Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Humble Iron Skillet

Cast iron cookware always brings back fond memories of my Kentucky-born-and-bred grandmother cooking bacon in her ancient, 10-inch iron skillet. One day, however, it was Grandpa who caught me washing the skillet with the rest of the dishes and nearly had a heart attack.

"Never wash an iron skillet with soap!!!!" he wailed.

Though it is said that one may use a non-grease-cutting detergent to wash iron cookware, my uncle taught me how the old-timers used to scour their iron pans without soap at all.
  1. Lay out four paper towels or clean rags (flannel, terry, or other absorbent material)
  2. Use one towel/rag to wipe out any excess fat or other loose food particles; use a metal spatula to scrape out as much gunk as possible
  3. Fill the pan with hot water and let it soak for a few minutes to soften the food remains
  4. Pour out the water leaving the pan damp
  5. Sprinkle liberally with table salt (use the cheap stuff for this job)
  6. Use another towel/rag to scrub the pan with the salt (you may need to repeat the above steps again if there is any stubborn grime)
  7. Rinse the pan with hot water and either dry it with another towel/rag or let it sit over a flame on the stove until thoroughly dry
  8. Put a dab of oil or other cooking fat in the pan and rub it in well with another towel/rag
I use this procedure any time a previous cook (usually one of the kids) leaves a messy pan or when one becomes rusty (that's what happens when you leave water standing in them - never soak iron cookware).

Another good tip: If your pans have a lot of blackened build-up on them or you find one with this problem cheap at a yard sale, just take it to your next wiener roast and stick it in the flames. Next morning, after the embers have cooled, take the pan out and re-season it according to the instructions above. This should burn off most of the hard, black stuff. Never discard iron cookware because of rust, scratches, ugly build-up, or seemingly other defects. Just scrub it up, re-season it, and it's good to go again. This cookware is well nigh indestructible.

As far as dry storage goes, I keep mine in the oven like my mother does and like her mother and grandmothers did. Heat from a wood stove or pilot light helps inhibit moisture and retains the seasoning. Our new stove has an automatic ignition in lieu of a pilot light, yet I still store my cast iron in the oven. My teenage daughter got a giggle out of that, but I bet I'll know where to find an iron skillet in her kitchen. ;)

Look for used iron cookware at yard and estate sales, thrift shops, or online auctions such as You can find them new at department and hardware stores,, mail order catalogs (Lehman's, 289 Kurzen Road N., Dalton, OH 44618; $3.00 for catalog), other online sources, or just about anywhere camping or kitchen supplies are sold.

And, by the way, if you know any country girls who are getting married, consider cast iron cookware for their shower or wedding gift. Our daughter's hope chest weighs a ton!