By Anne Byrn
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Beloved by home cooks and professionals alike, the cast iron skillet is one of the most versatile pieces of equipment in your kitchen arsenal. Perfect for every meal of the day, the cast iron pan can be used to cook eggs, sear meat, roast whole dinners, and serve up dessert warm from the oven.
Bestselling author Anne Byrn has carefully curated 160 recipes to be made in one simple 12-inch cast iron skillet. These are dishes everyone can enjoy, from appetizers and breads like Easy Garlic Skillet knots to side dishes like Last-Minute Scalloped Potatoes, from brunch favorites to one-pot suppers like Skillet Eggplant Parmesan. And of course, no Anne Byrn cookbook would be complete without her innovative cakes like Georgia Burnt Caramel Cake, cookies like Brown Sugar Skillet Blondies, and pies and other delicious treats.
Scattered throughout are fun tidbits about the origin of the cast iron skillet and how to properly season and care for them. Anne Byrn has crafted an informational, adaptable, and deliciously indispensable guide to skillet recipes the whole family is sure to love.
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A Timeless Classic
“Trapped within the iron confines of these skillets… are the scents and secrets of a family’s culinary history.”
—JOHN T. EDGE
“Things of quality have no fear of time.”
“Fashion changes, but style endures.”
MY LOVE AFFAIR with cast iron did not begin forty years ago when I bought an old 12-inch Griswold at an Atlanta estate sale. Someone had cared for that ebony-black skillet. Someone had fried chicken in it. Made cornbread, too. It was shiny and smooth, with no hint of rust or neglect.
I adopted it into my family of pots and pans, and it moved with us from Atlanta to Nashville, and in between was crated and shipped to and from England, where it roasted lamb and potatoes for friends. No matter the kitchen, and no matter the occasion, my skillet fit in, segueing from anniversary dinners of seared salmon to Saturday pancakes with kids.
And yet, I never showered it with praise. That was reserved for the French copper pans I brought back from cooking school in Paris. You could say that this humble iron skillet with the perfect patina had been like a relief player, waiting for the one recipe to get my attention.
Then one July afternoon two years ago, I grabbed the skillet on a whim and poured in a favorite pound cake batter. That cake rose to a glorious height. The crust on top was golden and crackly, and the interior crumb was even and smooth. I had never baked such a perfect pound cake. My skillet, practiced and ready, performed like a seasoned pro and knocked that cake out of the park. In that instant, I fell in love. Yes, in love with my skillet.
It should have been sooner, because I was made for the efficiency of cast iron. Give me a sharp knife and a decent cutting board, and I am ready to cook. I prep many recipes with just a bowl and a wooden spoon. The cast-iron skillet is that same sort of basic tool.
Plus, raising children and being concerned about their health as well as my own, I should have given the iron skillet credit for being naturally nonstick. Unlike the artificial nonstick surfaces on many pans that cannot be placed over high heat lest they impart harmful chemicals into our food, the iron skillet begs for high heat. It is iron, for goodness’ sake, forged at extreme heat so you can safely crank up the stove or oven and let the pan get seriously hot to sear, sizzle, roast, fry, blister, bake, braise, and caramelize, introducing big, bold, restaurant-quality flavors in the process.
I’ve spent a lifetime reading about, listening to, and interviewing famous chefs. I have quizzed them on the little details that make a recipe better. I remembered Lydie Marshall’s suggestion in a cooking class decades ago when she advocated cast-iron skillets instead of copper. While writing this book, I tracked down Lydie in the South of France and asked her via email why someone so knowledgeable about French cooking chose iron over copper. Her answer was simple: Cast-iron pans are more affordable.
