About 12 years ago I decided to purchase some cooking wares. I had just started graduate school and was cooking on my own for reals for the first time. All my friends were buying the $20 47-piece kitchen utensil set and a bunch of crappy pots and pans. I decided to do something different.
I ended up buying some stuff ‘for life.’ I think I spent $40 on the knife; I don’t remember about the pots. That’s neither here nor there. The point is that I still have the these items and I still use them a lot. I can see easily getting another 10-15 years out of them. Most of my friends’ 47-piece utensil sets started to self-destruct in about 9 months, necessitating the purchase of a new 47-piece utensil set about every 2 years or so.
The pan – cast iron
For a frying pan/skillet, nothing beats a good cast iron skillet by Lodge. They are cheap and American made. My mom gave me a vintage one, which most aficionados swear by because “they don’t make them like they used to,” but frankly, I like the new one more. I actually have two, and 8″ one and a 12″ one. I use the 8″ one more since I’m cooking small things, but for some things the 12″ is needed. You could easily make do with just a 12″ one, or possibly a 10″ one.
Contrary to what you might read, cast iron is a poor conductor of heat compared to copper or aluminum. So you want to match the size of the pan with the size of your burner. It does retain heat well though. I’m finding that the 8″ pan is great on all my stove’s burners, while the 12″ is pushing it a bit on the large burner; it develops a hot spot in the center. It’s usable though and is great in the oven. I suspect a 10″ one would be just about perfect.
You don’t want to cook acidic things in cast iron. So heating up some tomato sauce is probably not a good idea.
I hear carbon steel skillets are similar to cast iron and could also be a good buy, particularly if you want a different form factor. I’ve not tried one.
Seasoning and cleaning cast iron cookware
The key to cast iron is the seasoning and care. When you get the thing, give it a good scrub with hot water. Dry it off and stick it on the stove for a bit on medium heat. Get it nice and dry. Then turn on the oven to 450°. Rub a coat of oil all over the pan. I’ve been using safflower oil and it works real good. After you’ve rubbed oil all over it, get a clean paper towel and wipe most of it off. Stick it in the heating oven, let it cook at 450° for 30-60 minutes, then turn off the oven and let the it all cool down together. This process can make your place smell a little bit, so I have to do it when I’m home alone. Do this 2-4 times. Now your pan is seasoned properly. I’d do this with new pans even though they come ‘pre-seasoned.’
You probably want to avoid olive oil for this step and the reapplication steps later on because it’s a low heat oil and can really smoke a lot. Canola oil is probably fine if you don’t want to go out and buy safflower.
For regular cleaning after use, scrub it with only hot water. Don’t use a sponge that gets used with soap. I have a separate scrubby pad for my cast iron pans, a Dobie pad. Or don’t even scrub it under water if it doesn’t look like it needs it. Just wipe it out with a paper towel, using a little bit of salt in the pan if you need to scrub out some junk.1
Now that you’ve scrubbed the food bits off, dry it off and throw it back on the stove. Heat it up for a couple minutes on medium to dry it out nice and good. Then rub a thin coat of your oil (safflower again) on the cooking surface, wiping off the excess. Then turn off the burner.
The more you use the pan, the better it will work. Just keep it dry, and re-oil/re-season it when you think it needs it.
My pan cooks scrapple easier than anything I’ve ever cooked scrapple on. Cooking foods like scrapple are great because they help season the surface more. So go out and buy some Rapa early on because you “have to season” your new pan.
Bacon can be good as it has a lot of fat, but it can also have a fair amount of sugar in it, which can make goopy stuff in your pan.