My first cast iron skillet was a small one, gifted from my mother's kitchen to my first kitchen as an "adult". I was single, newly graduated from divinity school, and now a homeowner. I had received my first calling to the ministry and bought a house to show I was fully committed to this new position and new identity. I also may have been overcompensating for the fact that I still didn't feel like an adult, nor did I feel like a priest.
That may have been because I wasn't one. I joined the order of deacons the previous September at the fall clergy gathering for my diocese. I was in my last semester in seminary and returned to the diocesan camp and conference center for what felt like my first graduation. I arrived as a seminarian to the camp where I had worked as a seminarian for a wonderful summer and would be leaving as an ordained deacon on her way to becoming a priest.
My completion of divinity school came a few months later in December when there was no Pomp and Circumstance and the only sense of finality came with packing up my apartment I had called home for two years. My parents and I found my new home over Thanksgiving break and everything in my car and U-Haul were headed to my significantly larger house.
This larger living space required some serious attention from my mother who joyfully and very helpfully jumped in with both feet to outfit an entire home for her daughter. Most everything in my house that didn't transfer from my apartment came from the family storage building on the farm. In my dining room was (and is) the hutch my parents bought the first year they were married. In my guest room (and now in my daughters' room) was the chest of drawers that had been my mother's as a teenager. This raiding of the family storage building infected me with a love for all things well-loved so that most everything in our house today is experiencing its second, third, fourth, and even fifth life.
But the gift-with-a-past-life that held the most promise, intimidation, and burden of responsibility was that small cast iron skillet. Knowing how much I love to cook and that I would want to make my own cornbread (the REAL stuff; not cake-posing-as-cornbread impostor) my mother pulled out one of her skillets, the perfect size for cornbread for one or two people.
Now, if you've never had the joy of owning a cast iron skillet, my sincerest condolences. That said, it's a bit like having a precious child you want to protect and nurture. Here's why:
It's all about the seasoning.
No, I'm not talking about salt and pepper or seasoning salts. I'm talking about that beautiful, ineffable, perfect coating of grease, lard, oil, remnants of thousands of uses, that is baked onto the inside and outside of the pan. The best and older skillets are rough all around the outside from decades of use and seasoning and the inside is smooth and slick and perfect. This kind of seasoning does not happen by chance and it cannot be bought. It also must be maintained and protected because to lose the seasoning from a pan is to deny the skillet's very essence and identity, to mar it's raison d'etre.
It is possible to buy a new skillet that claims to be "pre-seasoned" but that means nothing. Are you going to trust that anyone in a factory could every hope to prepare a pan to the same satisfying perfection that your grandmother or someone's grandmother has? I think not. Check out your area antique markets. Usually someone's great aunt's 60 year old skillet is waiting for you to snatch it up and revive it.
If you've ever fallen in love with a cheeseburger from your greasy spoon then gone home to assembly and prepare the same ingredients, you will have learned the vital nature of seasoning. Cheeseburgers are not difficult dishes. They don't require special culinary skills or rare ingredients. You do not need an overly discerning pallet to parse out the ingredients used by your favorite dive in their hamburgers. What you do need but you do not have is their cook top. That cook top has seen thousands upon thousands of burgers and bacon trips, each dripping with more luscious, lubricating fat than the one before. And those flavors build and build and infuse every piece of meat, bread, onion, or potato that is blessed to touch it. That is the importance of proper seasoning.
I think it was 2 or 3 years before I worked up the confidence to use my skillet. I didn't want to mess it up or disrespect it. And in all of that time, I hadn't been building a relationship with the heavy, rough, weapon of a pan. That meant my first efforts at cornbread turned out nothing like my Momma's (of course). Each skillet has its own essence; its own quirks. I had failed to invest my time and attention to mine and, rightfully, was disappointed by my first efforts. I also had failed to call Momma for tips.
Sad to say, that skillet went back in the cabinet, only to be used on very rare occasions.
After a few years, a marriage, a move, and a baby, that one small skillet was joined by another slightly larger. My mother-in-law (MomD) had it in her home and gifted it to ours. I think perhaps I had commented on it during a visit or my husband had seen a cooking show (which has been the primary source of entertainment for us in our marriage; that and Marvel movies) and become interested in cast iron. But even with two, I could not fortify myself enough to jump in to that commitment.
Another move and two more children later, I have decided to step into the realm of my foremothers, tame my fears, and build a relationship with my pans. It bears mentioning that fried chicken plays a role here. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, bought at any market, grocery store, road side stand, or restaurant comes close to home fried chicken. But, that level of goodness (mouth-watering, juices running, crispy coated, buttermilk soaked, makes your toes tingle goodness) is only possible in a cast iron skillet.
About six months ago, I knew I needed a bigger skillet. We were buying a share in a chicken CSA in our town (never pass up this opportunity) and we would soon have whole chickens, fresh-frozen from the farm, begging for roasting, grilling and frying. My husband, being the romantic, made a family run to the box store and surprised me with a beautiful new large cast iron skillet. Immediately, I commenced to seasoning it. In the oven it went with oil for a good bake.
Since the intimidation barrier around my reluctance was forced down by a wonderful gift, I have since made peace with my older skillets by begging their forgiveness and putting them to use. It helped that one day I was listening to America's Test Kitchen (because podcasts of cooking shows are a necessity in my life) and heard Christopher Kimball say he kept his small cast iron skillet on the stove all the time for eggs. I have no idea if this is true but it made me want to do the same and get past my fears.
And I have.
Now, those small pans come out for scrambling eggs for the kids on the weekend and other small jobs in the kitchen. And the concern about cleaning and preserving? Not worth the stress I had invested. Cheesy scrambled eggs are a pill to clean off of any pan. But the cast iron requires nothing beyond some time in the sink with a rinse, some kosher salt, and a cloth. Then I just have to rub some oil on the inside with a paper towel and set it upside down to dry. That's it. No soap, no Brillo pad, no follow up in the dishwasher. It's ready to go as early as the next meal and with an ever-improving seasoning.
Next time you make stew or vegetable soup for dinner, do yourself a favor and pull out that skillet that has been long-neglected in your cabinet. The crispy outside and soft inside of a round of skillet cornbread cannot be beat for dipping in, crumbling over, and sopping up a meal in a bowl.
This recipe is about the technique, not about the ingredients, Find your favorite recipe for cornbread. Some like bacon and cheese and scallions in theirs, some like who kernels of canned corn, some like sauteed onions, some like it plain. However you like it, try cooking it in a cast iron skillet.
Before you start working on your cornbread, take out your cast iron skillet and put in several tablespoons of vegetable oil, canola oil, shortening, or lard. If you like bacon in your cornbread, cook your bacon in the cast iron skillet. Pour off the fat and strain it, then wipe out the bottom of the skillet with a towel, using kosher salt if it needs scrubbing. Add that strained bacon fat to the skillet with a little more of another kind of fat. Delicious!
The cast iron skillet goes in the oven with the fat. Then set your oven to the temperature you'll need for baking the cornbread and let the skillet and fat come to temperature in the oven while it's preheating.
Mix your cornbread to your recipe and taste.
Once the oven is preheated, carefully remove the skillet. Swirl the melted fat around the pan to make sure the sides are coated with the fresh fat. Pour in your batter. Put the skillet in the oven and bake until the cornbread is done. Turn the cornbread round onto a cooling rack.
The hot skillet will fry the outside of the cornbread, making it crispy and delicious. If you leave the cornbread in the skillet to cool, the crust will absorb moisture and won't be crispy.
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