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WV Culinary Team: The cast-iron skillet is rooted in Appalachian tradition – Charleston Gazette |

WV Culinary Team: The cast-iron skillet is rooted in Appalachian tradition – Charleston Gazette

A well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is often the mark of a skilled cook, your grandmother or an Appalachian. Often, all three.

While new kitchen gadgets, like avocado slicers or Instant Pots, line store shelves in flashy packaging, it’s cast iron, one of the oldest tools in the kitchen, that has stood the test of time.

Chefs from around the country have taken to cast iron, celebrating its ability to retain heat, while being naturally nonstick and functional for caramelizing, roasting, simmering, stewing and baking.

And, while cast iron is experiencing a renaissance in famed restaurants country-wide, it has been a mainstay in West Virginia’s culinary arsenal. This trend turning toward craftsmanship and tradition is a hallmark of Appalachian heritage.

Cast iron has been around for thousands of years — initially in the form of Dutch ovens or spiders (a pan with a handle and three legs) that could be cooked in a hearth or fireplace. When household stoves became more commonplace, cast-iron pots or pans with flat bottoms were introduced — specifically, the cast-iron skillet.

Cast-iron skillets — usually made by Griswold or Wagner — could be found in nearly every home in the country until the 1960s or ‘70s. That’s when Teflon-coated nonstick aluminum and stainless steel became popular, due to their lightweight form that could heat more quickly on gas or electric stoves.

Rather than buying new pans, cast iron in Appalachia persisted, and, ultimately, became symbolic of the Appalachian kitchen. So much so that, according to Mark F. Sohn in “Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture and Recipes,” “cast iron is Appalachian to its core.”

Cast iron shares similar traits associated with Appalachia: It’s hard-working, ingenuitive and steadfast.

Liana Krissoff, a cookbook author who resides in Morgantown, said, “The main point of having a couple of good cast-iron pieces is that you really don’t need much else in the way of cookware or bakeware, and that can be useful when space and budgets are tight.

“Cast iron is sturdy, and it’ll last generations. I use a skillet and a small round griddle that my mom handed down to me years ago, and they’re better than ever.”

Today, the Lodge Manufacturing company is the most well-known maker of cast-iron cookware that transforms modern-day chefs into 19th-century ones — naturally seasoning pots and pans with fats from food that bond to the metal surface, rather than relying on synthetic agents like Teflon.

How to season cast iron

While the way those cooks prepared food naturally seasoned their skillets, it’s a little bit more work to make a cast-iron skillet nonstick. Here is a basic how-to from Southern Living, though there are variations on preference:

Scrub the skillet with soap and hot water to strip it clean. Let it dry completely.

Rub a thin layer of oil all over the cookware. Wipe off the excess with a cloth or paper towel.

Place it upside down on a middle oven rack, and bake for an hour at 375 degrees. Place aluminum foil underneath to catch any drippings.

Let the skillet cool to room temperature in the oven.

“They are … virtually indestructible. Those pans that I bought at that yard sale … will be as good 50 years from now as they are today,” said Sam Wilkinson, a Morgantown resident and cast-iron aficionado, who bought his first pieces at a neighborhood yard sale.

Rusted over and hidden behind other merchandise, the cast-iron pans were brought back to life in Wilkinson’s hands.

“This really differentiates iron from nonstick skillets, for example, which will wear down, even under the best of circumstances, and which cannot be fixed once they do,” he said. “If a cast iron’s seasoning goes bad — for whatever reason — it can be stripped and started over and, within a relatively short period of time, be right back to where it was.”

How to care for cast iron

“People are very very very particular about their usage and maintenance of cast iron. Some will insist that cast iron cannot be cleaned with soap. Some people will insist that cast iron cannot be used to cook acidic foods [like tomatoes].

“Some people will insist that they cannot be seasoned with olive oils. And I’m particular in my own way too, of course, but I tend to think that people who care about their tools are going to do just fine taking care of them, even if they do things differently from one another,” Wilkinson said.

Here are his top tips for caring for cast iron:

Cleaning does not require much: scrape out the leftover food with a spatula (metal is fine), dry the pan thoroughly (water will lead to rust), and then oil it lightly with your most used cooking fat. It should look shiny when you’re finished.

Do not put cold anything into hot cast iron, he added. This means do not throw a steak straight from the fridge into a pan that hasn’t been properly heated. Do not deglaze a hot pan with ice water. Room temperature and warmer is the safer way to go.

Do not put your cast iron on an electric range and crank the heat straight to 10. Heating up cast iron too quickly can warp it, and there is no way to fix warped cast iron, he said.

Wilkinson joins a host of other Appalachian cooks who take pride in caring for a piece of cast iron. Laboring over this piece of cookware that has such deep roots in Appalachian culture helps connect us to our heritage — especially if it’s a piece that has been passed down for generations. The resourcefulness of our Appalachian ancestors persists through food.

“I think the idea of using a parent’s, a grandparent’s, a great-grandparent’s tool to do the job appeals to a certain mindset. We enjoy remembering and celebrating and acknowledging our history. Doing that with a physical thing that those same people used themselves? Not a copy mind you, but the actual item? It helps us to remember,” Wilkinson said. “And, of course, we also use it because it continues to be incredibly useful in making the foods we like.”

Appalachian food is rooted in tradition. This traditional way of cooking is one way Appalachians continue to share their story. And, with each bite, that food embodies culture, passion and heritage. And, the cast-iron skillet is the perfect conduit.

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