And therein lies another attribute: The cast-iron skillet is the pan of the everyday. You might desire copper or stainless steel, but you can afford cast iron. It is no-frills and authentic. It is for starting out and paring down. It is the only pan you ever need. And it works with you wherever you are on the timeline of life because it is wonderfully vintage and also modern and relevant. It bakes fruit pies, crostatas, cobblers, and pound cakes with rustic beauty. It sears tuna to perfection. It roasts mussels, corn on the cob, even cashews. It produces crisp-sided no-knead breads and pizzas that taste as if they were baked in a wood-fired oven. And on weeknights, it is a time saver because you can pile the entire meal into it, leaving only one pan to wash.
This book, Skillet Love, is my salute to the timeless, sustainable 12-inch cast-iron skillet. I’m not alone in my adoration, as there are collectors and devotees around the globe. But this is my deep dive, and I share recipes, advice, discoveries, and musings in the hopes you will pull out your skillet right now and not wait forty years to fall in love with it.
THE TEN PRINCIPLES OF CAST-IRON COOKING: UNDERSTANDING THE MAGIC
People might have originally cooked with cast iron because it was the only pan available, but today we have options. I wanted to understand why this skillet makes our food taste good so that we can be intentional about cooking with it.
If you take away one thing from this book, it should be that the cast-iron skillet allows you to cook boldly. Big flavors are achieved by a number of techniques and tricks, but the most important is high heat. The next time you dine out and look into the open kitchen at your favorite restaurant, you will likely see fire and flame. You will hear sizzling, and you will smell char. In the world of food science, that means flavor.
When steaks, fish fillets, or pork chops hit a hot pan, their proteins immediately stick to the pan, but after a while, the food releases and reveals a crust. That crust seals in flavors. It’s the same principle in baking. The crisp exterior of a cake baked in iron allows the inside to be delicate and tender. High heat and hot sears are made possible with cast iron because the skillet can be heated dry without cracking, warping, or burning. It loves heat.
Here are my ten discoveries about why food cooked in a cast-iron skillet tastes so good:
1. The Hot Sear: Steaks, Chops, and Fish
When you cook a steak or chop, let the skillet heat up on the stove or in the oven before you add the meat. That way, the skillet soaks up all the heat and retains it so that when the food hits the pan, it sears.
Let’s be honest—cast-iron skillets are not the best at heating evenly. That’s because the thermal conductivity, or how it transfers heat within the pan, is low. But these skillets are the best at retaining heat—better than carbon steel pans—so even when cold steaks are added to the hot iron pan, the skillet temperature stays hot enough to sear. You just need to preheat that pan on top of the stove or in the oven. Use the heaviest iron skillet you’ve got, because it retains even more heat. And if you are really serious about searing, heat two skillets for steak: one to sear the first side, and the second hot skillet ready to sear the second. It’s important to leave the food untouched for several minutes while it sears. This allows the juices to be locked in and the seasoning on the outside to char.
Well, one more thing: Searing in cast iron is a little like Cinderella going to the ball and needing to be gone before the stroke of midnight. When your gorgeous steak is perfectly seared to doneness and doesn’t need further cooking, you’ve got to quickly sweep that steak out of the pan and onto a plate or it will overcook from the skillet’s residual heat—what remains after the stove is turned off. Use this remaining heat in the skillet to simmer a quick pan sauce to pour over the steak on the plate. More on that in discovery #10.
2. Stir-Fry: Just Like a Wok
Cast-iron skillets can be used to replicate Chinese takeout in your kitchen, so choose a skillet with the deepest walls. You will need the pan depth to toss around ingredients and keep them moving so they stir-fry (thus, the name). Stir-fry works in cast iron because the skillet can get hot enough, needs just a tablespoon of oil, and the ingredients cook quickly.
To begin, prep all your ingredients, making sure they are chopped about the same size so they cook in about the same amount of time. Heat the skillet over medium-high heat. Add about a tablespoon of peanut oil, which has the highest smoke point of the oils, or your favorite neutral vegetable oil. Add your seasonings, like grated fresh ginger or minced garlic. Keep everything moving by stirring so it does not burn. Add the veggies and stir-fry, then remove them and add your protein—shrimp, scallops, thinly sliced chicken, lean pork, or beef, or tofu cubes. Stir-fry no more than 12 ounces at a time so the food fries but does not steam. Remove the protein, add the sauce and let it cook down a bit, and then throw everything back in the skillet for a good stir.
The benefits of stir-frying regularly are a happy family, a healthy diet, and a skillet with a deep, black, well-seasoned glow.
3. Dry-Roast: From Nuts to Pizza
When you heat the skillet and then add food without any fat, you are dry-roasting. This is the method used by the wives of the Brittany fishermen hundreds of years ago to cook fresh mussels. It also works for roasting nuts of all types—cashews, pecans, walnuts, and even peanuts in the shell.
Dry-roasting also improves the crust on pizza and breads like English muffins. In the case of pizza, you first dust the hot skillet with a little cornmeal before adding the dough. This is a bread-baking trick used in wood-fired ovens. If the cornmeal turns golden brown when it hits the pan, the pan is hot enough to add the pizza dough. The pizza bakes crispy on the bottom and is done in 12 to 15 minutes.
Another benefit of dry-roasting is that there is little cleanup. In most cases you can simply wipe the skillet clean with a damp paper towel.
4. Roast with Oil: Bring on the Vegetables
Anyone who uses their skillet day in and day out to feed the family has most likely roasted with oil. You heat up the skillet, add a little olive oil and some chopped vegetables or meat, and place the pan in the oven. It couldn’t be easier or more successful.
The process works because the oil acts as a barrier, at first preventing the food from sticking to the skillet. As the heat of the oven extracts moisture from the vegetables or meat, they begin to stick to the skillet, and this becomes that delicious seared flavor.
I can’t think of a vegetable that isn’t improved by roasting in oil in cast iron. Before serving, sprinkle on your favorite salt and freshly ground black pepper, or maybe a handful of chopped fresh herbs, or a teaspoon of grated lemon zest. You taste the vegetable, you get these amazing compliments, and you know it was the skillet that did the work. You can also roast cubes of chicken or fish for salads or curries, or slices of steak for paninis. Again, heat the pan first, add the oil, and then add the food.
As to what oil is best, use olive oil or the vegetable oil you like best for cooking. But beware of butter, for it will burn and can taste bitter. Ghee—or clarified butter—is a better choice.
5. Sear, Then Braise: Create a Skillet Supper
Using the skillet as the one pan that cooks it all might seem new, but it’s really an old and trusted technique of searing and then braising. Your grandmother knew it would gently cook tough but flavorful cuts of meat. Today, we apply this method to cooking most anything. You heat the skillet, add a little oil, and first sear your proteins that need some time to cook, such as bone-in chicken, steaks, or fish fillets, then remove them. The exceptions are foods that cook quickly, such as shrimp or scallops—they are instead added near the end of the process.
Then you add flavors to the hot pan, like onion and garlic and ginger and let them cook. Next, you deglaze and scrape, adding wine, beer, or stock to the skillet and scraping up the bottom of the pan to release the bits of cooked food and flavor. Next, add your veggies, like fresh or frozen peas, chopped green beans, asparagus spears, or zucchini strips, and let them cook. The protein is then returned to the skillet—or, in the case of shrimp and scallops, everything in the skillet is moved to the side to make room for them to cook on their own in a bare area.
You can get a lot more elaborate and braise shanks of lamb, thick pork chops and roasts, and whole chickens. But you will need a lid for these longer-cooking recipes—either tempered glass or cast iron.
6. Fry: Why Grandma’s Skillet Still Looks Good Today
It’s no secret how the black patina developed on an heirloom skillet. It fried chicken! Oil is the best friend to the skillet. It keeps it protected, impervious to any moisture that might cause it to rust. Think of oil on a skillet like moisturizer on your skin. Frying is the direct route to a gorgeous jet-black skillet. Heat plus oil builds the patina and makes your skillet naturally nonstick.
And while health experts say we should not exist on a diet of fried food, treats such as skillet-fried chicken or homemade doughnuts are worthy splurges. The chicken I fry in cast iron is life changing. I don’t fry it every day, nor even once a week. But when I do, my husband smiles. It is the fried chicken he remembers from childhood. With just one bite he is instantly transported back to his mother’s kitchen in Chattanooga.
The iron skillet is able to fry so well and create these strong memories because it is heavy, retains heat, and is durable. You don’t need an electric fryer. You just need your skillet, oil, and heat.
7. Bake: From Sticky Buns to Tarte Tatin
It was a pound cake recipe that opened my eyes to the possibilities awaiting us with the iron skillet. You, too, can adapt your favorite cake, bread, and pie recipes to the 12-inch skillet, and it’s a fun process.
The easiest cakes to adapt are those that are sturdy. The Cast-Iron Pound Cake (here) and other cakes with structure and substance can bake to doneness inside while the outside develops a delicious crust. You can serve them right out of the skillet, or in the case of the Brown Sugar Birthday Cake (here), unmold, pour over a quick icing, and light the candles. And then there is Fresh Pineapple Upside-Down Cake (here), the most famous cake cooked in cast iron. It works because the flavors of brown sugar and pineapple caramelize on the bottom of the skillet; when inverted, this canopy of flavor trickles down into the moist cake underneath. Before they were called upside-down cakes, they were just known as skillet cakes.
When ovens were fueled by wood fire and later by coal, it was the skillet that was tough enough to withstand the heat. Our thin metal baking tins didn’t come along until electric and gas ovens had modernized the baking process. A relative newcomer recipe to skillet baking is a large chocolate chip cookie popularized in restaurants and now fun to make, bake, and serve piled with ice cream at home. Sticky buns and other sweet rolls, as well as coffee cakes, pies, and crisps, can all be baked in skillets.
8. Caramelize: From Onions to Fruit Pies
As I mentioned, the magic of the pineapple upside-down cake happens when the sugars in the pineapple caramelize in the heat of the pan. The retained, constant heat of the skillet allows fruit—whether pineapple, peaches, cranberries, apples, or bananas—to give up its juices, and those juices evaporate until what is left is a syrup of condensed fruit and caramelized sugar. This makes for the beginning of wonderful pies, cakes, and condiments with rich, deep flavor.
Caramelization also happens when you slowly cook down onions until they’re deep brown and sweet. And it happens when you sear salmon, remove the fish, and add balsamic vinegar and garlic, or soy sauce and ginger, to the pan, let it cook in the skillet’s heat, and then pour over the fish.
A famous example of caramelization is the classic Old-Fashioned Delta Caramel Icing (here). You caramelize sugar in the iron skillet, then use another pan to heat the rest of the ingredients. The two mixtures are combined and stirred with love until thick and smooth enough to frost a cake.
9. Grill: Take the Skillet Outdoors
Anything you cook on top of the stove in cast iron can be taken outside to the charcoal or gas grill and cooked in cast iron there. And if you are cooking foods with strong flavors, with a lot of smoke and heat, it just might be best to head outdoors anyhow so your smoke alarm doesn’t go off! Trout, salmon, and all kinds of fish, especially fried fish, are best cooked outdoors. It becomes the perfect activity for entertaining, and just as guests tend to gather in the kitchen, they will gather outside when the cooking takes place there.
One of my favorite recipes to prepare in a skillet outside is burgers. They are so much moister and tastier than burgers cooked directly on a grill. You can really press down on the patties to get crispy edges and not worry about grease spattering all over your clean stove.
10. Cook with Residual Heat: Perfect for Sauces
As I have mentioned in these suggestions and will repeat throughout the recipes, you should take advantage of the residual heat that has built up in your skillet. Don’t waste it! Toss something into that pan—off heat.
It might be slices of garlic bread, or a dash of vermouth and a pat of butter to sizzle and pour over your roasted trout, salmon, or red snapper. Or it might be pouring off the grease from frying chicken, and then mixing up a quick cream or tomato gravy to pour over the chicken and mashed potatoes.
After cooking steaks, chicken, chops, mushrooms, or fish, you can whip up a quick and easy sauce to pour over. Simply add a tablespoon or two of butter to the hot skillet, stir it around to scrape up bits of cooking juices, and then pour in about ⅓ cup of your choice of liquid and flavorings:
Vermouth and 1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
Dry sherry and 1 tablespoon sorghum or molasses
Cabernet and ¼ cup sautéed shallot
Champagne and 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Bourbon and 1 tablespoon bacon jam
I’ve even used the leftover heat in the pan to make ice cream. After toasting pecans in butter in the skillet, I remove the pecans and stir together a custard. It cooks to perfect thickness without heat. Then I pour the custard into a stainless steel bowl and chill it. An hour later, I’m churning homemade Butter Pecan Skillet Ice Cream (here). Delicious!
A HISTORY OF THE CAST-IRON SKILLET
Two hundred years ago, when Brittany fishermen brought fresh mussels back into port, their wives would toss some of the mussels on sheets of cast iron, under which they had built small fires. In this old French recipe called moules brûles-doigts—or burn-your-fingers mussels—the still-briny bivalves opened and provided instant satiation to the hungry fishermen. It was a far cry from the skillet we use in our kitchens today, but it is part of the intriguing use of cast iron in cooking.
Iron oxide—a compound of iron and oxygen—exists naturally in Earth’s crust. Iron artifacts date back to 3000 BC, and the Chinese are credited with making the first cast-iron tools in the sixth century BC. When cast iron made its way to Europe in the fifteenth century, it was mostly used for artillery and in fashioning parts for bridges.
Cast iron is so named because the hot liquid iron is cast (poured) into molds, where it takes shape. Foundries today begin making a skillet by using what is called “pig iron,” or a poured and hardened iron, along with scraps of steel. In the United States, foundries monitor the ingredients in the iron and added steel with a spectrometer so as not to include too many so-called tramp elements, such as titanium, tin, and chromium, in the process. In too large a concentration, these tramp elements can cause cracking in the cast iron. In addition, there is up to 4 percent carbon naturally found in cast iron, and carbon is important because it forms graphite flakes inside the iron that provide better heat retention and transfer when you cook.
One of the first cast-iron cooking pots was a three-footed round-bottomed iron pot designed to cook over a fire. These pots and pans became known as “spiders” because of their long legs. When indoor kitchen stoves arrived in the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, the shape of the round-bottomed pots changed to flat-bottomed pans and skillets that fit snugly on stoves. The derivation of the word skillet is unclear—it’s likely either Old Norse for “bucket” or Middle French for “a little dish.”
Cast Iron Manufacturing in America
The first iron works in the United States was along the James River in Virginia, established in 1608. Named Falling Creek, it produced iron from bog ore, found in the Tidewater marshes and streambeds. But it was short-lived, and depleted thousands of acres of hardwood trees burned to make charcoal, which fueled the foundry. Later, Saugus Iron Works in Massachusetts, now a National Historic Site, was the scene of another colonial foundry, where cast-iron cook-ware and tools were produced from 1646 to 1670. But most of our country’s cast iron production coincided with the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Cast iron was the first important structural metal in building America because of its load-bearing strength. It was used to build railways and bridges and some of our first skyscrapers until stronger steel replaced it in the twentieth century.
Cast iron manufacturing took up shop in the coal- and iron-rich belts of America. That mostly meant the Appalachian Mountain states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well as a part of Tennessee on the Cumberland Plateau that so resembled a locale to the north, it was named South Pittsburg. Coke—made by heating coal in the absence of oxygen—was the new fuel that fed the industry. And in spite of the automation that came with America’s growth, the first cast-iron skillets were made by hand. Sand molds for the skillets were formed, and the hot iron was hand-poured into the molds. After cooling, the skillets were sanded until smooth, creating a lighter, thinner, and smoother pan than what you can buy new today.
