The cast-iron pans favored by countless grandmas and mothers, rugged outdoorsmen and chuckwagon cooks have finally come in out of the cold.
That’s because people are rediscovering how beautifully the pots cook — with steady, even heat and a nonstick, seasoned surface — enabling home cooks to sear steaks, slow-cook stews and turn out fresh-baked breads and desserts worthy of a professional chef.
“It’s your favorite black dress in your wardrobe of pans,” said Julie Hearne of Seattle, who has written several cast-iron cookbooks since 2004, when she and her mom teamed up to write “The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook,” later revised in 2013.
“We couldn’t find any books on bringing cast iron into the modern day,” she said of the impetus behind the cookbook. “We call it the little book that could, because it’s been a gem. Then we wrote the ‘Cast Iron Skillet, Big Flavors Cookbook’ in 2007. It’s a great book, but I think it was a little bit before its time.”
In all of her cookbooks, Hearne tries to expand the palate of the pan, incorporating local ingredients like Dungeness crab and oysters along with global flavors such as Urfa pepper and tamarind.
This ain’t your grandma’s cornbread recipe anymore — she gives that classic an update with a Cornbread Pudding recipe by Tom Douglas — but that doesn’t mean you can’t use her handed down, vintage pans.
It’s one of the few kitchen tools that get better with age.
“I have some that have been passed down from my grandmother,” Hearne said. “And some special, unique ones from antique stores that had been really well loved and are smooth as a baby’s bottom.”
With the simple black pan trending hot again, there is no dearth of recipe sources.
Lodge Cast Iron published “The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook” in 2012, followed by “Lodge Cast Iron Nation” in 2014. Meanwhile, specialty magazines such as Taste of the South’s Southern Cast Iron and Country Living’s Cast Iron Recipes have popped up at newstands, offering all kinds of down-home favorites, from lasagna to chicken and dumplings.
Like so many trends these days — Mason jars, pressure cookers, fermented products — the cast-iron pan in all of its familiar shapes and sizes (skillet, Dutch oven, grill pan and griddle) was forged from equal parts necessity and innovation.
“If this pan could talk, the stories it could tell,” said Hearne, who took a tour of the Lodge Cast Iron foundry while writing her first cookbook, then served as a judge at Lodge’s National Cornbread Festival.
Originally slung over the open fires of Europe, the treasured pieces were carried by settlers to the New World, where pioneering companies such as Griswold and Wagner (now out of business) sprung up, pouring molten iron into sand-clay molds to “cast” new pans.
These days, the sturdy pots are being reinvented by a new generation of American companies hoping to improve on perfection.
Nest Homeware of Rhode Island has added twig-style handles for a hand-crafted, bespoke look.
Field Company of New York has kept the 1930s look but made the pans much lighter (and easier on the wrist).