Culture // 5 min Read

High Heat: Handcrafting the Cast-Iron Skillet

Written by Michael Schottey

Sep 19, 2019

One of the most striking scenes in film history is in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy walks from the dreary gray of Kansas into the Technicolor beauty of Munchkinland. In 1939, it was not only a powerful visual, but a sea change of how movies could—and should—be made.

In the art of cooking, color has the same dramatic effect.

The humble beginnings of masters such as Jacques Pépin and Julia Child brought us “modern pop” food artists including Paula Deen, Rachael Ray, and Guy Fieri. While we may fawn over how our favorite chef cuts an onion or dresses a plate, it is the color that has us infatuated. We know Jamie Oliver’s perfectly seared steak tastes better than the gray (or black) lump we return from the grill. Veggies on our stoves don’t glisten, pop, or char like those in Ree Drummond’s pioneer kitchen.

What if they could?

Cast iron is a tool met by novice cooks like those seeing an easel and oil paints. Sure, one has a rough idea of what to do with the tools, but most aren’t comfortable enough to hop in and start painting our own happy little trees.

Isaac Morton of Smithey Ironware in Charleston has set out to put the artistry of cast iron into the hands of home cooks once again. His pans are sold nationally and are a fixture at Music to Your Mouth.

“I got started out of a passion for vintage cast iron,” Morton said. “I would collect, refurbish, and give away pans that were made 100 years ago. I wondered why modern pans weren’t made in a modern, polished style.”

It took a lot of failure and learning for Morton to recreate the work of cast-iron masters from a previous era.

“We spend a lot of time finishing and polishing the surface of our pans,” Morton said. “So, they are really smooth, which makes for a pan that is easier to clean and as nonstick as naturally possible.”

The benefit of cooking with cast iron is the high, consistent heat. Morton mentioned searing steaks and frying burgers as great foods to try out, but he had a surprising entry for what might turn nonbelievers into devotees: mushrooms.

“It’s really important that mushrooms are cooked over high heat or on a surface that holds heat well,” Morton said. “Mushrooms hold a lot of moisture and release it while cooking.”

Much like the Wicked Witch, water is the death of well-cooked foods. It’s the difference between frying or roasting something and essentially steaming it.

What often keeps people from stepping into the magical world of cast iron are the many confusing dos and don’ts—especially when it comes to maintenance.

“Far and away, the most common misconception,” Morton said, “is that you shouldn’t use soap with a cast-iron skillet, but a bit of soap after each use won’t cause any problems.”

It’s really as simple as washing the pan with care and then making sure its fully dried and oiled, another point of contention.

“People get bent out of shape,” Morton continued, “but any oil can be used. Just bring it near or above its smoke point and only use a small amount, painting your pan with a really thin layer.”

The best thing one can do to take care of a new skillet? Cook in it!

“Your first few dishes,” Morton said, “cook ground beef and onions. The combination of fat and sugars helps create a really nice base around the seasoning.”

Morton’s favorite dish, however, is rack of lamb, which he believes is a dish near impossible to cook properly without cast iron. He seasons with rosemary, salt, and pepper before searing on the stovetop. Then, everything goes into a 400-degree oven until it’s a nice medium-rare.

He also spoke glowingly of a tradition his family has been creating on weekends: making Dutch babies. A hybrid between a pancake and a crepe, this sweet breakfast is best served right out of a cast-iron skillet, just like a good cornbread. Without a hot pan that holds its heat, the batter can’t get deliciously golden brown.

“Don’t get discouraged,” Morton said to aspiring cast-iron artists. “Cast iron is a marathon. Over time, it just gets better and better.”