The Best Things to Cook in Your Cast-Iron Skillet
Winner winner, skillet dinner.
There’s a reason that cast-iron pans are a sought-after purchase — or find at garage sales and thrift shops — and why chefs and home cooks take great care to maintain their pans’ condition: A cast-iron pan is your kitchen’s ultimate workhorse. From achieving the perfect sear on steaks to evenly baking a batch of fluffy cornbread, your cast-iron skillet can make just about anything. Cast-iron pans are heavy-duty, too. Literally. Their heft and sturdy finish mean that they won’t chip or scratch or wear out like other cookware.
What’s so extra special about cast-iron pans is that they only get better with time as they get more seasoned. In this case, seasoning has nothing to do with flavor. Instead, it refers to the oil that gets baked into the pan over time. This keeps your pan rust-free and creates a natural non-stick finish.
You can buy your pan pre-seasoned to give yourself a head start (foods may still stick to your pan a little initially). The more frequently you cook with your cast-iron pan, the quicker you’ll build up its seasoning and the more easily foods will release from the pan.
If you buy your pan un-seasoned, you’ll have to take an extra step to season it before use. Scrub and wash the pan in hot, soapy water, then, using a paper towel, wipe it with neutral oil (like corn, vegetable or canola) and bake it in a hot oven, around 30 minutes at 450 degrees or an hour at 375 degrees (repeat a couple of times).
Maintenance is key: clean the pan while it’s still hot if you can (a little soap and warm water should do it, but try not to scrub away any of the seasoning layer), heat it on the stove just before it starts to smoke, and wipe the pan with a paper towel and a small amount of oil. Let it cool completely before storing.
We love our cast-iron skillets as our kitchen workhorse, and have a whole guide to 10 great things to make in your own cast-iron skillet. But here's a breakdown of what it can do, and what to try.
Because cast iron is such a dense metal, it may take a little bit longer to heat, but it boasts a superior ability to maintain its temperature once it’s hot. That consistent heat makes cast-iron pans ideal for searing proteins and achieving that coveted outer “crust” in dishes like Katie Lee’s Cast-Iron Skillet Porterhouse Steak. It also helps with even browning in dishes like Cast-Iron Skillet Provencal Pork Chops and Potatoes (pictured up top). Bonus: Your cast-iron pan goes easily from the stove top to the oven to help finish cooking proteins after you get the perfect sear or initial browning.
Cast-iron pans make weeknight cooking a snap when used in brilliant, hearty one-pan recipes such as Cornbread Topped Cast-Iron Skillet Chili (pictured), Skillet Bibimbap Pizza or Cast-Iron Skillet Quick Cassoulet. Winner, winner, skillet dinner.
A consistently hot pan makes cast-iron pans ideal for frying proteins, too. Be sure to use a large deep-dish skillet, and always lay protein in away from you to avoid splatters. Since cast-iron pans are notorious for hot spots, rotate the pan as it heats to ensure even heat distribution. Try frying up a batch of classic Fried Chicken or Ree Drummond’s Southern-inspired Pan Fried Pork Chops.
Finished Cast-iron Carrots with Curry, as seen on Food Network's Heartland Table, Season 2,Chef Name: Amy ThielenFull Recipe Name: Cast-Iron Carrots With CurryTalent Recipe: Amy Thielen's Cast-Iron Carrots With Curry as seen on Amy Thielen's Heartland TableFNK Recipe: Project: Foodnetwork.com, Back to School/Sandwich Central/Dinner and a Movie/SidesShow Name: Heartland TableEpisode: On the IceFood Network / Cooking Channel: Food Network,Chef Name: Amy Thielen Full Recipe Name: Cast-Iron Carrots With Curry Talent Recipe: Amy Thielen's Cast-Iron Carrots With Curry as seen on Amy Thielen's Heartland Table FNK Recipe: Project: Foodnetwork.com, Back to School/Sandwich Central/Dinner and a Movie/Sides Show Name: Heartland Table Episode: On the Ice Food Network / Cooking Channel: Food Network
Renee Comet, 2013,Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved
Cast iron is also excellent for caramelizing ingredients, especially when concentrating the sugars in produce as with these Cast-Iron Carrots with Curry (pictured) or Damaris Phillips’ Pineapple Upside-Down Cake.
Speaking of cake, a well-seasoned pan is ideal for baking, too, since it has built up a finish that helps release baked goods easily. Your cast iron skillet can evenly bake a pan of Alex Guarnaschelli’s Cornbread that’s crisp outside and fluffy inside and will nicely crisp up the crust in this Skillet Deep-Dish Pizza.
What can’t it do?
Is there anything it can’t do? Lodge, one of the oldest makers of cast-iron pans, recommends that you avoid cooking highly acidic foods like beans, tomatoes and citrus juices in them because they can potentially strip your pan’s seasoning and cause it to become discolored. They’re not completely off-limits, though: just wait until your cast-iron pan is highly seasoned to cook things like tomato sauce or deglaze a pan with wine for pan sauce.