Much Ado About Cast Iron

A recipe and musings about how cast iron skillets became the stuff of legends

I missed what sparked the social media discourse surrounding cast iron skillets last week, but judging by the 280-character hot takes from Food Media Twitter, I’m guessing it had to do with the hyped up mythology surrounding how to use and care for cast iron skillets.

If you’re not familiar with this hotly debated topic, let me try to summarize. Of all of the equipment you’ll find in a kitchen, cast iron skillets are the most mysterious, not because they are out of the ordinary — they’re skillets for goodness sake — but because of the mystique we impose upon them. There are some home chefs that choose to ritualize their cast iron skillet use, and have strict rules about how to season them, how to cook with them, and, probably the most contentious issue of all, how to clean them.

In a recent article I published with USA TODAY 10Best, I joked that some people’s tips for cast iron care sound like some sort of incantation — “clean your cast iron skillet with coarse salt and a lemon wedge during the waxing moon, but not on a Monday or while it’s raining lest it become haunted by the spirits of bad meals past and rust into oblivion.” Sounds outlandish but sometimes people’s cast iron skillet tips really are that specific. Not only that, but those tips vary drastically. Everybody has different ideas of how cast iron skillets should be used which I’ve seen cause actual fights — not fisticuff fights, but red-faced yelling matches that irreversibly damage friendships.

All of this tends to enshroud cast iron skillet cooking in a veil of elitism. Food is often used as a status symbol and it sometimes feels like the language around cast iron skillets is engineered solely to elevate ones own cooking prowess. The result makes the whole cast iron cooking genre seem inaccessible, intimidating newcomers.

But cast iron skillets are not that big of a deal. They are incredibly versatile — they can be used for baking, cooking, searing meats, browning vegetables — and they are incredibly durable (they’re cast iron). According to Peter Huntley, the owner and maker behind Stargazer Cast Iron in Allentown, Pennsylvania you can absolutely use soap on your cast iron skillets. Kat Kinsman, Senior Editor with Food & Wine Magazine (she also has a masters degree in metalsmithing) says soap is not going to ruin your cast iron skillet. People are so afraid of losing the “seasoning,” which is essentially just polymerized oil baked onto the skillet’s surface, but the reality is the seasoning is constantly coming and going while you’re cooking, and you can always reseason your skillet.

How Legends Are Born

The stuff of legends is a simple equation. An average person has mastery over an average object which results in miraculous feats. Think of King Arthur pulling the Excalibur sword from the stone or the Pied Piper luring rats with his music. Cast iron skillets fit perfectly into this equation. A beloved family member wielded a cast iron skillet and would magically make your favorite dish perfectly every time.

Cast iron skillets are old school. They fell out of popularity thanks to the rise of aluminum cookware and for a few of generations cast iron skillets weren’t used in most kitchens. But there was a time when cast iron skillets were a crucial part of every meal. They fed settlers headed west on the Oregon Trail, fueled gold miners during the Gold Rush, and nourished families during the Great Depression. Because these pans are so sturdy, they often get passed down through the generations, becoming an heirloom that harkens back to a time of rugged individualism. Cast iron skillets have a level of resilience that matches that of the cooks who once used them and when we take on the responsibility and power of a cast iron skillet, we, too, are taking part in a time-honored tradition, adding our seasoning to the seasoning that came before us.

I think this is where a lot of cast iron lore comes from. A lot of people’s nostalgia for cast iron skillets stems from a relative cooking up amazing comfort foods with their trusty cast iron skillet. So many of those legendary family dishes — like cornbread, fried chicken, casseroles, etc. — are tied to meaningful moments in our lives, and part of recreating those memories is not just making those dishes, but using the same methods and equipment our relatives used as well. We don’t want to lose any of that magical seasoning that has been baked into the pan over time. Some believe that that infamous seasoning is the key to making grandma’s special cast iron lasagna. To lose that seasoning is to lose ties with what we hold near and dear to our hearts, hence the great lengths we go to protect our precious skillets.

Chances are the cast iron cleaning advice we got when the skillet was passed down to us was given to us by our relatives who were likely also trying to maintain the skillet’s seasoning from their relatives. The cast iron skillets as well as advice become part of our family lore — a ritual that has been passed down through the generations and it keeps us connected to who we are and where we’ve come from.

But like all traditions, they change over time. Seasoning is constantly coming and going. Eventually, the more you use your grandmother’s cast iron skillet, the more your own seasoning will take the place of her seasoning. Someday, in the eyes of those who come after you, you’ll be seen as the infamous wielder of the cast iron skillet. To your future relatives you and your cast iron skillet will become the stuff of legends.

I feel for people who are passionate about their cast iron skillets. But, friend, you’re not the Mandalorian and your cast iron skillet isn’t made of Beskar (though arguably, it is probably just as strong). What you think “is the way” may not be the way for others. So you do your thing and let people do theirs.

