The best ways to use your cast-iron skillet

An economical and versatile tool in your kitchen arsenal, cast-iron skillets are either adored or feared by every home cook. I should know: I was once living in fright of the heavy relic sitting and collecting rust at the back of my cupboard. It was an old Polaroid photo that gave me a nostalgia-induced culinary revelation. In it, my Texan grandfather was frying up a batch of his drool-worthy chicken-fried steak with sausage gravy. I realized then that the magic of that dish wasn't only in his hands. It was also in that old, well-loved cast-iron skillet.

That same old skillet now enjoys front-row seating in my cupboard, and all it took was some research (and a little bit of love) to rediscover my go-to tool for a plethora of recipes, some that have been utterly revolutionized by simply switching pans.

So if your doubts about cast iron have been keeping you from reveling in the delicious splendor of this invaluable kitchen tool, I ask that you lay your fears aside, and read on to discover the best ways to use your cast-iron skillet.

First, season it

Before you put that pan to work, you'll need to season that baby. Proper seasoning makes the difference between your cast-iron pan being your best friend or worst enemy in the kitchen, so pay attention.

To start, give the entire pan a gentle wash with warm water and dish soap, then let it dry completely. If you're starting out with an older pan that's dirty or rusted, you may have to employ some steel wool and elbow grease first. Once dry, rub the entire pan (top, bottom, sides and handle) with a paper towel or cloth soaked in cooking oil. You'll achieve better results with an unsaturated oil like grapeseed, canola, and some vegetable oils. Place the oiled pan upside down in a preheated 350° oven, with a foil-lined sheet pan underneath to catch any drips. Let it cook for an hour, then turn the temperature off and allow the pan to cool in the oven. The resulting surface is due to the polymerization of the oil, and you'll further season it every time you cook with fats in your pan.

Pans that emerge from the oven brown and sticky haven't quite gotten to where you want them. They should be seasoned again, but don't worry: you can't over-season cast iron!

How to wash it

When it comes to caring for and washing a cast-iron pan, there are a couple cardinal rules that should always be followed. Never, ever wash cast iron in a dishwasher, and never leave your pan to soak filled with water. You don't want to rust the pan.

While you're washing your pan, it should not look like this picture. A well-seasoned pan that has very little food residue after cooking can be cleaned with just a thorough wiping with a paper towel dipped in cooking oil or an old dishcloth. It'll likely turn black, so keep an old one around dedicated to this purpose. For foods that are a little more stuck on, clean your pan with hot water and a sponge. While common advice says to avoid using any soap at all, I find that a drop or two of dishwashing liquid can help me along without causing any harm to my seasoned coating. A brush can be used to remove stuck-on food, or you can give your cloth some teeth with a little sea salt or kosher salt. Make sure your cleaned pan is thoroughly dried, and give it a quick rub with cooking oil before storing.

Super-heavy stuck-on food disaster? Spy some rust? Never fear! This is when you can use steel wool on your pan. Scrub away the offending mess, and make plans to season your pan again soon.

What not to cook

Alas, superhero that your cast-iron skillet is, it does have some very mortal limitations, particularly if it's new. For starters, slow-cooking acidic foods, like tomato sauces, are like kryptonite to your newly seasoned cast-iron skillet, as the acid and seasoned coating do not play nicely together over long periods. Of course, you can just season your pan again, but you don't want to have to do it that often. Acidic foods can also cause a higher level of iron to leach into your food from even the best-seasoned pan, so take heed. A quick deglaze with a bit of wine or lemon juice shouldn't harm anything, though.

Boiling water is also a no-no with cast iron, though some cast iron fans swear their own pan is so well-seasoned that they can pull off this feat. If your pan is freshly seasoned, the boiling water is going to yank that seasoning right off. If your pan has years of layered-on seasoning, you might only lose a layer or two.

