A cast iron skillet is one of the most useful pans you can have in your kitchen. They're unmatched for getting a good, flavourful sear on a steaks and chops, but they can also be used to make cheesy dips, whole roast chickens and the ooey gooey desserts of your wildest dreams. Photos by Adam Bahan, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Laurel F. and Yasmin Fahr.
When it comes to the cast iron skillet, you can believe the hype. In fact, if you only have room for one pan in your kitchen, a cast iron should be it. When treated properly, they're virtually non-stick, meaning you can cook pretty much anything in them, from eggs to steak. (The only thing you should avoid is exposing your pan to a lot of acid for a long period of time. A little deglazing won't hurt, but acid can react with the metal in any not perfectly seasoned spots.) They get super hot and stay hot, letting you get things super crispy (and crispy is the best mouthfeel, in my opinion). They're also reasonably inexpensive and last forever, so there's really no reason not to have one. If you need help picking one out, or have questions on how to season or care for it, check out our cast iron skillet edition of Kitchen Tool School.
In terms of versatility, a fondue pot is the opposite of a cast iron skillet. I happen to own both, and I bet you can guess which gets more play in the kitchen. You would think that melted cheese would be the one arena where the fondue pot would emerge victorious, but the skillet's ability to retain heat keeps cheesy dips melty and gooey, no candle required.
If it's easy, cheesy decadence you're after, the above video shows you how to make a super simple yet complexly flavoured chorizo queso fundido, which combines roasted poblanos, delicious chorizo and mozzarella into one tasty skillet of magic.
If you want something a little smoother, America's Test Kitchen has a great recipe for beer and cheddar fondue in their new book Cook It In Cast Iron, which combines 2 cups each of American and cheddar cheeses with 1 ½ cups beer of boiling beer, a clove of garlic and some other tasty spices. The secret to keep everything nice and flowing? A bit of cornstarch, which is tossed with the shredded cheese before being added to the beer. If you don't have that book yet, give Ina Garten's baked fontina a try. (It's basically just a skillet of melted cheese, but really, how bad can that be?)
If you want to get real crazy you can kill two birds with one pan by baking your delicious dipping bread right alongside your delicious dip, like this recipe for skillet cheese dip with pull apart bread from The Cookie Rookie.
I'm an equal opportunity pizza eater. Neapolitan, New York style, deep dish, crappy bar pizza, even the stuff from the chains: I'll eat it all. (In fact, as I type this, I am wearing a Pizza Hut branded shirt, because I am a shill for Big Pizza.) You won't be able to make every type of pizza in your cast iron, but you can make two different types of very delicious Food Lab-perfected pizza.
The first is the super easy, super fast, super crispy bar-style tortilla pizza, which Serious Eats' J Kenji Lopez-Alt can show you how to make in 15 minutes flat. Though some pizza purists may balk at using a tortilla rather than a "proper" dough, Kenji thinks pretty highly of it, and I trust Kenji. It's also just so simple and fun to make. Because these things can be assembled and cooked so quickly, you can really play around with toppings. Just throw a flour tortilla in there, sauce it up, get real cheesy and pop it under the broiler. Because the pizza is lovingly cradled by the skillet, you get to keep every single bit of cheese, which crisps up delightfully around the edges.
The second pie is of the pan variety. Yup, the bready, bubbly, thick-crusted pan pizza you used to get "personal" with at the pizza chains of your youth. Though this one requires the making of a dough, it's a very easy dough, making this a great recipe for easing your way into pizza making. Get the full recipe here.
If you want a thinner, more "traditional" style crust, you can always flip your skillet over and use it as a (small) pizza stone and, if you happen to have leftovers (though I know you guys never do) you should skip the microwave and reheat your extra slices in a medium-hot skillet covered with tented foil for about five minutes. This will get your cheese all melted while reviving the crust back to its original, crispy glory.
