It’s the cornerstone of any great kitchen. Your mom had one. Your great-grandmother had one. Hell, no matter what your ethnic heritage, it’s pretty likely your far-flung ancestors spent many a night tending to one over a cook fire. I’m talking, of course, about the cast-iron skillet.
This is by far the best ‘cooking for men’ tip we could offer. It’s one of the most useful things you can have in your kitchen. Cast-iron pans handle high heat and heat distribution well, so they’re excellent for searing meat or even for baking things like cornbread in the oven.
And they’re super heavy, which means that if terrorists ever break into your house and try to kidnap your family, you can go all Liam Neeson on their faces with one.
Picking Your Skillet
If you’re serious about cooking, you need a cast-iron pan in your kitchen. But which one? What size? What brand?
Like pretty much any other thing on Earth these days, you can buy “vintage” cast-iron pans on eBay for hundreds of dollars, if you absolutely hate the contents of your bank account and want to get rid of your money as quickly as possible. But the fact is that a skillet is about the simplest thing you can forge out of iron other than a crowbar, and the one you can get down at your local big box store for thirty bucks or less is going to be just as good for actual cooking as some collectible pan that was supposedly used to burn baked beans during the Revolutionary War.
What you’re really looking for is the right size. Part of the point of cast iron pans, as opposed to aluminum or stainless steel, is their even heat dispersal. If you’ve ever tried to cook with a cheap skillet on a janky electric rangetop with small heating elements, and felt the frustration of having half your bacon charred to a crisp and the other half barely browned, you’ll immediately see why this is important. It takes longer for a cast iron pan to heat, but once it does, it’s hot all over, even if it’s much larger than your heating elements.
But the trade off here is that your pan is made of cast iron, the same material they make dumbbells out of. The larger the pan, the heavier it is, which makes it harder to pick up, especially because of the weight distribution of the pan’s shape — it’s like lifting a hammer whose head is made of lead. That can be a problem if, say, you’re trying to take a skillet filled with frying Gulf shrimp and bubbling hot oil off the burner and you drop the pan suddenly, sending that oil all over your kitchen. (This is why surgeons who do skin grafts are never short of work.)
Most people go for either 10″ or 12″ diameter cast-iron skillets, and that’s pretty reasonable. A 12″ is going to weigh around 7.5-8 pounds, which is surprisingly heavy when you actually lift it, but still manageable.
You can buy enameled cast-iron pans, but most hardcore kitchen types regard that much the way a biker gang would regard it if you rolled up to their headquarters riding a Harley with training wheels and little streamers coming off the handlebars. The only reason to coat cast-iron with enamel is so you don’t have to season the pan, and that’s pretty weak sauce.
What the hell does “season the pan” mean?
Like pretty much every badass thing in the world, a good cast-iron pan has to be oiled periodically to keep working properly, and this is called “seasoning the pan”. Basically, you’re applying a coat of vegetable oil to the pan and then baking the oil into the pan’s surface in your oven. This keeps the surface smooth and easy-to-clean — you never, ever put your cast-iron skillet in the dishwasher or even use soap to wash it — and free of rust. A good seasoned pan can simply be wiped clean after use. You should do this immediately when you buy the pan.
After that? Opinions differ. Celebrity chef Alton Brown says you should season your cast-iron pan once a year. The more you cook acidic foods in your pan — like tomato-based dishes — the more often you’ll need to season it.
Using Your Pan
Now that you’ve got the pan, what is it good for? Well, cast-iron pans are great for high temperature dishes like seared ahi tuna steaks. Unlike most modern stovetop pans, they’re also usable in the oven for making cornbread and similar great stuff.
If you’re looking for an easy starter dish to make in our skillet, why not try our own blackened chicken pasta salad? It’s a good excuse to start getting acquainted with your new best friend in the kitchen…a friend that, if you treat it well, you can pass down to your own kids and grandkids someday.