My friend Megan recently asked me why I like/recommend a cast iron skillet. She has yet to be convinced that it's a necessity in her kitchen and, like many of us, is seeking to simplify her kitchen "stuff." So, why add one more type of pan?
Well, first of all, in all love to my dear friend Megan, she obviously isn't Southern (she has married a Southerner and lives in sweet Virginia now, so surely she's learned this next fact by now): ALL Southerners worth their salt know that you simply cannot make proper cornbread in anything BUT a cast iron skillet. But, perhaps you don't eat much cornbread, or Southern cornbread specifically, or perhaps you don't want to add a skillet just for cornbread making to your already full kitchen.
Here's why I keep a cast iron skillet in my own kitchen and why, if I ever move to a smaller kitchen, it will make "the cut." It honestly is the skillet/pan I use the most.
1. It's truly a multi-purpose skillet. Well-seasoned (and you can buy them already seasoned these days), it works like a nonstick skillet. However, unlike nonstick skillets, it's also ovenproof, holds heat marvelously, and won't "peel" off. This one skillet can double for both your stainless steel skillets and your nonstick skillets.
2. It browns meat better than either a nonstick skillet or a stainless steel one.
3. It actually imparts iron to your food, meaning it works like a vitamin!
4. It's inexpensive, particularly compared to the better nonstick/stainless steel skillets.
5. It will last for decades if cared for properly. It's hard to mess up and not care for properly.
6. Even if you have to store it in plain sight, it will add ambiance to your kitchen.
7. Don't you feel like you're carrying on the great Pioneer legacy of our nation by owning a cast iron skillet?
8. If you do drive-up camping (as opposed to hiking all day and then setting up your tent), you can cook with your skillet over an open flame. I did this a lot with a big cast iron bean pot when I worked at nature camp.
9. It really does make superior cornbread and anything else requiring a golden crust.
10. It can be preheated significantly, especially in the oven. This, incidentally, is what gives cornbread that great crust. It's also a nice trick to roasting a chicken without overcooking the breast meat and so forth.
Now, there are some downsides to the cast iron skillet; there is no perfect solution to the "perfect skillet" question. You may, like me, decide that the downsides are negligible:
- not dishwasher safe
I have several skillets, all Lodge brand, and use them all; the pre-seasoned ones give you a good start to real seasoning/nonstick capability and you can buy them in Wal-Mart in the South. I don't use the pots much because the handles are so darn hot and the pot, once full, is really too heavy for me. The skillet I use the absolute most is the square 10.5-inch one. I have a round 12-inch that I can hardly lift. The 10-inch size is much easier for me. The square shape, though, adds significant volume, so I can cook many things I might have needed a round 12-inch for. It's a great shape to hold 4 grilled cheese sandwiches, 4 pancakes, a big batch of scrambled eggs*, a batch and a half of cornbread, a Dutch apple pancake, a big recipe of stir-fry, a roast to brown, several pieces of chicken to brown and then oven-roast, .... I also have a double griddle that, while heavy, works wonderfully and lets me cook a super batch of pancakes at once or even "grill" inside.
*I've not perfected scrambled eggs in the cast iron skillet, but my hubby has!
Bridgette's Post Script: I use my 12'' round the most often and for us it makes the best pancakes. They are just like the ones at cracker barrel with the buttery seared edges! I also have a small round skillet that I can use to make just one grilled cheese or two scrambled eggs.
I did want to say something about the "not dishwasher safe" note that Betsy made. I have very few things in my kitchen that can't go in the dishwasher including: great knives, stoneware, and cast iron. Unlike the knives both the stoneware and the cast iron can't go in the dishwasher because the soap is too harsh and will take off the great "non-stick" seasoning that is on them. In fact neither one need to be washed with soap at all. Just get some really hot water and a brush to get the food off and you are done. Philip says that he does use soap occasionally to clean the pot and that as long as it is seasoned it is okay.
If you do get the pot really hot, the seasoning can and will come off. It is easy to re-build though, just make a roux :)