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  1. Cooking

How to season, use and love cast iron skillets (with recipes)

Salting the cast iron skillet helps the crust develop.
Salting the cast iron skillet helps the crust develop.
Published Jan. 12, 2015

The first time I asked for a cast iron skillet, I was a sophomore in college. Mom had asked me what was on my Christmas wish list that year and, burgeoning chef that I was (hey, mac and cheese counts!), I told her I wanted a cast iron skillet. She said no. At this point, I was still living with undergraduate roommates. I got the majority of my meals from the campus food hall. There may have been a silly kitchen incident in which my roommate and I used regular dish soap in the dishwasher, and a bubble mess ensued. I understand now why Mom didn't exactly trust me to care for a cast iron skillet.

They're not like the nonstick skillets that come in the standard college kitchen sets you buy at Target. Cast iron skillets require love, patience and a lot of care. They are heavy. They need to be seasoned. They are not easy to clean.

But they're one of the oldest forms of cookware for a reason. For one, they're durable, a solid piece of iron that heats evenly and retains heat spectacularly. The quality of cook is high.

Cast iron skillets have gained popularity in recent years, the same way record players are in again with millennials. One of the oldest and most ubiquitous cast iron cookware manufacturers, Lodge, started producing preseasoned skillets about a decade ago, making them more accessible to those who have never cooked with cast iron before. (And they're affordable. Lodge skillets in a variety of sizes are available at Walmart or Target, many for less than $20.) A Los Angeles Times story from 2012 reported that the previous five years were the best in Lodge's history. And the company, founded in 1896, released a cookbook last year, Lodge Cast Iron Nation: Great American Cooking From Coast to Coast (Oxmoor House, $24.95), aimed at "a new generation of cast iron cookery lovers."

"The resurgence of the use of cast iron cookware over the past decades speaks to a number of things, like nostalgia, simplicity and craftsmanship, among others," chef John Currence writes in the book's foreword.

Ah, yes, nostalgia. Here's the thing about cast iron skillets: It seems like everyone has a story about them. Because they last so long, cooks often have them for much longer than ordinary cookware. And because they require different cooking and cleaning techniques, they can lead to, um, household squabbles. (One time, my sweet boyfriend graciously tried to clean mine after dinner one night — with loads of soap.) Cast iron skillets are sometimes passed down from family member to family member, embedding generations of memories in the heavy black pan. They become treasured parts of the kitchen.

My memories aren't yet quite that elaborate, but eventually, a few years after the first request, I did get my first cast iron skillet. I've since added another, smaller skillet to my collection and thrown out all of my nonstick pans, except one that I use exclusively for scrambled eggs. (Boy, those are a pain to get off the cast iron, and they don't taste right, either.) Here are a few things I've learned along the way:

• Don't touch the handle. It seems obvious, that because the whole darn thing is made of iron the whole darn thing gets hot when it's on the burner, but it's hard to break the habit of touching the handle to lift or move the skillet. Do so only with a pot holder firmly in your grip.

• Do dry it thoroughly after every wash, and coat it with oil. I've coated mine with everything from olive oil to coconut oil. Cover it with a paper towel to stack it in the cupboard.

• Don't cook everything in it. Foods like tomatoes, which are high in acidity, can cut through the seasoning easier than others.

• They're not really nonstick, or at least not like the Teflon you may be used to. Oil them generously or food will stick.

• I'll admit that I do occasionally use a little bit of soap to wash the skillet after a particularly messy or meaty meal. Make sure you wash and dry it thoroughly if you do so.

And whatever you do, don't put it in the dishwasher. Especially if you're using the wrong kind of soap.

In fact, my mom still tells me that nearly every time I see her.

Contact Michelle Stark at mstark@tampabay.com. Follow @mstark17.

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