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Cast iron, invented in China more than 3000 years ago, is a favorite cookware material. To find the best cast iron skillet, consider the size you need and whether you want to handle the extra weight. You can fry, bake and even barbecue in a good cast iron skillet, whether it is new or antique. Iron cookware requires regular maintenance but this is not difficult.
Most people can get by with a 10-inch (about 25 cm) iron skillet; this size is not too heavy, making it easy to handle. It has enough capacity to cook for several people. Larger 12-inch (about 30 cm) skillets may be a good choice if you have a lot of people to cook for. If yours is a smaller household, pans are available in smaller sizes as well. Some people like to purchase pre-seasoned iron cookware, although it will still need to be seasoned once factory coatings have been removed.
Pancakes and French toast cooked in an iron skillet achieve a crispy edge many people desire. You can sear meats in your skillet on the stovetop, add vegetables and finish cooking a hearty stew in the oven without transferring it to another pot. Lids are available to fit over most skillets; or, find an iron Dutch oven, which is a large covered pot that typically has a handle, for preparing stews or roasts.
A vintage or antique cast iron skillet that has been well-cared for can still be used. If your own family has no such heirlooms, garage sales, flea markets and antique stores are good places to look. You might even find the old-fashioned "spider," a rare early type of skillet with legs to hold it up above hot coals. Even a good iron skillet in less than perfect condition is easily restored, as any rust can be scrubbed off with steel wool and the pan re-seasoned. Cracks or deep pitting can mean the pan is too damaged to continue using; cast iron can be recycled easily, however.
Caring for your cast iron skillet is simple. Season it with a bit of food-grade oil or shortening in a 450-500° Fahrenheit (232-260° Celsius) degree oven for at least 30 minutes. All it needs is a little warm soapy water after use. Cold water may crack a hot pan, so be careful to cool it before washing. Make sure it is thoroughly dry before you put it away; you can put it on the stove for a few seconds to evaporate lingering moisture.
A good iron skillet will last a lifetime and then some, if well cared for. My mom has her mother's iron skillets and they're 70 years old if they're a day, and still cook wonderfully well.
I'd definitely get a pre-seasoned skillet if you can find one. They're wonderful. If you do find a used skillet at a yard sale or estate sale, do make sure it's in decent shape. Doesn't have to be perfect, but look for cracks and such, like the article mentions. Fortunately, cast iron is pretty darn sturdy and you can clean rust off with steel wool before you wash it and re-season it. Just make sure the handle is long enough to carry the skillet comfortably.
EEeeek! Don't *ever* use soap on your well seasoned cast iron skillet! It will ruin the seasoned finish. Just wash it well in scalding hot water. When you do, dry it well and oil it with some vegetable oil.
The Lodge company sells a pre-seasoned iron skillet and they are good ones. They already have the black finish you associate with a well seasoned pan. You'll need to continue the seasoning process as you go, but they start out right.
I like the 10-inch pan. It's large enough for nearly every use and it's not as heavy as as 12-inch. I also like the kind that have a "helper" handle opposite the long handle. Makes it easier to carry a pan full of something.
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