Out Of The Pan

And Onto The Plate

Posted: December 26, 2012

Passed down through generations, the seasoning of a cast iron skillet combines the flavors of meals past and present. Don’t have one? It’s never too late to start the tradition in your own family. (Photo by Aimee George / DN-R, Features)
It’s possible that Harrisonburg resident Pam Mandigo’s cast iron skillet “came over on the boat” with her ancestors, and was passed down through the generations from her great-great grandmother to its present spot in her kitchen.

Some of Mandigo’s favorite comfort foods came from her mother’s skillet. “Hash browns crisp up so much nicer,” she said.

For Wes Dunlap, manager at Kitchen Kupboard located within the Shenandoah Heritage Market, what makes cast iron cooked food exceptional is the flavor left over from each meal. He favors camping with a cast iron skillet in tow: Eggs, bacon and potatoes are especially mouthwatering over a campfire, where a nonstick pan would fall short, he said.

Casting Out Cookware Demons

In her first year cooking with the humble heirloom, Mandigo says many meals were lost to inexperience with cast iron cooking.

So, she confessed her kitchen sins: “I went to church, and figured Mennonite women would know what to do,” she said. “They showed me the error of my ways.”

They gave her a mantra: “Hot pan, hot fat.” Bring the pan up to temperature slowly, then add oil, butter or lard and allow it to get hot, before adding food. That way, the “food will come right out,” she said.

Carol Rhodes, owner of Kitchenwares and More in the Dayton Farmer’s Market, agrees: Heat is the key. Start on a low heat and work up to a higher one in order to avoid cracking or warping, she says — although, with cast iron’s durability, a cracked pan is rare.

If the cookware is used for baking, put it in the oven while preheating, to let it warm up slowly, she suggests. Then, pour in the batter, be it intended for cornbread or cakes.

Mandigo uses hers to bake lasagna and brownies, or as a cake pan.

Cast Iron: Longsuffering

Caring for cookware that will stand the test of time is simple, say owners.

After using, simply wipe out the pan with hot water and a wet paper towel. Both Rhodes and Dunlap urge cooks to avoid the temptation to use soap, which will strip away the seasoning.

“It’s a lot more durable” than a nonstick pan, says Dunlap. “Teflon can chip, and easily wears out,” he said, compared to cast iron, which is still just as usable as an antique.

“You can’t ruin cast iron,” said Rhodes. “If an over-zealous neat freak mistakenly lathers up your laboriously-seasoned skillet, or if rust spots form, don’t panic — just scrape it down and re-season.”

In the case of rust or soap, or if your cast iron item didn’t come with decades of history or pre-seasoned from a distributor, seasoning from scratch is a cinch. Rub the entire piece, inside and out, with oil, lard or butter, and then bake in a 350 degree oven for half an hour, says Rhodes.

Turning back the temperature to 200 degrees and letting it bake for another 45 minutes to an hour adds an extra sheen, something Rhodes says she learned from late local foodie Bob Pastorio.

Dunlap and Rhodes suggest caution when using cast iron on a glass cooktop, as the pan may scratch or crack the surface. When storing, make sure it’s completely dry before putting cast iron cookware away: Rhodes puts hers on a low burner until the moisture is completely gone, to avoid rusting.

Mandigo, who hopes to one day pass her skillet on to her own great-grandchildren, says “It’s pretty indestructible.”
Contact Samantha Cole at 574-6274 or scole@dnronline.com

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