Iron skillet connoisseurs know the names of these early companies: Griswold in Erie, Pennsylvania (1865); Wagner in Sidney, Ohio (1881); Atlanta Stove Works in Atlanta, Georgia (1889); Lodge in South Pittsburg, Tennessee (1896). There were others, too, such as Birmingham Stove & Range, Favorite Stove & Range, Martin Stove & Range, Sidney Hollow Ware, Vollrath Manufacturing, and Wapak Hollow Ware. Lodge is the oldest continuously operating cookware manufacturer in the country and is still run by family members today.
Before electric ovens, before gas, when food was cooked over hot coals and in wood-fired chambers, cast iron helped feed families. When the heat from the burning wood was gone, cast-iron pans held that heat and allowed dinner to stay warm. And cast iron was essential to America’s westward expansion. Pioneers could pack skillets and Dutch ovens and thus cook on the trail, at camp, over an open flame. The iron was durable, tough, and resilient, just like the people who forged the new territories.
Skillet Love in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries
Americans never lost our love for cast iron—we just forgot about it. With all the new inventions in cookware in the twentieth century—aluminum, stainless steel, and nonstick pans—cast iron was replaced, and usage declined. A few vocal cooks and authors extolled its benefits in the 1970s, namely Lydie Marshall and Mollie Katzen. And in the early 1980s, at San Francisco’s Zuni Café, the late Judy Rodgers roasted her legendary chicken and bread salad in cast iron. She preferred the way a cast-iron skillet cooked hamburgers, too. I like to think that Rodgers, Marshall, and Katzen were more ahead-of-the-game than old-school.
Today, cast iron is experiencing a revival. Pastry chefs as well as home cooks choose cast iron for baking cakes and pies, in addition to the much-loved cornbread. Serious cooks and chefs pick cast iron to sear steaks and oven-roast fish. Classic cast iron recipes like Dutch Baby (here) have moved out of the home and onto restaurant brunch menus. Social media loves food photographed in cast iron not only because it looks gorgeous in the black pan, but also because it evokes authenticity and comfort. And cooks concerned about sustainability and health gravitate to iron.
New skillet manufacturers such as Finex, Stargazer, Field, Smithey Ironware, and Butter Pat bring fresh designs plus hand-casting and sanding—and higher price tags. Iron is recycled, molds are made from sand that comes from nearby dunes, and the designs replicate old cherished family skillets. You might think the cast-iron skillet is back in style, but to some it never left.
CHOOSING A SKILLET
The 12-inch skillet was my choice for this book because it can fry a whole chicken, bake a dozen biscuits, fit a big loaf of bread or a whole pound cake, and have enough surface area to build a one-skillet meal. And, according to housewares and cast iron experts, the 12-inch is the most purchased skillet out there.
Focusing on one size allowed me a constant for testing recipes for this book. The 12-inch skillet measures 12 inches from rim to rim, but the inside bottom of the skillet is just 10 inches.
I found only one slight difference in the various 12-inch skillets, and that is an ever-so-slight height difference. For frying, you want the deepest skillet you own. However, for baking and browning, it helps if the skillet is shallow enough to let the bread or cake bake to golden. But rather than prejudice one pan with one particular type of cooking, I simply rotated the skillets with all the recipes. And in the end, all the skillets were beautifully seasoned when this book project concluded.
All the skillets were made in the United States, which was important to me. And I used two I already owned: the smooth-surfaced heirloom Griswold that inspired me to write this book and a Lodge I found on the seconds shelf at the factory store several years back. The others I purchased were a new Smithey, a Butter Pat, and a two-handled Lodge for those recipes that go from stove to table.
The Lodge “factory-seasoned” skillets worked great for all recipes. The finish of the new Lodge pans is more pebbly than the older pans and the new boutique brands. But food in the Lodge pans never stuck, and Lodge attests that the seasoning on the pan has a better chance to get into the crevices and form its own barrier against water if the surface isn’t smooth as glass. Lodge was also the most affordable of the pans I purchased.
- On Sale
- Oct 29, 2019
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing