Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Skillet love

Today I stumbled across an article about the basic necessities of a functioning kitchen. But I won't link it for you, because it was useless. Oh, yes, it had some practical advice about knives and sheet pans- but it dismissed cast iron with a single line. "I like cast iron, and I have used it in some kitchens for nearly everything; but it can be more expensive than this quite decent cheap stuff, and it’s very heavy. "

To the author, I say this: You, sir, are no cook. And you can't shop worth a damn.

Whenever one of my friends marries or has a housewarming, I hit the flea markets and thrift shops. Your humble Ornithophobe is not inherently cheap about wedding gifts; there is method to my madness. A "new" cast iron skillet is both expensive and ill-made. Its surface is microscopically pockmarked and uneven. That will show in your cooking, as no amount of seasoning will completely eradicate sticking to such a surface.

No, for my gift-skillets, I look for the battle-hardened veterans of cookery. The older, the better. A bit of rust doesn't frighten me. Time and again, I've dug up the skillets of your great-grandmothers, moldering in boxes at yard sales, or collecting dust on thrift shop shelves. The most I've ever paid for one is a ten dollar bill- but I've also found an egg skillet for a quarter. Right now, on Ebay, there are dozens available in the under 20.00 range, some sitting unbid at 99 cents and no reserve. Lovely Griswolds and Wagners, and lots of nameless beauties waiting to be returned to service. Just watch out for the shipping!

Anyway... once you find your skillet, you need to restore it- take the gunk off, strip it down to bare metal. A go on self-clean in your oven will do for the nastiest ones, but most can be taken care of with a plastic scrubby and copious quantities of hot water. Salt makes a good abrasive in a pinch. Once it's stripped, it needs reseasoning. Rub the warm skillet down in a thin layer of lard and bake it for a few hours. Repeat this step two or three times, before welcoming your skillet back to work. The first thing you should cook in it is a nice bunch of bacon; it'll work wonders for the smoothness of the finish. Then maybe fry up some chicken and give it a proper workout. If you've done the job right, the finish will be smooth, not lumpy, and the surface will not be tacky to the touch. (Tacky means too much uncarbonised fat; strip and start over.) A good skillet is a deep black in color, with a glossy inner bottom. To keep it that way, wash in HOT water and spare the soap- it won't really hurt your skillet but it damages the seasoning.

I do most meats in my skillets, but they're also indispensable for corn bread, eggs, sauteed vegetables... they even make good cake pans. (Try pulling off pineapple upside down cake without one. Go on, I dare you.) And nothing caramelises sugar faster than cast iron. I'd no sooner try to cook in a kitchen with no cast iron than I'd try to cook without, oh, I dunno... food.

No comments: