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Iron Chef

The entire town of Solomonville, Arizona, heard their bickering, even through the thick walls of their adobe house, and they say that when my great-grandfather left my great-grandmother and lit out for the border in 1898 he was one step ahead of a well-aimed cast-iron frying pan.

homecooking iron pan

So maybe my reliance on my ten-and-a-half-inch skillet runs in the female line, although I have never lobbed it at anyone. I like it too much.

I’m not sure when that pan entered the family, but I do remember it hanging on one of the barn doors in my parents’ house in Connecticut, as a counterweight. One day many years ago I made off with it, scrubbed away the rust, and put it back in use. Since then I have rarely cooked with anything else. Oh, if I’m making a vat of something, I’ll drag out its daddy, a huge and incredibly heavy 12-inch skillet, also cast iron. But that ten-and-a-half-inch pan is my favorite. These days, it is slick and black, a handsome, substantial thing, totally superior to lighter pans with their silver gleam and suspicious nonstick coatings. It has a pleasing weight in the hand, a lip at either side for pouring, a hole in the handle for hanging in the kitchen—or, as it did for so long, in the barn. If there ever was a maker’s name on the bottom, it has worn off. All that is left is the legend “10-1/2 Inches Made in Taiwan.”

A friend who had used cast-iron pans as a hut boy at a hostel on the Appalachian Trail told me never to wash cast iron with soap, and I never have. A well-seasoned pan is easily cleaned with hot water and, if necessary, a quick pass with a stiff brush. When food does stick, I give the skillet a good soak, attack it with coarse salt or, in dire cases, copper wool, re-oil it, and return it to the stove.

I use my pan in the morning to make omelets or pancakes and in the evening for stir-fries or steaks. I’ve baked upside-down cakes, cornbread, and tarts in it, indoors and out, and used it as a comal to warm tortillas. Put a lid on it and it’s a casserole. I wouldn’t trade it for a fancy dishwasher-safe titanium sauté pan—unless, of course, I found one hanging from a nail on a barn door.

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Mine's a lot like yours. I know it passed to me after at least 2 prior generations of women in my family. Its dark, gleaming profile puts the rest of my cookware to shame. I also have the hefty 12-incher, plus a tiny 6-inch and a dutch-oven as well, but the 10-inch is the oldest and most loved. There's almost nothing that can't be made with a decent iron skillet. The new and cheaply made ones are a sad imitation. You can feel how much lighter they are. Anyone who doesn't own one should find one in a truly dusty vintage store and pay whatever they ask for it. It's worth it!