The cast iron skillet: for the untrained, that big greasy thing you wish your roommate would put away, and for the expert, virtually the only pan that really matters.
One source of controversy among skilleteers is how to actually care for the slimy metal hunk. The folks over at the American Chemical Society's Reactions channel recently produced a video explaining some of the scientifically-best practices.
People like skillets because they can cook food both on the stove top and in the oven. Cast iron skillets also hold heat better than traditional pans, and can even become non-stick if you cook with them long enough, thanks to a little thing called "seasoning."
Cast iron skillets have lots of tiny surface imperfections that proteins get stuck in. The molecules from cooking fats, like butter or oil, form long chains called polymers, which eventually create a plasticky coating (the seasoning) that seals the holes and slicks up the surface. Caring for the skillet involves keeping the seasoning intact and keeping the iron from rusting.
A few pro-tips from the ACR:
- Feel free to use metal utensils — the seasoning is strong enough.
- Unsaturated fats like vegetable oil build the polymers up better than saturated fats like bacon or lard.
- Feel free to use soap! Soap won't break up the seasoning.
- Always dry your pan immediately after washing it so the iron doesn't rust.
- Coat your pan with oil when you're finished cleaning it, which can keep rust-causing moisture out.
Check out the video for other tips, like how to speed up the seasoning process on a second-hand skillet.