Iron Chef: Cast Iron Is the Original Nonstick Surface

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Devotees of cast-iron cookware are fond of calling it “the original” nonstick pan. But it wasn’t until I lived in Alabama that I came to appreciate the hardworking charms of a humble cast-iron skillet. Southern home cooks are particularly attached to their cast iron, which is often passed down from their mamas and which years of cooking have endowed with a gorgeous dark seasoned patina that’s an amazing stick-resistant surface.

cast-iron-cookwareCooks prize cast iron because it heats slowly and evenly and retains heat better than just about any other material. It’s great for high-heat cooking, to sear a steak or scallops, for instance. A deep skillet is ideal for frying chicken.

If you happen to have a cast-iron skillet languishing in the back of your cupboard, now’s the time to rescue it form obscurity and re-season it. If your mom didn’t pass along a family skillet, get one now. It’s a small investment (about $20) for an heirloom-quality piece of cookware. You can find cast-iron pots and pans at any housewares store and many hardware stores, or online. Most new cast-iron pans come preseasoned and ready to cook. But even those will need occasional re-seasoning when you notice  food starts sticking to the pan.

There are nearly as many ways to season cast-iron cookware as there are cooks, and everyone swears theirs  is the One True Method. Some cooks swear by animal fat (i.e., lard) for seasoning; others say you should never use animal fat. Some sources say you must bake the oiled pot in a high oven; others advocate a low oven. This is the method an Alabama friend shared with me:

  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  • Generously coat a clean skillet with fat (I like canola oil, which has a neutral flavor). Rub the pan with a paper towel to blot up any excess oil.
  • Bake the pan the oven for about an hour.
  • Remove the pan from the oven. Let it stand until it’s cool enough to handle. Reapply oil and bake again. You can repeat the oiling/baking process several times, if you like.

If you use, clean and store your cast-iron properly, you’ll rarely need to re-season it:

  • Always preheat the pan and add a little fat to it before adding any food.
  • While the pan is still warm, but cool enough to handle, clean it by rinsing it with hot water (no soap necessary) and (if needed) scrubbing it with a stiff brush. If any food does cling to the surface, sprinkle it with coarse salt, and scrub it off. Some people say you should never use dish soap, though the folks at Lodge say it’s OK. In any case, never put a cast-iron pan in the dishwasher. Dry the pan immediately and thoroughly to prevent rust.
  • Apply a thin layer of oil to the pan’s interior, and store it uncovered. If you need to store a lid with it, or stack other pans on top of it, place a clean folded paper towel in the pan to allow a little air to circulate.

If you’ve got an old cast-iron pan that needs restoring, here’s an easy method from Lodge (yes, it’s not exactly the same as the method above, but remember, there’s room for variation):

And don’t forget to use your pan often. The more you cook with it, the better seasoned it will be and the less often you’ll need to re-season it!

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Skillet Corn Bread with Tomatoes and Sage

When I think of cast-iron skillets, corn bread immediately comes to mind. In the Deep South, many home cooks have a skillet handed down from their mamas that they use just for corn bread. This version is inspired by James Beard Award-nominated Birmingham, Ala., chef Frank Stitt, author of Frank Stitt’s Southern Table (Artisan). He says corn bread should be a savory side dish and dismisses sweetened versions as a “Yankee invention.” Our rendition includes No Work Slow Roasted Tomatoes,* fresh corn and sage for extra flavor and texture. Try it with Kurt’s Iowa City Chili.

Skillet Corn Bread with Tomatoes and Sage


Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Yield: Serves 8

Skillet Corn Bread with Tomatoes and Sage


  1. 1-1/2 cups cornmeal
  2. 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  3. 1 teaspoon baking powder
  4. 3/4 teaspoon sea salt
  5. 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  6. 3/4 cup 1% low-fat milk
  7. 3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk
  8. 2 tablespoons canola oil
  9. 1 tablespoon butter
  10. 1 large egg
  11. 1/4 cup chopped No Work Slow Roasted Tomatoes OR sun-dried tomatoes
  12. Kernels from 1 ear of fresh corn (watch this video to learn how to cut corn kernels off the cob)
  13. 2 teaspoons minced fresh sage


Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Place a 10-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven; preheat 5 minutes.

Whisk together first 5 ingredients in a large bowl. Slowly whisk in milk and buttermilk.

Remove skillet from oven. Add oil and butter; return to the oven and heat until very hot, about 5 minutes.

Remove skillet from oven. Swirl to combine oil and butter. Pour all but 1 tablespoon of the oil/butter mixture into cornbread mixture, and stir to combine. Stir in the egg. Add tomatoes, corn and sage, stirring just until combined. Scrape batter into hot skillet. Bake 20 minutes or until deep golden-brown.

*Cooking an acidic ingredient like tomatoes in a cast-iron skillet can impart an “off” flavor, but in this case, the batter coats the tomatoes so they don’t come directly into contact with the skillet.

  • http://seedsareplantedandwaitingforfertizler francine

    Has anyone used iron skillet on a solid surface range top?

    • Jesse

      Cast iron works well on ceramic cooktops. Like anything else, they’re a little slower to preheat. But cast iron has such mass that it retains the heat well, minimizing temperature drop when you first load the pan with cold food. This same characteristic of cast iron makes it slow to cool even over a gas flame, so the slight decrease in responsiveness with a ceramic top is not noticeable.

      One design element to think about: some cast iron pans have a raised ring on the base. Ceramic cooktops work best with flat-bottom pans so the whole surface is in contact with the range top. Look for that if you’re buying new cast iron.

  • robert forrester

    I totally agree on the beauty of cooking with cast iron. By far a much better investment than fuming non-sticks – I would not recommend using non-stick with high heat ever. BTW i find non-sticks get ruined in disher, so there goes another suposed advantage. Another thing to make clean up easier is to leave the cast-iron to soak with hot water (only) overnight. Use paper towel to wipe up as much grease as you can first.
    You can find old cast iron pots/pans in flea markets, consignment stores, etc. Go to Google lots of cast iron lovers out there. Also I would recommend cleaning and re-season antique items before use. Use steel wool and soap to thoroughly scour back down to virgin iron. Then, this is a tip from France, pre-season your pot by first boiling potato skins in it. Rinse, dry thoroughly and then season with oil as above. Also I find that with enamelware, if you’ve made the mistake of dishering it, seems to wreck the surface (disher as in dishwasher), you can season this surface as above too.