In his new book, The Modern Kitchen, Tim Hayward dives into the history of everyday cooking tools we take for granted via a series of short essays. He touches on everything from how Julia Child helped catapult the whisk to kitchen gadget fame to the evolution of home coffee machines. Below is an excerpt from the book about one of our go-to tools: the indelible cast-iron skillet.
Excerpted with permission from 'The Modern Kitchen,' by Tim Hayward, published by Quadrille April 2018
Sure, they fry eggs over the fire in cowboy movies but you'd sure grow tired of holdin' that heavy pan over the flames, pard'ner. A pot sits well in a fire or propped among the coals, but a skillet, wide and shallow, is really designed for use on a more structured range or stove. There had been bakestones, griddles and girdle plates before, but the cast-iron skillet opened up a whole new area of cooking. For the first time, searing and shallow frying of more delicate proteins became available to all.
Cast iron is great for holding heat, so it tends to even out the temperature as a heat source rises and falls and, though it's prone to hot spots if not moved around on the stove, it's a remarkably forgiving utensil. Very few things will give a seared outer crust to a steak as well as a preheated, nearly dry skillet. At lower temperatures, nothing will hold the oil at the perfect point for fried chicken quite so well or so long. Skillets are cast in sand moulds, which give the characteristic pitted surface to the outside. Historically, the inside of a skillet would then be polished or machined to create an entirely smooth cooking surface. Today, most cookware manufacturers don't bother with this final step, which means that old skillets found in junk shops and car boot sales can often be superior.
With constant use and care, the bottom of the skillet will build up a seasoning* layer of polymerized fat which bonds to the metal and forms an effectively 'non-stick' surface. This can be damaged by insensitive washing† or rough handling, which explains why a good skillet was so treasured and so jealously protected by many cooks. The development of enamel coating to cast-iron cookware meant that the skillet could be easier to take care of and, as new materials like aluminium or stainless steel became popular, the old skillet fell out of fashion to be replaced by the more modern frying pan.
Cast iron has always had its adherents though. In the American Deep South, the skillet has never dropped out of daily use, and many keen cooks have kept the faith, seasoning and polishing a skillet even when it stays at the back of the cupboard for months at a time.
Today, cast iron is achieving a certain hipster cachet, with small forges run by men with beards making fantastic new skillets at very high prices. It's worth noting though, that all the best forges continue to recondition old skillets, which seem to retain even more spirit and are somehow even more valued.
* To season your pan, put it in the oven on full heat, add a splash of neutral oil and paint it carefully around the hot surface with wadded kitchen towel. Allow the pan to cool naturally in the oven with the heat turned off. After each subsequent use, clean out the pan carefully, heat it until it begins to smoke and then run an oil-soaked cloth over the inside.
† The seasoning layer is surprisingly robust. Tough, cooked-on remains can be scrubbed off with coarse salt. It's perfectly OK to clean out your pan with a plastic brush or scouring pad and even a little soap. Just dry it immediately afterwards, re-season a little if necessary and NEVER leave it to soak.
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