Frying chicken

Leave that Fry Daddy underneath the counter with the rest of your underused kitchen equipment because nothing is going to give you the fried chicken of your dreams like a cast-iron skillet. Don't believe me? Just check out these recipes from bloggers, online mags, and chefs alike who all agree that cast iron is the way to go for the most glorious fried chicken ever. The secret is in cast iron's ability to retain heat. A smaller amount of oil (about one-third of a pan) is all you need to complete most fried chicken recipes. And why stop at chicken? Any battering or frying recipe is going to benefit from cast iron's heat-retaining magic. An added bonus? Every time you cook with a large layer of fat in your skillet, you're further enhancing the pan's seasoning.

Sear a steak

Ever wondered the secret to how your favorite steakhouse produces such a delicious piece of meat? Sure, they use high-quality cuts, and they certainly season the meat perfectly before cooking. But they also cook their steaks over insanely high heat. Lucky for you, your cast-iron skillet is the ideal tool for mimicking that kind of heat in your very own kitchen. Cast iron may be slow to heat up, but once it does — whoa!

There are various methods for using cast iron to get the perfect sear on a steak. One popular and time-tested method, my personal favorite, is recommended by Alton Brown. Start by bringing your pan to high heat on your stovetop, or, better yet, place it in your oven and then crank the temp to 500 degrees. Once your oven comes to temperature, carefully remove the pan from the oven and add your thick, room-temperature, well-seasoned cut of steak to the pan. Let it sizzle for 30 seconds, then flip it over for another 30. Place the pan back in the hot oven for another 4 or 5 minutes, flipping once, for magnificent medium rare steak. A bone-in cut will require a couple more minutes — use your meat thermometer to check for doneness.

Make a pan pizza

Want to be the king or queen of weeknight dinner? All you need is 30 minutes, store-bought pizza dough with toppings, and your trusty cast-iron skillet. Reminiscent of the Pizza Hut pies you enjoyed as a kid, cast-iron pan pizza develops a delightfully chewy crust and a focaccia-like, fried bottom that will make you glad you didn't call the corner pizza place for delivery. Bon Appetit has a fantastic recipe for cast-iron pan pizza, and it's one that I won't stray from.

To start, preheat your oven as high as possible. Set your pan on top of a stovetop burner, and heat it at medium-high heat. Meanwhile, stretch your dough out and use your hands to form it into a flattened round of dough. When your pan is almost smoking hot, add some flour to the bottom of the pan, followed by the round of dough. Using your fingers (did I mention to be careful?), work the dough around the pan into an even layer that fits tightly against the sides. Brush the top of the dough liberally with olive oil. When the dough starts to bubble, give it a sprinkle of kosher salt and spread a generous scoop of your favorite sauce all the way to the sides. Top with a heaping portion of shredded mozzarella and your favorite toppings, and pop the pan into your hot oven for 10-15 minutes.

Make cornbread

Cornbread is one of the first dishes I think of when I think of foods that just wouldn't be the same if not cooked in a cast-iron skillet. Recipes abound on the interwebs, along with the time-old regional battle over what makes a true cornbread. Sweet or savory? Buttermilk or sweet milk? Shortening or bacon grease? Oven or stovetop? There are no wrong answers here, particularly when you can count on your cast-iron skillet to deliver a deliciously crisped bottom and edges.

For the most basic of recipes, using ingredients you may have on hand already, try this one from Chowhound, and feel free to add your favorite mix-ins: corn kernels, chopped scallions, jalapenos, even shredded cheddar cheese. Want it even simpler? A box of Jiffy will get you skillet cornbread in well, a jiffy, and nobody would fault you for it. (My grandpa even uses it.)

Make a pressed sandwich

Great news! There is absolutely no need to waste valuable counter or cupboard space on an electric sandwich press. Whether you're craving a panini, a Cuban sandwich, or even just a plain old grilled cheese, a cast-iron skillet has you covered. I employ my ridged cast-iron grill pan to get those beautiful panini marks. If you don't have a ridged cast-iron pan, your flat-bottomed pan will do just dandy.

