The cast iron skillet your granny used is more than an heirloom to decorate your kitchen. Cast iron holds a special place in American history and, some might argue, helped the brave settlers blaze new trails.
George Washington’s grandmother, Mary Hewes, saw so much value in her cast iron that she specified whom the pieces should go to in her will (her daughter Mary Ball, Washington’s mother). Fast forward to today, and that Griswold cast iron skillet is a collector’s item that’s still being used.
Even if your family doesn’t have a cast iron skillet that has been passed down for generations, today’s cast iron kitchenware is still manufactured the same way, which means they still work the way they have for thousands of years.
The History of the Cast Iron in America
According to Southern Kitchen, “The oldest cast iron artifacts date from early 5th century B.C. China, in the Jiangsu province, and such tools were widely used in the region by the 3rd century B.C. Cast iron slowly made its way to Western Europe, likely via the Silk Road, and wasn’t an important material until the 14th century A.D.”
There are many more tales of how cast iron made its way into America – beginning with the earliest colonists. Some people even credit cast iron cooking for the colonization and settling of America.
Chuck Wagoneer explains, “From the colonial hearth fires, to the campfires of Lewis and Clark, to the chuck wagon trails, cast iron Dutch ovens cooked the food that kept America going. They fed the colonists, helped tame the wilderness, and did their share in settling the American West.”
Here are some other fascinating stories of how cast iron earned its place in American history:
- Dutch settlers in Pennsylvania used cast iron for cooking, which is why we have the term “Dutch oven” from. In 1704, Abraham Darby visited Holland where he saw the process of casting pots. He is said to have brought the process back to the colonies.
- Paul Revere is credited with modernizing the Dutch oven by adding the flanged lid of the Dutch oven. This invention made it possible to use cast iron as an actual oven over a campfire or hearth.
- Cast iron was of such great importance in early America that the author of the book The Wealth of Nations claimed America’s wealth was not in gold but in the manufacturing of pots.
- During Lewis and Clark’s exploration, they cast off many things to lighten the load. One thing that was never let go of was cast iron pots. The only manufactured items they kept the entire journey were their guns and their cast iron.
- When settling the American West, one of the most cherished items every family had was a cast iron pot. Without home kitchens on their journeys, families had to cook entire meals using cast iron.
- During the Gold Rush, every chuck wagon was designed with a special compartment just for cast iron Dutch ovens and skillets.
- One of the very first things American explorers did upon reaching a new place to camp was dig a fire trench and set the cast iron pot in it. It was their main means for nourishing themselves on the difficult journey.
Chuck Wagoneer adds, “Cast iron fed the pilgrims and colonists as they settled the American East, and it fed the settlers, hopeful gold miners, and cowboys as they settled the American West. From the cannons of the Revolutionary War, to the iron-shod horses that carried settlers westward, and the skillets and Dutch ovens that fed the adventurous explorers across the Rocky Mountains, cast iron has been an integral part of the forging of the American experience.”
Thankfully, the mass manufacturing of cast iron skillets made its way to America via the Griswold Manufacturing Company in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1865. It wasn’t long before Lodge Manufacturing, located in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, started manufacturing cast iron skillets in 1896. Lodge is the oldest operating cookware manufacturer in the United States. In fact, it is still run by the family today and chances are, if you’ve purchased a cast iron skillet in the past few decades, it’s a Lodge.
Since cast iron skillets made their way into American homes before the turn of the last century, they have remained a constant in our kitchens. While their popularity dipped for a while with the introduction of aluminum, stainless steel, and Teflon pots and pans, cast iron has made a comeback in recent years as the “foodie” movement and interest in home cooking have exploded.
If you have a cast iron skillet that you don’t use often (or you don’t own one), it’s time to spend time getting to know them–especially before summer starts.
The Benefits of Cooking with a Cast Iron Skillet
There are many reasons why your grandparents swore by their cast iron skillets (and why you should, too).
- It is easy to clean. A major benefit is that cast iron is easy to clean compared to other materials. After you finish cooking, you simply rinse the skillet with water and allow it to dry.
- It is nonstick. Cast iron is naturally nonstick when it has been properly seasoned, which means you don’t have to use nonstick sprays.
