by Maggie Brendan
From the time I was old enough to fry an egg and long before Teflon coated frying pans, we used a cast iron skillet for cooking. Being raised in the South, I know from experience, that any Southern woman worth her salt owned a standard 10 inch cast iron skillet for making cornbread. It can also be used to fry up a batch of fish or fried chicken, sweet potatoes, pancakes, or you can fry a hamburger, sear meat or make an omelet in it. I use
mine to whip up delicious gravy, too. As a young girl just learning to cook, I thought the skillet was heavy. It was. The weight helps cook food evenly even when used over high heat. It can be used on the top of the stove or in the oven. The best cornbread you’ll taste, is made in the cast iron skillet.
The cast iron gives a distinctive flavor to every dish prepared in it, but we benefit from the iron it imparts, especially when cooking acidic foods. I simmer my spaghetti sauce in a cast iron Dutch oven for added dietary source of iron. Cast iron has been around for centuries, beginning with the three legged black cauldron and used over the open fire. Back then, cooking was done over the fireplace or hearth. In the late 1800’s, cast iron cookware became very popular.
It’s extremely durable cookware in the kitchen, but there are fast and hard rules about the use and care of cast iron. When you purchase a new skillet, which is usually medium gray, it must be seasoned first before using. Wash the skillet in hot sudsy water, then dry thoroughly. Using a paper towel, simply coat the outside and inside of the skillet with a little cooking oil. Next, slide it into the oven and allow to bake an hour at 250 degrees. Every time you use it, it will continue to darken and after years will turn black, thus keeping food from sticking to its sides. This is the mark of a well used skillet. Clean your skillet after use with warm water while it’s still hot, scraping away any food particles, but NEVER use soap or scouring pads—that will break down the seasoning of your cast iron. Always dry your cast iron thoroughly and store it without a lid. Many times I would dry mine by simply placing it on the cook top and turning on the flame for a second or two. That’s a trick my mother taught me. If rust should appear, just simply re-season it.
You can tell when your skillet is hot and ready to use by dropping a bit of water onto its surface and it sizzles. When I make cornbread, I place a teaspoon of bacon grease in the bottom and put it in a 450 degree oven and when it’s hot, pour the batter in. That makes a nice crusty bottom on your cornbread.
This picture shows most of my set of cast iron that I’ve collected and cooked many a meal in through the years. The skillet on the left, inside the big 12” skillet, was one my mother’s. She had three or four of them and we divided them amongst us when she died. It represented the legacy of her great southern cooking and tradition, and I wouldn’t take a million bucks for her skillet that I still use to this day. The small cauldron in the foreground is one from a set used for chili.
It was said that Lewis and Clark wrote on their expedition, that an important tool was a Dutch oven, and George Washington’s mother bequeathed her cast iron in her will. I seasoned a skillet for each of my children and gave it to them when they were married. Mine will no doubt be an heirloom passed on to them when I’m gone. Treat your skillet well, and it will give you a lifetime of use and compliments on your cooking, too! Its pitch black color makes me proud because it symbolizes years of MY cooking and a well loved utensil. The cast iron skillet is truly a symbol of my Southern heritage and a part of who I am.
Happy cooking on along your trails…