Place your filled and buttered or oiled sandwich down in a preheated pan, and use another, smaller cast-iron pan as your "press." I typically stand there and do the pressing action myself, but those geniuses over at The Kitchn have devised quite the hack of weighting the top skillet down with a filled tea kettle. Either way, prepare for restaurant-worthy, pressed-sandwich awesomeness.

Bacon

If you're making a large batch of bacon to feed a hungry morning crowd, your oven may be the smartest way to go. But if all you need is a few slices of bacon, your cast iron skillet is your best bet.

The key is starting your bacon off in a cold, not hot, pan. Lay your slices in your skillet, set it on your stove, and crank up the heat to medium. The bacon will cook a bit faster than it would in a traditional stainless steel pan, and will achieve the crispy perfection you seek. And that nice little pool of bacon grease collecting at the bottom of your skillet? That's giving a boost to your pan's seasoning every time you give some bacon a sizzle.

Make crispy hash browns

There's a reason your hash browns haven't been developing that gloriously browned and crispy exterior you desire, and it's because you haven't been using your cast-iron skillet. A serious marriage made in heaven, hash browns made in a cast-iron pan are elevated to the divine, but they couldn't be simpler to make.

Shred one or two baking potatoes, with or without their skins. A box grater works fine, or a food processor with the shredding attachment will make your life even easier. Squeeze the shredded potatoes of their excess moisture using a clean kitchen towel. Preheat your cast-iron skillet and add a generous amount of your preferred fat. Spread the potatoes evenly in the pan, and leave them alone for a good five minutes. Now's a good time to season the uncooked side with salt, pepper, garlic powder, or whatever else you want. You'll be tempted to move the hash browns all around the pan, but fight the temptation! Use a spatula to take a peek, and when you see that gorgeous color you're looking for, flip the potatoes over. You can go in sections or do the whole thing in one go if it's small enough. The other side will cook a bit faster, so don't leave your pan unattended.

Skillet cookies

Craving fresh, homemade, chocolate chip cookies, but don't feel up to the task of whipping up an entire batch?

Your cast iron skillet is the ideal vehicle to deliver a single, over-sized chocolate chip cookie that can be eaten directly from the pan with a spoon, or sliced into more elegant, tart-like slices. Adjust your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe to the size of your pan, and smooth the dough into the skillet. Martha Stewart's recipe calls for a ten-inch skillet, and makes a delectable skillet cookie creation with an ooey-gooey center, and crisp, buttery edges, in just under 20 minutes. Top with ice cream and your favorite sundae toppings and dig in.

Skillet s'mores

Calling all s'mores lovers! If you've been dying for a way to enjoy your s'mores goodness without having to start a campfire, I have an idea for you that's way more exciting than the microwave.

A cast iron skillet is the perfect vessel for making a hot and decadent s'mores dip. All you need to do is melt butter in a pre-heated skillet, add chocolate chips, and cover the top with a blanket of marshmallows. Bake in the oven until the marshmallows have just gotten toasty brown. Remove the dip carefully from the oven, and use graham crackers to scoop up the masterpiece you've just created. Your cast iron skillet will do a brilliant job of keeping your s'mores dip warm while you and your friends devour it.

Cobblers, crumbles, and Dutch babies

Equally welcome at breakfast or dessert, your cast-iron pan is the ideal vessel for all of your cobblers, crumbles, and Dutch babies. Your cast-iron skillet's ability to retain heat so brilliantly takes you easily from oven to counter to table, and will seriously make you look like the Martha Stewart of your next gathering. My personal favorite is the Pioneer Woman's raspberry crisp. (Crumbles are technically called crisps when they're made with oats.) I make this with coconut oil instead of butter for a fun substitution. It's a super easy recipe to pull off quickly, and requires just a few ingredients that you may have on hand already. (You can sub almost any fruit you like.)