Whole Roasted Chicken
There's more than one way to roast a chicken (it can even be done in a slow cooker!), but this may be the easiest. It's really as easy as rubbing the bird with a little butter, seasoning to your liking and plopping it in your cast iron pan. Our very own Alan Henry does this once a week, and he is kind enough to share his method with you:
Preheat your oven WITH THE CAST IRON IN IT. When it's good and hot, season the bottom of the pan with a little salt and fresh cracked pepper, whatever you want on your chicken (garlic powder works great too.) Then melt some butter. While the pan is still hot, go ahead and drop the bird right into it. Those toasty seasonings will stick right to the underside of the chicken. Stuff the bird with lemon and some herbs if you have em lying around, then pour the butter over the bird, making sure to get it all over the nooks and crannies (we use about a half-stick I think, just to give it a good coating.) Then season the top of the bird with the same seasonings - salt, pepper, etc. Pop the whole thing into the oven till it's done.
Works beautifully, you get amazing crispy skin on the top and the wings and everything, and plenty of buttery drippings when you lift the bird out for gravy (strain first!) or to roast veggies in while you let the bird rest!
Lasagne and Other Baked Pastas
Lasagne does not have to be rectangular. You may think that, due to the shape of the pasta, you are limited to right-angled pans, but you would be deliciously incorrect. You are indeed free to make hot, cheesy, bubbly lasagne in your cast iron skillet. Get and prep your pasta normally, but instead of laying them all flat on the bottom of the skillet, put down a layer of sauce first, to keep things nice and moist. (A sausage-y sauce works well here, as all that fat will help keep things from drying out.) Then just do as ATK suggests and shingle seven pasta halves around the edge of the skillet, placing the eighth in the centre. Top that with some full fat ricotta, then mozzarella, then more sauce. Repeat until your skillet is full. You can get ATK's recipe here (warning: paywall) or you could check out this one from the blog How Sweet It Is.
There's also no need to limit yourself to lasagne. This baked ziti recipe from Serious Eats is the ultimate in one-pot comfort food, with everything being down in the skillet from start to finish. Click the link above, but it's pretty easy. Just sauté some garlic and chilli flakes and add in some canned tomatoes to make a sauce. Add some chicken broth and your pasta, and let boil until the pasta is just firm. Top with cheese, and let everything get intimate in the oven until it's all brown and bubbly.
Pies, Cookies and Other Sweets
Cook it in Cast Iron has a ton of delicious uses for your (now favourite) pan, but the desserts section really takes the cake, and pie, and cookie. As the video above explains, you actually don't even need a specific recipe, as any pie can be cooked in a cast iron pan. If you happen to be in search of a new pie recipe, the ATK book has great apple and blueberry offerings, but this easy skillet apple pie from the Food Network or this double crust cherry pie from Joy the Baker will get you by. For a double crusted pie, you'll need to divide the dough a little differently than you usually would. Since a cast iron pan is deeper than a regular pie plate, you'll need 60 per cent of the dough for the bottom crust, rather than the usual half.
Now on to my personal obsession: the skillet cookie. Have you ever had a skillet cookie? They are perhaps the platonic ideal of dessert. Warm, sticky sweet, topped with ice cream, with crispy little burnt sugar bits along the edges. In my ignorant youth, I thought they could only be obtained at BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse, but the I wised up and realised "duh, I can make these," and so can you.
Ree Drummond has a recipe for the classic chocolate chip, but I don't know that you need a "special" recipe. Just make your favourite cookie dough (like maybe this Oreo Pizzokie knockoff), smoosh it in the pan and bake at 175C until golden brown. Put a bunch of ice cream on it and destroy that thing.
Even if the the cast iron skillet was only good for searing steaks, it would still be worth owning, as a good sear is a wonderful thing. It is however nice to know that it can be used for so much more. If fact, you could take every other pan out of my kitchen, and I'd be OK. It'd be a steady diet of pizza and skillet cookies, but I'd survive.