Old is New Again

The resurgence of cast iron skillet debates is thanks to their infamous comeback to the American kitchen. I’m not a person who grew up with cast iron skillets, so the pans in my collection are new purchases, but I’m excited for them to become family heirlooms someday. The newest addition to my kitchen is the Stargazer Cast Iron skillet made locally in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I got a chance to talk to the company’s owner, Peter Huntley, about some of the design decisions he made when developing his cast iron skillet. As a collector of antique cast iron skillets, he like the old fashioned smooth finish, which, when he was designing his skillet, wasn’t a common feature in new skillets. So he brought that old timey detail back, pairing it with a forked handle, to help keep the handle from getting too hot, along with a larger helper handle.

It’s a beautiful cast iron skillet. So much so that I just keep it on my stove rather than putting it away. Lately, I’ve been baking with it — I used it to make the blue cornbread from my new Thanksgiving traditions newsletter, and even made this gorgeous apple galette!

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It’s also perfect for making one pan meals. This past summer, I used one of my cast iron skillets to make chicken yassa, a West African dish seen mostly in Senegalese cuisine, which I covered in my Ode to Onions published in Kitchen Aid Stories.

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Lately though, I’ve been on a frittata blitz. Eggs are the perfect vehicle for any veggie you may have lurking around your refrigerator. Got some old tomatoes? Add them to your frittata! How about a zucchini that’s starting to shrivel up? Cut up that bad boy and throw it in your frittata!

This frittata recipe is my attempt at trying to channel the vibes of summer. It brings in summer’s finest veggies with the grassy, savory, almost pickle-like flavor of dill. I’ve been eating this frittata for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!

Summertime Frittata

  • 1 small zucchini

  • a handful of cherry tomatoes

  • 1/3 cup of corn

  • 6 eggs

  • 1/4 cup of milk

  • salt and pepper

  • dill

1.) Heat up your cast iron skillet and add oil to the bottom of the pan. Preheat your oven to 350°F.

2.) Cut up your zucchini and cut your cherry tomatoes in half longways.

3.) Once the pan is hot, add your zucchini and cherry tomatoes, stirring every once in a while to evenly cook the vegetables.

4.) When the skin of the cherry tomatoes begins to shrivel, add the corn. Stir the vegetables in the pan.

5.) Wisk together milk, eggs, salt, pepper, and dill.

6.) Add the mixture of milk and eggs to the skillet and immediately stir gently once to make sure the mixture covers the entire pan.

7.) Leave the skillet on the stove until the eggs begin to bubble slightly. Once you see bubbles, remove it from the stove and put it into the oven for 8 to 10 minutes.

8.) Remove the frittata from the oven after 8 to 10 minutes or when the edges are golden and the egg mixture at the center of the frittata is firm.


New Project:

I’m hosting a new digital series on WHYY called Delishtory, where I dive into the history of food, sharing the stories you’ve never heard of about some of our favorite dishes. The first three episodes are out now! If you like the show and want to give us a shoutout or have constructive critiques, let us know with this survey! Your feedback will help us as we begin planning future episodes!

Listening:

Tony Trov and Johnny Zito are lifelong friends born and raise in South Philadelphia. They are two of the most creative minds in the city that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. They’ve produced movies together, created art together, opened the South Fellini store together, and now they’re co-hosting and producing a podcast about all things Philadelphia. Legends of Philadelphia goes through pivotal moments in Philadelphia’s cultural history. From the stories behind landmarks like the Moshulu and the Divine Lorraine to historic moments like the Philadelphia Experiment and Philadelphia’s ongoing war on Christmas, the podcast covers the iconic people, moments, and landmarks that make Philadelphia the city that it is today.

Watching:

If you were a fan of Nathan for You, then you’re going to love How To with John Wilson on HBOMax. The show is random shots of New York City through the eyes of John Wilson accompanied by voice over of his inner thoughts and impressions of what he’s experiencing in those moments. It’s absolutely hilarious, very clever, and beautifully written. Nothing gets me more excited than good writing paired with absurdity. I watched the show as new episodes dropped weekly and after 6 episodes, I found myself wanting more. Turns out, John Wilson has a Vimeo where he has nearly a decade’s worth of his work on display. Most of the videos are the same mundane documentary style of the show. Funny enough, the first video he uploaded from March of 2012 is How to Clean a Cast Iron Pan. It has almost nothing to do with cast iron skillets, but sometimes the rules with cast iron skillets also have nothing to do with cast iron skillets.


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Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY's Check, Please! Philly, a television show that spotlights restaurants throughout the Philadelphia region. She also hosts and helps write Delishtory on WHYY, a digital series that dives into the history of foods we love. Kae Lani is also a food and travel writer who enjoys exploring the history and culture of cuisine.