"The only real stumbling block is the fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." ~ Julia Child

Let us Now Praise Cast Iron Skillets

by Julie on July 8, 2011

in Crockery, Kitchen Gods and Goddesses

Griswold cast iron skillet #3

Me and my skillet

There was a disagreement, as there often is when people live in close quarters, about who didn’t clean up after dinner. The aggrieved party made her anger known by throwing the unwashed  pots and pans into the trash can. Passive aggressive maybe. But she got her point across.

This was the very early ’90s. I was in grad school in New York, living in a student housing building along the river uptown. The Upper West Side wasn’t yet 100% gentrified, and there were still some dicey blocks. There were two crack houses around the corner from us and several Single Room Occupancy hotels, catering to residents who would spend their days shuffling around muttering to themselves or screaming at each other.  The general rule of thumb was you didn’t go above 122nd street and you didn’t cross Amsterdam Ave.  For the first three months, me and four other young women who had never lived in New York City before would walk together down the middle of the street when coming home in the evenings, for safety, we supposed. This didn’t last long. By the time I graduated a year later I would take the subway at 3 a.m. by myself.

About 15 of us lived in a “suite,” a series of bedrooms surrounding a common living room and kitchen. We practiced the standard methods of communal living: clean up after yourself and do it quickly. No leaving dishes on the stove, or in the sink. Throw away your own greenish leftovers. Take your turn cleaning the bathroom with no grumbling. Always share your People Magazine (coveted relaxation material in a suite full of graduate students) and no questions asked.

So it must have seemed like a shocking breach of protocol for someone to leave her pots and pans on the stove for somebody else to find. Even more shocking that the perp was Christina, an MFA student known for her huge Italian family and excellent cooking skills.

She had apparently been cooking for a friend, and did not clean up right away. Hence the offending sight when another resident, whose study subject I’ve forgotten (political science, maybe?) came home and found what she thought to be a mess on the stove. While Chris and friends ate in her room, she took all the pots and pans on the stove and the dishes in the sink, and dumped them in the trash.

When the yelling started,  I came out of my room to find Chris in the kitchen waving her arms. “I was going to clean up after dinner!” These dishes have been here all night, said the other woman. They’ve been there for an hour, yelled Chris. She started picking through the trashcan and her face screwed up horribly. She pulled a small black iron skillet out of the mess. And that’s when things really got ugly.

“This was my grandmother’s skillet!” she bellowed, waving it menacingly. “How dare you throw it in the trash. This is older than all of us and it will outlast everyone here!”

The subtext: Don’t touch the heirloom, bitch.

A further argument ensued about whether the methods the aggrieved had employed were productive or antagonistic, but I had moved on already.  I certainly didn’t cook, and having lived in apartments since I was 18 I was always quick to volunteer for kitchen duty just to keep the peace.

What I was impressed with, besides the fact that tiny little Christina could get that angry and loud, was with the idea that an iron skillet could last forever, apparently.

Before DuPont invented Teflon in the 1930s, everyone used iron cookware. But of course, iron is heavy and unwieldy, takes some special care to maintain, and generally isn’t optimal for Americans who like their lives uncomplicated and convenient.

A few years later I found one. A Griswold cast iron skilled #3, with the “Erie, PA, U.S.A.” inlaid in the back. It was in grim shape, baked on dirt and not a little rusty, but the flea market guy only wanted $5 for it so I took it home with the idea that I was buying myself an heirloom. The guy told me how to best clean it (it involved gloves and lye…so I went with a scrubber, a small amount of soap and a lot of elbow grease instead.), but I didn’t know I had to “season” it. Chris told me that, of course.

It involved coating it with vegetable oil and baking it in the oven at 350 degrees for an hour.  Everyone has a slightly different method, but this is the basic idea. Because this skilled was many years old and had obviously been well-used, once I cleaned it and re-seasoned it, it was black and smooth and ready to use.

Cool things about iron skillets: They take longer to heat, but once they’re hot, they stay hot, and cook food evenly. Your food takes on more iron the longer you cook it in iron. The more you use your iron skillet, the smoother and better it will become.

I actually like the fact that it takes special care. Just like I’d rather do dishes by hand than use a dishwasher, cleaning my iron skillet after I’ve used it is like a ritual. And yes, I do, in fact, anoint the whole thing with oil (olive) after I wash it and dry it.

Chris and I would go on to become good friends and continue to be in touch to this day. In fact, she’s one of my Kitchen Goddesses.

Here’s how to season your cast iron skillet, direct from the Griswold & Cast Iron Cookware Association:

For use in cooking:
1) Place iron in oven at room temperature.
2) Set oven at 300 degrees; turn on for 2 hours.
3) Lower temperature to 200 degrees for 1 hour.
4) And wipe out with peanut oil, turning up side down on newspaper to cool, after cooling finish by wiping off excess oil.
5) Now you are ready to cook in them and really finish the seasoning process over the next couple years.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Bruce July 8, 2011 at 10:54 am

My beloved cast iron skillet disappeared years ago. I was starting to think about picking up another one. Lodge now has pre-seasoned ones, which I find oddly intriguing…


Bad Home Cook July 8, 2011 at 11:06 am

Heathen! You of all people can’t betray the cause by buying a pre-seasoned iron skillet! No, you have to wander the flea markets of Astoria until you find the iron skillet that speaks to you, bring it home, and lovingly restore it to its glory.
Pre-seasoned. Bah!
Really, Bruce. I’m disappointed…:-)


audrey smith July 8, 2011 at 1:21 pm

A cast iron skillet can also be good for your health. I have been slightly anemic my entire adult life, until I began to cook daily in my beloved skillet. My iron levels are now normal. Thank you sweet skillet!


Jamie July 8, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Thanks BHC! Mom just gave me an heirloom cast iron skillet and I really needed instructions on how to season it. I knew about the oil part but not the oven. I head cast iron is the ONLY way to go when browning meat.


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