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.
Here is the link to my Cast Iron Chicken Pot Pie recipe I created for Whole Foods Market this fall!
This post is written in partnership with Whole Foods Market, but all opinions are my own.