How (and Why) to Cook with a Cast Iron Skillet

This is your kitchen's toughest, most versatile work horse. Learn how to get the most of it.

When people talk about manliness, they usually talk about beards, booze, sports, sex, or a particular brand of pomade. Well, we've got one more entry for that list: cast-iron cookware.

Whether you envision a member of the Han Dynasty harvesting salt in 100 BC or a buck skinned trapper crackling bacon in the American West, you’re seeing the same technology: molten iron poured into a mold and solidified into a single pan.

How to Make Mouthwatering Cast Iron Fried Chicken

You've had fried chicken before. But you've never had fried chicken that tastes this good.

But you can’t taste nostalgia, so there must be other reasons that a reason that a heavy, black, rough-edged cast iron skillet feels good in our hands. Probably the same reasons why the pans have invaded home and cooking blogs in the last few years – and been the campfire standard for two thousand years. Such as:

It's Campfire-Ready

Your teflon may be great indoors, but it won’t play well with a campfire. But a cast iron skillet? Put it in the coals and slap in some pork chops.

Is that a young Russell Crowe, making all the campsite ladies swoon? Oh no, that’s just you.

It Gets (and Stays) Really Damn Hot

The fact that it’s literally a hunk of metal means cast iron conducts heat like crazy. The steady, spitting level of heat that one of these can produce means you can sear foods like a pro chef without overcooking the interior.

Try it for a deeply charred crust on your medium-rare steak, or extra crispy fried eggs with still-runny yolks.

It Only Improves with Age

No layers of teflon to get scraped off, no screws to loosen or rust, no plastic to crack. You buy one, and the more you cook, the more seasoned it gets. More seasoning equals less food stuck to the pan.

It's Crazy Versatile

You can put cast iron on the stove, in the oven, on a campfire or a grill. Since it’s all one material, and a very resilient one at that, heat it up any way you want.

How to Season a New Skillet

Seasoning a skillet sounds a lot tastier than it actually is.

Basically, you're treating the skillet with oil so food doesn’t stick to it. You add some oil, heat the pan up so hot that said oil is semi-permanently fused with the metal, and voila: a somewhat nonstick surface.

Even if you buy a pre-seasoned cast iron skillet, you’ll want to hit that again, ensuring your first meal isn’t indelibly fused to the pan, wasting time, and possibly bacon or some other precious jewel of the gods. The process is easy, but will take a couple hours.

Here's what to do:

  1. Wash the skillet with dish soap and water. Normally, you don’t wash with soap, since it can break down the seasoning. But you’re about to season anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

  2. Dry the skillet thoroughly with a towel. Do not now or ever let that puppy air dry, or it will rust.

  3. Heat your oven to at least 450 degrees.

  4. Using a paper towel, coat the entire skillet, inside and out, with a thin layer of oil. Don’t use olive oil – it has a lower smoke point, which means it breaks down at a lower temperature. That isn't ideal unless you like filling your kitchen with smoke and your lungs with unhealthy particles every time you cook. The conventional wisdom is that you want to season with something that has a very high smoke point, like avocado oil or refined safflower oil, so that the seasoning won't smoke as much even when you cook on high heat. Some folks also swear by flaxseed oil, which has a lower smoke point but hardens into an especially tough seasoning. But plain old vegetable oil works fine, too.

  5. Put the skillet upside down in the oven, with a baking sheet underneath to catch drippings. That way, the oil won't pool up in the bottom of the pan and create an uneven surface as it hardens.

  6. Leave it in the oven for one hour.

  7. Take it out. Some experts say you can stop here, but others suggest repeating the oil/heat process a few more times. It won’t hurt to oil it again, so if you have time, do it.

You're now ready to go. The more you cook, the more oil will smooth into the pan's surface, so food will stick to it less and less.

For your first time out, consider cooking something really fatty in there, like bacon. The reason for this is twofold: Number one, the resulting bacon fat will help get seasoning process off to a good start. Number two, you get to eat bacon.

How Not to Ruin Your Skillet

When something is a couple thousand years old, advice tends to accumulate. In the case of the cast iron skillet, this advice has grown to legendary, and often conflicting, proportions.

This tends to scare people away from using it at all. Take heart. This is made of cast iron. You can only screw it up in a couple of ways, and even if you do manage to do any of these, it's far from a big deal.

  • Don’t let your skillet air dry. As you learned in fourth grade, metal rusts.

  • Don’t gouge or scour your skillet with metal utensils or steel wool. Honestly, that’s a pretty good policy for most of your belongings.

  • Avoid cooking super acidic foods like tomato- or vinegar-based sauces in your skillet, or it'll break down your seasoning. Plus, I mean, heartburn – am I right?

  • Use soap rarely and in moderation, as using aggressive formulas with harsh scrubbing can take off the seasoning. Stick with hot water, a scrubbing pad and dishcloth or sponge, then dry it thoroughly and reapply a thin layer of vegetable oil. Not using soap skeeves some people out, but people have been doing this for a while, and it works just fine. That’s science.

What to Cook in Your Skillet

Almost anything. Really. But of course, there are standout dishes, that work best: foods that benefit from an intense level of sustained heat.

  • Steaks, pork chops, and any similar cuts where you want intense char and a medium-rare inside. You can also brown a roast or leg of tough meat you want to braise – you’ll go from raw to crackled deliciousness in minutes, with no gross gray period in between.

  • Stir fries and blackened vegetables. They react well to intense, spitting heat to bring out natural flavors and bright colors, while locking in moisture.

  • Burgers. With a ripping hot pan, you can smash down a puck of ground beef and let it develop a crispy, flavor-packed crust.

  • Fried anything. When people think good ole down home cast iron cooking, mouthwatering fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, fried [fill in any food here] in a nice bed of hot oil top the list.

So there you go, Danny Boone. Now you know how to work one of the oldest and most versatile cooking implements in the world. Great for camping, and great if you can’t grill at your apartment.

Your kitchen will smell amazing, and the ghosts of pioneers and Medieval chefs will surround you as you work your magic. Actually that’s pretty creepy. Never think about that. Just fry your chicken in peace.

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