The Secret of Cast Iron Skillets

Even, easy cooking — even on the go

© Olga Kriger |

Though it runs counter to common sense, I’m about to attempt to convince you to bring a cast-iron skillet on your next vacation.

To be clear, I’m not recommending you pack a Lodge pan in your carry-on. This pan goes on a road trip to a rental cabin, or car camping. And here’s why: rentals come supplied with cooking gear, but the pans are usually cheap, flimsy, and unforgiving. One space out and dinner is scorched. On a camping trip, cast-iron skillets can handle a campfire’s extremes of heat. It gathers heat slowly, but holds it well.

If you don’t have a cast-iron skillet at home, you need one. Cast iron is hands-down the best value in cookware. It’s inexpensive (a 12-inch skillet will run you about $35, and you can do better at yard sales and thrift shops). Well-seasoned (more on that later), they are naturally nonstick, with none of the potentially harmful chemicals that comprise nonstick coatings. With care, your skillet can outlast you and your children. Most importantly, you can cook certain foods better in cast iron than any other material. Fried chicken. Cornbread. Fried eggs. Pork chops. Steaks. Shrimp. Burgers. Bacon. The tastiest foods in the world are even tastier when cooked in cast iron.

About seasoning. A polymerized coating (a fancy name for oil that has bonded with metal) prevents foods from sticking to the iron. Once upon a time, you had to season new pans, but now you can buy them pre-seasoned. But even those pans can use a boost from the following procedure. And if you find one at a yard sale, or someone makes the grievous mistake of washing yours with soap, here’s what you do.

First, clean off any crusty gunk by scrubbing with water and kosher salt. Dry it completely, then rub it down with a paper towel soaked in canola, corn, or vegetable oil. Put it in a 450-degree oven for a half-hour (it will smoke), then let cool. It’s best if you do this oil-and-oven process several times before you cook with it, but if you’re desperate, try some bacon.

To maintain your pan, use it often, dry it thoroughly, and oil from time to time. Wash it only with hot water. Use a gentle nonmetal scrubby or a little kosher salt if food is stuck to the pan.
You might notice the dishes best cooked in a skillet are also mostly quick, easy preparations, i.e., perfect vacation foods. Here’s a recipe for those of you heading to the Gulf Coast for spring break. Of course, a visit to a grocery that stocks fresh seafood can do for the rest of us. You can cook this in the oven, on the stovetop, or over a campfire. Taste it and you’ll want to make it every day.


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