As I glide my fingertips across the slick surface, I can’t help but think of the never-ending tales of home cooked meals over the years preserved away in the glossy depths of the cast iron skillet. As the seasons change, I need my cast iron stories to tell of heartwarming, comforting meals. Chilly autumn afternoons are instantly uplifted by hearty soups and stews blipping away on the back burner. Lazy weekend mornings are filled with warm spices as pumpkin pie spice Dutch babies bake in the oven, revealing their duvet like ruffled edges and melted puddles of butter. Impossibility crisp roast chicken heady with the aroma of rosemary and garlic reclines in a skillet along with baby potatoes basking in a pool of gloriously golden chicken renderings. Effortless yet elegant pot pies with the flakiest edges of puff pastry grace the dining table. All of these dishes give thanks to the humble yet precious cast iron skillet. These are the kind of meals that comfort, making one feel whole again.
My love of cast iron is inherited. Growing up, our heirlooms came in the form of glossy smooth cast iron skillets. These gleaming black skillets were permanent fixtures on the stovetops of the kitchens I grew up in. The most precious cast iron in my family belonged to my great great grandmother. I remember the moment I first laid eyes on its glasslike surface, and I thought about the decades of fried doughnuts, cornbread, roux and yeast rolls made in this skillet. The memory of each meal sealed away in its depths, adding layers to its history. When I held the treasured skillet, I felt in a way it had the power to bond me with the great women Southern before me -making me feel part of its legacy.
As a young girl, I was taught to value and respect the skillet. It sears beautifully, it’s essentially nonstick (just make sure you preheat the skillet first), and once the skillet is hot it stays hot. You get the loveliest crust when baking pies and breads in cast iron. It deepens flavors of dishes as it caramelizes or chars whatever is in the skillet beautifully. Because of its ability to withstand blistering hot temperatures, it’s perfect to use on the grill. Also, cast iron can go from the stove to the oven to the table, which means it saves me from washing any extra dishes.
Here are a few tips to keep your cast iron performing beautifully: A well-seasoned skillet—one that is essentially nonstick and has a shiny surface slick from use—can handle acidic foods, but if your skillet is new, acid will strip the seasoning. So, steer clear of anything acidic like vinegars, lemon juice, and tomatoes while you build up your seasoning.
After you are finished cooking in your cast iron, allow it to cool slightly and rinse it under hot water. Scrub with a pan brush until clean. Dry the skillet immediately and place it on the stovetop over medium-low heat. While the skillet is heating up, pour a nickel-size drop of flavorless oil, such as sunflower oil, into the skillet. You don’t need much! Turn the heat off and rub the oil into the surface of the skillet with a paper towel. Let the skillet cool and dry completely before putting it away.
If you have stubborn residue caked onto your skillet, here’s what you do: Place the skillet on medium heat and add water to fill it one-quarter of the way up the side. Once the water begins to boil you will notice the residue releasing from the surface of your skillet. You can use a wooden spatula or spoon to help scrape the bits off the bottom of the skillet. Rinse out the pan. If there is still grime at the bottom, repeat until clean. If necessary, you can use a mild detergent. Just remember to season it afterward.
If you ever do discover a rust spot, don’t fear. Just use a stiff brush dipped in vinegar to scrub it off, let it dry and then rub it with a drop of oil. If you have a skillet that’s been neglected in the deepest darkest part of your cupboards, and it has become gray in color or has a light coating of rust at the bottom, all you have to do is wash the skillet with hot, soapy water, rinse and dry completely. Apply a neutral oil on a paper towel and rub the inside and outside of the skillet with oil. Preheat the oven to 350F. Place a piece of aluminum foil on the bottom rack of the oven to catch any drips and place the skillet upside down on the top rack of the oven. Bake for one hour, turn the oven off and let the skillet cool completely in the oven before storing.
The best advice I can give to keep your cast iron skillet looking and performing beautifully is to use it constantly. This is the perfect time to make strings and strings of heartwarming meals leaving you and your loved ones feeling taken care of, readied to face a lovely season of change.
This post is written in partnership with Whole Foods Market, but all opinions are my own.
Cast Iron Roast Chicken Pot Pie
Buying a whole chicken is more economical and you get extra lovely bits like the backbone. In this recipe, roasting the backbone with the rest of the chicken will add beautiful depth of flavor to the gravy as well as the filling.
1, 3-pound chicken, cut in half, plus backbone
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 slices thick-cut bacon, finely chopped
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Leaves from 1 rosemary sprig, chopped
1 tablespoon thyme leaves, divided, plus more for sprinkling
2 medium carrots, peeled, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 medium leek, thoroughly rinsed, white part only, finely sliced
2 medium parsnips, peeled, chopped
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
1 heaping tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 cups water
¼ cup sour cream
1, 14-ounce package puff pastry, thawed
½ cup shredded white cheddar cheese
Flour, for dusting
1 egg, for brushing
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Lightly season both sides of the chicken with salt. Add the oil to a large deep cast iron skillet and set over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the chicken pieces, skin side down, and panfry until the skin is lightly golden and crispy, 8 to 10 minutes. Flip the chicken and transfer the skillet to the oven, and roast until the chicken is golden brown and fully cooked, about 35-40 minutes.
Meanwhile prepare and chop the vegetables.
Once the chicken has finished roasting, transfer to a plate to cool.
Place the same skillet you roasted the chicken in over medium heat and cook the bacon in the chicken drippings until golden brown.
Add the butter, red pepper flakes, rosemary, and half of the thyme leaves to the pan drippings. Toss in the carrots, celery, leek, parsnips, onion and garlic, making sure to scrape up any bits left over from the bacon. Season the vegetables with salt and black pepper. Cook until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes over medium-low heat.
Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, tear the chicken into bite-size pieces (discard the skin and bones).
Add the chicken and flour to the vegetables. Add the water and bring the filling to a boil over medium heat. Once the mixture thickens slightly, take the skillet off the heat and add the sour cream. Season with salt and pepper. Drain into a large sieve set over a bowl to catch all the lovely gravy.
Meanwhile, on a lightly floured surface, gently unfold the thawed puff pastry. Scatter half of the pastry with cheddar and remaining thyme leaves. Fold the other half of the pastry over itself. Gently roll out the pastry roughly 2” larger than your cast iron skillet. Allow the weight of the knife to gently score the puff pastry in a crisscross pattern.
Place the drained filling back into the skillet, setting the gravy aside for serving.
Gently place the pastry over the filling, tucking in the edges. Beat the egg and gently brush onto the edges and top of the pie.
Place the pie on the lined baking sheet and bake the pie for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 375°F and bake until the pastry is golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. As soon as the pot pie comes out of the oven, sprinkle with top with a few more thyme leaves. (The crisscross pattern on the pastry will create little puddles of melted butter the thyme leaves will gently fry in.)
In a small saucepan, rewarm the gravy over medium-low heat. Serve the pot pie immediately with warm gravy on the side.