The Care and Feeding of Skillets

If you’re going to make great buttermilk cornbread, you’re going to need a skillet, or a corn-stick pan — a special device with cute little indentations shaped like corn ears — made of cast iron. My mother has given me a corn-stick pan that used to belong to her grandmother. It might be 150 years old! And it still makes great cornbread.

Anyway, whatever you use to cook cornbread in, it must not only be made of cast iron. It must also be properly seasoned.

Seasoning a skillet does not mean adding 11 different herbs and spices. It is a polite southern euphemism for lubricating.

Good old cast-iron skillet (Experimental Fictions blog, Dickinson University)
When you first buy a skillet, it’s dry as a bone. This will never do, because food will stick to it. And you also run the risk of the skillet getting rusty, which will render it useless for anything other than the scrap heap or hand-to-hand combat.

The recommended way to season a skillet is:

  1. Pre-heat the oven to about 180 degrees F.
  2. Spread a thin layer of vegetable shortening all over the inside of the skillet. (Don’t use bacon drippings because they’re too salty; not to mention the nitrites.)
  3. Put the skillet in the heated oven.
  4. Turn the oven off, and leave the skillet in it overnight.
  5. Do this a time or two more if necessary, until the skillet has acquired a nice dull sheen. Now you’re ready to use your skillet!

I have used olive oil instead of shortening, which seems OK, although the olive oil doesn’t have quite as neutral a presence as shortening does. (What I’m trying to say is, it smells.) Nowadays I use a high-heat oil with no discernible taste, such as canola or safflower oil.

Cleaning the Skillet

This topic is fraught with controversy, so just be aware of what you’re getting into.

According to my mother (and many other southern cooks), you never should wash your skillet with soap and water, because that will drain it of its carefully nurtured lubrication. She says you should just wipe it out with a paper towel after each use and, if necessary, re-season it with shortening. My mother is a bonafide expert, so if you follow that advice I’m sure you’ll do fine.

Many times I’ve just wiped out my skillet after using it, maybe adding a teaspoon of olive oil and rubbing it in. But there are times when a culinary disaster leaves a sticky residue of eggs, cheese, or charred vegetable remnants in the skillet. When that happens, I don’t hesitate to use soap and water.

I am careful to rinse it thoroughly so there’s no soap taste left. If there are still too many odicrons (scientific term for invisible odor-producing particles) on the surface, after washing I’ll sometimes put a couple of tablespoons of water into the skillet and tilt it to coat the surface before drying it on a hot stove eye. If the odor persists, I’ll use some steel wool and lemon juice to scrub the skillet and then rinse it some more until it’s lost its eau de cuisine.

I’m sure there are many culinary purists out there who will be outraged that I would even suggest actually washing a skillet. However, it can be done, if you follow certain precautions. This is extremely important–I put the skillet on top of the stove and turn the eye to medium for about five minutes (or actually, more like 15 minutes, because I usually go off and forget it). I do this to thoroughly dry out the skillet, thus almost entirely eliminating any risk of rust.

Then I wait for the skillet to cool down and treat it with olive oil as mentioned above. (Or you can use shortening; suit yourself.) I’ve been doing this for several years, and my skillet is a work of art, if I do say so my own self.

Whichever method you use, your rewards for keeping your skillet properly seasoned are:

  1. Food will not stick to it. Believe me, this is better than Teflon® and Pam™ put together.
  2. It will last you for years and years and possibly become an heirloom. (“Neat. Margie got the crystal, but I got the skillet.”)
  3. You will be sure to impress the boss if he or she ever comes over for dinner. (“Say, Dick! This skillet is beautiful! What’s your secret?”)

Now You’re Ready!

Okay, now you’re all set to make cornbread! Let me know how yours turns out. If you have any other good cornbread recipes, please send them my way.

Back to Cornbread, Y’all

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