Over the years I’ve collected bits and pieces once belonging to my mother to complete my kitchen. Prized possessions all of them – her well used, decades old recipe book, with her familiar script fading into the yellowing pages; the pale blue Royal Doulton dinner service; the silver fudge jar that once belonged to my grannie. When she passed last summer, I’ve felt the need to use all of them more frequently, perhaps channeling her in some way – their true value lying in sentiment and memory.
There is something deeply satisfying cooking with things that have been passed down through generations. Story built upon story with each recipe made and served. I never did inherit a cast iron pan, which didn’t bother me, until my love of the South and all things Southern in my grown up life began to take shape. Well-loved, well-seasoned cast iron heirlooms are often bequeathed in wills and family feuds have arisen depending on the pans placement. Southern cooks treat their cast iron skillet as a beloved friend – caring for them through regular cleaning, curing and most importantly cooking with them frequently.
My journey began in earnest in search of a cast iron pan a few years ago. It was important to me that the pan I bought had history. I wanted its surface to have held the accumulated flavors, seasoning, and residue of a generation worth of meals – hearty Savannah red rice, succotash, corn bread and peach cobbler.
Scouring thrift stores and antique stores from one end of Wilmington to the other I eventually found a 12 inch Lodge cast iron pan, stuck between an old toaster and cut glass candy bowls – the store-owner assuring me it was “very old.” A decade ago, before people realized just how valuable they were, vintage cast-iron pans were easy finds – purchased only by those who valued flavor over speed and convenience. But these days finding an old cast iron pan can take years and patience.
Turns out a cast iron pans made before 1957 are considered vintage. The term “Made in the USA” wasn’t stamped on pans until after automated manufacturing became the norm, so if you see this stamp, well then, the pan isn’t vintage.
Between 1800 and the early 1900s there were several major manufactures of cast iron cookware including Wagner, Griswald, Birmingham Stove & Range, and Lodge. In the tiny town of South Pittsburgh, on the Tennessee River west of Chattanooga,
Lodge has been a family run business for 120 years and has developed a somewhat cultish following among collectors.
Cooking with cast-iron is old school. While most have ditched their heavy, unwieldy bodies for lightweight non-stick ones, nothing compares to the quality of cast iron –lauded for its durability, versatility and ability to heat evenly.
During my research into vintage cast-iron skillets I learned that 19th and early 20th century pans were made with much more care and craftsmanship than many of the pans produced today. They were for one thing forged by hand: sand moulds were carefully made, the iron then poured by hand, which allowed for thinner, lighter cookware. The surfaces were also smoother – some companies used proprietary techniques to make “mirror polished” and “frosted” pans that had a sleeker, shinier finish than modern day cast iron pans. All of these methods made the pans easier to handle and season and therefore ultimately easier to cook with.
In 1707, Abraham Darby patented the sand casting method, which is similar to the way we make cast iron today. Because of Darby’s contribution, the 18th and 19th centuries saw a boom in cast iron cookware. They were so important to daily life that in his book, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith says, “They were worth more than gold.”
Manufacturing innovations meant that cast-iron pans became cheaper to produce, but the pans remained expensive because of the blacksmith’s labor to forge each one. By the turn of the twentieth century, they had become affordable and widely accessible.
The cast iron skillet has seen resurgence in recent years. More cooks are realizing that Southerners have had it right all along and as the Teflon age dies off, cast iron is still going strong.
Known not only for its ability to withstand high temperatures but also its ability to hold heat for longer periods than standard kitchen cookware. This means it’s easier to prepare dishes similar to what’s served at your favorite restaurants, whether you’re cooking beef, poultry, fish, vegetables or cakes.
The biggest difference between cast iron and other metals is its heat capacity, heat emissivity, and conducting properties. Depending on what you’re preparing, some suggest preheating your cast iron cookware by starting at low temperatures, which gives you more heat control since you’re gradually raising it.
With every use, the pan’s surface is renewed and even re-invented through the ritual of seasoning. Seasoning, transforms the cold, porous iron into lustrous black surface that imparts complex flavors and becomes naturally non-stick. Lodge and a few other new manufacturers now makes cast iron skillets that come pre-seasoned but all vintage cast iron pans will need to be seasoned. You’ll hear a number of stories and methods on how exactly this should be done as well the type of oil or lard to be used. Flaxseed oil is the most recommended these days, while vegetable oil or shortening is also common.
My own cast iron pan has been scrubbed and seasoned and is ready to begin anew. As strawberries come into season it seems only fitting to start a new generation of recipes in my skillet using my mothers buttermilk and strawberry cake recipe.
Strawberry Buttermilk Almond Skillet Cake
Makes 6 to 8 servings
¼ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
1 large egg
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup buttermilk
2 cups fresh strawberries, tops removed and thinly sliced lengthwise
¼ cup sliced almonds
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar
Preheat oven to 375°. Grease a 10-inch cast-iron skillet.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until light and pale, about 2 minutes. Add the vanilla, almond, and egg, and beat to combine.
In a medium bowl, combine flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Add half of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and combine. Add half of the buttermilk, and stir to combine. Repeat procedure once more until all of the flour mixture and buttermilk have been combined.
Spread batter into prepared skillet. Arrange sliced strawberries on top, pressing down gently. Sprinkle the top of the batter with sliced almonds and sprinkle with sugar.