In southern kitchens, nothing is more iconic than the cast iron skillet. In fact, no other culinary artifact from the 20th century has enjoyed the same longevity, or popularity, as cast iron cookware. Unlike most treasured family heirlooms, the cast iron skillet never collects dust, instead, it serves as a working piece of history that connects southern cooks with their past. My grandmother collected cast iron pans for the sole purpose of passing down to her grandchildren—and she meant for them to be used.
Despite the onslaught of cookware introduced since the late 1950s, cast iron has remained a tried and true favorite. Here are six reasons cooking with cast iron is so revered by southern cooks.
Is cast iron as nonstick as Teflon? No. But very close. A cast iron skillet, having been properly seasoned, is nonstick enough to please most cooks. The seasoning of a cast iron skillet is done by coating the hot surface of the pan with oil then letting it rest—repeatedly. This creates a thin layer of polymerized oil that bonds with the surface of the pan. Having properties very similar to that of a plastic, the polymerized oil makes the surface of the pan extremely nonstick. This layer is essentially permanent, barring any violent run-ins with a power tool, allowing for the pan to be safely cleaned with mild dish soap.
2. Tough as nails
Cast iron has serious swagger. Unlike other cookware options, such as copper or stainless steel, cast iron is virtually indestructible. It’s still around for a reason. Many people are under the misconception that cast iron pans are easily ruined by improper cleaning or metal utensils—not true. The cast iron pan is easily maintained after a proper seasoning. Cooks may wash their skillets with soap and water – yes, soap – and use metal utensils while scrambling eggs or flipping hoecakes.
Cast iron pans can be used on top of the stove and inside the oven. They are perfectly suited for high heat and perform extremely well in, um, extreme conditions. I grew up watching folks place cast iron skillets directly into the licking flames of a campfire then dropping the pans into a bucket of water. Please be careful campers, the handles of those pans will emit the heat of a thousand suns and become very dangerous, but breakfast will taste delicious!
4. Increased iron content
Does eating food cooked in a cast iron pan increase its iron content? Yes. Is that a good thing? Also, yes. Acidic foods cooked in cast iron absorb the most amount of iron, like a simmering tomato sauce, and were once thought to contain almost dangerous amounts of the mineral – false. Other foods, like breads and eggs, absorb much smaller amounts of iron, but still enough to be considered beneficial for those who might need the extra content. While cooking with cast iron certainly doesn’t guarantee the daily recommended amounts of iron in your diet, it does provide for an extra source when supplementation is needed—no other cookware can make that claim.
5. Less oil
Cast iron skillets allow cooks to fry with less oil! Now, I realize the irony (see what I did there) in celebrating the need for less oil when frying, because, well, frying is frying, right? But it must be noted, if for no other reason than for the reduction in cost and waste. Due to the cast iron skillet’s nonstick nature, along with its ability to cook efficiently at high temps, cooks find that they need less oil when frying meats or vegetables. Cookware that allows for a reduction in oil, while not compromising the quality or flavor of a dish, is a thing of beauty and should be highly prized.
Finally, the most important thing about cooking with cast iron – the safety factor. Unlike cooking with aluminum or Teflon, no known health risks are associated with cast iron cookware. Cast iron offers more durability than other safe options, like stainless steel or copper, and is suitable on the stove-top, inside an oven, or out on the grill.
Sure, a cast iron skillet adds a little southern kitsch to your country themed décor. But don’t let it gather any dust! These pans are the most durable, versatile, and safest cookware options in your kitchen, so use them on the regular. What should you fry up tonight? We’re in the mood for some skillet fried hash browns and country ham. Breakfast for dinner is always a great idea.