Most pan reduction sauces require deglazing the pan with an acidic ingredient or alcohol. Acid and alcohol will dissolve some of the patina (seasoning) that develops slowly over time. It’s not toxic, but it will change the flavor of your sauce and require you to take time consuming steps to rebuild the seasoning layer of the skillet. Avoid acidic ingredients, especially tomatoes.

Care

Cleaning a well cared for cast iron skillet is pretty simple: rinse the pan out with warm water while the skillet remains warm. Use a pot scraper to release anything that does stick to the inside. Do not use soap or harsh abrasives! They will remove some of the seasoning layer. Make sure you dry the pan completely before putting it away and any water can cause rust. If the skillet has a dull finish, it’s probably a good idea to oil the pan.

When you do oil the skillet, steer away from olive oil and vegetable oil. Vegetable oil has a tendency to oxidize and become sticky, which makes it a poor choice for developing a non-stick surface. Olive oil, like several other popular cooking oils, has a low smoke point (it burns at a low temperature). Part of the appeal of cast iron is the ability to heat it to very high temperatures without damaging the skillet, but if you oil yours using an oil with a low smoke point, you will fill your kitchen with the noxious, carcinogenic fumes of the oil breaking down long before you reach the searing temperature you’re looking for. Use oils with high smoke points, particularly peanut oil and grape-seed oil.

My favorite uses for cast iron skillets include searing meat, fish and vegetables, pan frying just about anything and roasting vegetables for salsa (the next post will feature a quick tutorial on roasting and peeling pasilla peppers). And while a cast iron skillet is not the one pan for all jobs, they perform so well (for so low a price) that I highly recommend you have at least one around.