Fat hits a hot cast-iron skillet with sound and fury, sizzling and singing, happy to meet the heat. Between them they make fried chicken, cornbread, cobbler and a range of Southern comfort food.
But it is not the fat that makes cooking in an iron skillet desirable. Iron skillets can be virtually nonstick, requiring very little addition of fat and encouraging a variety of uses. Years of cooking builds up protection, much like nonstick surfaces, by a natural polymer. It is this surface, as well as the sentimental value, that makes Southerners fight for Granny's skillet when she no longer is able to use it.
But it doesn't take years any more. About 10 years ago, Lodge Manufacturing, the only American company to sell cast-iron cookware, began “pre-seasoning” its skillets by coating them with natural vegetable oil before purchase. So the protection is built in.
Iron skillets have many virtues. They heat and cook evenly. (Remember the handle of a skillet gets as hot as the rest of the pan, so use care and hot pads.)
They can last for a lifetime or two and are as good for baking and hearthside cooking as they are for cooking on top of the stove.
They also are virtually indestructible. I say virtually because they are not completely indestructible. Read on.
In the heyday of blackened redfish, Louisiana's Paul Prudhomme was a guest chef at Rich's cooking school in Atlanta, which was part of Rich's department store. He turned the electric burner of the stove to high, set the skillet on top, and let it sit. Meanwhile, he gutted the fish, told us a story or two, and the pan kept heating.
Finally, he dipped the fish in butter and tossed it in the skillet. The cold fish hit the hot pan.
Within minutes, the pan split in two, the butter hit the burner and caused a flurry of smoke sufficient to set off the fire alarm throughout the store, and cause an evacuation of the building.
In addition, avoid large quantities of acid such as canned tomatoes, vinegar, lemon juice and wine as they erode the protective coating, causing a peculiar taste as well.
As for cleaning, Granny probably just wiped out her skillet since she heated it so thoroughly every day, without washing it.
Dishwashers and very hot water are enemies of an iron skillet, as are abrasives such as scouring pads that take away that protective coating in no time. If washing is a must, be sure to thoroughly dry immediately.
Even so, particularly with salt air, iron skillets rust and can pit unless used regularly, so they should be “seasoned” once a year.
If your iron skillet has a place where food sticks or has turned rusty, there are some methods of repair.
To even out the surface when there is a small spot, dip a paper towel in some vegetable oil, then some salt, and rub the small spot until even.
Rinse quickly, and rub oil on the spot until it appears smooth.
If the damage is substantial, such as a completely rusty pan, rinse, dry and use a scouring pad to remove any stubborn rust.
Distilled vinegar also can help. Rub the vinegar all over the pan in a layer. Slip in a plastic bag for 10 minutes or so. Rinse, dry thoroughly and apply a layer of vegetable oil to the pan.
Put upside down on a baking sheet in a cold oven.
Turn the oven on to 325 degrees and leave in the oven for an hour. Repeat oiling again as needed.
Skillet Brussels Sprouts and Small Potatoes
Remember the handle of a skillet gets as hot as the rest of the pan, so use care and hot pads. This is a regular vegetable in my house. — Nathalie Dupree
2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup Brussels sprouts, cut in halves or quarters
1 cup small potatoes, cut in halves or quarters
Freshly ground pepper
Heat an iron or other skillet. Add the vegetable oil, and swirl around quickly in the pan. Add the sprouts and potatoes, and give a quick stir with a large wooden spoon. Cook over high heat until the potatoes are browned and give a quick toss in the pan with the spoon to brown another side of the potatoes. Let the Brussels sprouts char slightly but remove if they seem to be cooking too fast and add back when the potatoes are done. When the potatoes are browned all over and can be pierced with a fork but are still a bit firm, remove the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Upside-Down Apple Batter Cobbler
Serves 4 to 6
When we were small, “upsy daisy” was what my father said when he would toss one of us into the air and turn us upside down. Well, that is what this cobbler does! Use an 11-inch well-seasoned iron skillet for a thinner, tart-like cake. For a thicker cake, use a smaller well-seasoned 9-inch iron skillet. After cooking, cool slightly, cover with a large flat cake plate, invert, and the cake should come out easily. If not, peer under and pry off a bit with a blunt knife. — Nathalie Dupree
1 cup granulated, light or dark brown sugar, divided use
21/2 cups sliced apples
1⁄2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup self-rising flour
1 cup whole milk
Sprinkle half the sugar over the apples and let sit. Add the butter to a 10- or 11-inch iron skillet and slip in the oven as it preheats to 350 degrees. (The butter crisps the edges, so I say “the bigger the pan, the better.” If you prefer a deeper cobbler, a smaller pan may be used.)
Whisk together the flour, milk and remaining sugar. It can be just a bit lumpy. When the butter is melted, remove the hot pan and pour the batter into the bottom of the pan. Don't worry if the batter puffs up a bit on the sides. Sprinkle the apples over the top of the batter.
Bake for 45 minutes, or until the batter has risen around the fruit, the top is light brown, and the sides are darker brown. Serve hot. It can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen. Reheat before serving.
Variation: Add 1 tablespoon chopped candied ginger, 11⁄2 teaspoons ground cinnamon or other favorite spice.
An iron skillet ensures a crisp, brown outside crust of cornbread with a moist interior. — Nathalie Dupree
5 tablespoons melted unsalted butter, bacon drippings, or oil, divided use
1 cup white or yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
11⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
2 large eggs
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Heat an 8- or 9-inch well-seasoned skillet with 2 tablespoons of butter or other fat in a 425-degree oven.
Toss the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda together in a medium to large bowl.
Lightly beat the buttermilk and eggs in a small bowl. Add 3 tablespoons of melted butter into the buttermilk mixture. Fold into the dry ingredients without overmixing.
Remove the pan from the oven, pour batter into the hot pan, filling 3⁄4 full, and bake in the middle of the oven until the top is golden brown, 15 to 10 minutes depending on size. If necessary, run a knife around the outside edge of the skillet to turn out. Turn out onto a rack or plate and serve upside down. Best served warm. May be frozen up to a month. It will crisp up slightly when reheated, but there's nothing like the crispy crust of just-baked bread.
Variation: To make cracklin cornbread, saute store-bought or homemade cracklins or brown 2 ounces diced fatback. Remove with a slotted spoon and add to the batter. Proceed as above.