- It is long-lasting. Unlike many other products manufactured today, cast iron lasts a long time, from one generation to the next. You can still find cast iron in historical homes and kitchens. Even more exciting, if you find a cast iron skillet, pot, or Dutch oven from the 1800s in an antique store, you can still use it!
- It holds heat evenly for long periods. The reason chefs love cooking with a cast iron skillet is because it evenly distributes heat across the skillet, and it maintains the temperature for a long period.
- It gets better over time. Cast iron is one of the few products that doesn’t get worn by use. Instead, it actually gets better over time the more you use it. This is because each time you cook in it, you are seasoning it.
- It works in different settings. Cast iron was originally used in America for cooking in the hearth or directly over the fire. This still works today. Not only can you use a cast iron skillet directly over a campfire, but you can also place your cast iron skillet on your stovetop, oven, or grill. Plus, history shows it worked well in even the harshest of conditions, such as the American frontier.
- It doesn’t have harmful chemicals. According to Epicurious, “Certain chemicals typically used to make nonstick pans can be toxic and break down at high temperatures, which you don't want.” Since cast iron skillets are nonstick, you can avoid this issue by using them instead.
- It requires less oil. Again, the nonstick feature of cast iron skillets works as a benefit. Eating Well explains, “That lovely sheen on cast-iron cookware is the sign of a well-seasoned pan, which renders it virtually nonstick. The health bonus, of course, is that you won't need to use gads of oil to brown crispy potatoes or sear chicken when cooking in cast iron.”
- It boosts iron. Another health benefit of cooking with a cast iron skillet is that it boosts your iron intake. Multiple studies suggest food cooked in cast iron has higher iron levels.
- It is ideal for emergencies. Whether you lose power for an extended period or decide to go off-grid, cast iron will be key to keeping your loved ones nourished and fed. As long as you have fire and cast iron, you can cook a variety of dishes. Plus, the ability to clean it with only water makes it a great choice during emergencies.
- It also works for self-defense. Last but not least, the solid weight of cast iron makes it an effective tool for self-defense.
How to Clean and Season a Cast Iron Skillet
Using a cast iron skillet is simple, but you must know how to clean it and season it. This will ensure it lasts for generations.
Cleaning is simple. You just need to rinse it using hot water and possibly a stiff brush. Then, you wipe it dry. The key is to never use dish soap or a steel bristle scrubber or put it in the dishwasher.
Cast iron skillets have a thin layer of seasoning that is bonded to the metal. This seasoning should last, but if you cook a lot of acidic foods in your skillet, you will need to re-season it from time to time because the seasoning is what makes it nonstick.
Instructions for seasoning your cast iron skillet from Eating Well:
- Cover the bottom of the pan with a thick layer of kosher salt.
- Add about 1/2 inch of cooking oil and place over high heat.
- When the oil reaches the smoke point, pour the salt and oil into a heatproof bowl to cool before discarding.
- Using a ball of paper towels, rub the inside of the pan until smooth.
Why a Cast Iron Skillet Is Perfect for Summer Grilling
Ultimately, you can cook anything you would cook in a pot, grill, or oven with a cast iron skillet. That’s why it is ideal for cooking during the summer.
If you don’t want your oven to heat the house during the hot summer months, cook outside with your cast iron skillet. If you want to spend as much time as possible enjoying the sunshine, cook outside with your cast iron skillet.
Here are a few ways you can use a cast iron skillet for summer grilling:
- Cook fish in your skillet on the grill to avoid odors indoors.
- Turn your grill into an oven by closing the lid. You can bake things like cinnamon rolls, cobblers, and cornbread in a cast iron skillet using the grill as an oven.
- Cook veggies that tend to fall through the cracks of the grill basket in the skillet.
- Cook side by side. Cook your side dishes in your skillet while you grill your steak.
- Cook things that tend to stick to the grill, such as scallops and shrimp, in the skillet on the grill.
Want the perfect burger for Memorial Day? Here’s what Bon Appetit suggests, “Cooking burgers in a skillet or on a griddle set over the grill gives even novices a key advantage: Instead of dripping down into the flames and causing pesky flare ups, all those delicious fatty juices from the patties stays in the pan, creating a supremely juicy patty with a crisp (but not burnt) outside.”
Remember, the more you use your cast iron skillet, the better it gets. Don’t let it go unused, friends.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply