A cook's favorite, sturdy tool

With proper care, cast-iron cookware can last generations.

Sturdy skillet: Cast-iron cookware is a favorite among chefs and experienced home cooks. To ensure its durability, use only coarse salt, water, and oil to clean and condition it.

There is nothing as reliable and long-lasting as cast-iron cookware. With just a little care, it will last a lifetime – no, make that generations.

Rumor has it that cast-iron cookware is a favorite of chefs worldwide. From stove-top to oven, there's no melting handles or dangerous fumes, the distribution of heat is always even, and no special cooking utensils are required. It's indestructible, except in the dishwasher, since a rapid change of temperature from hot to freezing can crack it.

But best of all, if properly seasoned, you can experience nonstick cooking without the oil.

I purchased my first cast-iron frying pan more than 30 years ago when I first set up house. I bought cast iron because that's what my mother and her mother had used. I did not treat this pan as it deserved to be treated, but it easily survived my ignorance.

Back then, a friend told me that cast iron has to be seasoned to protect it from rust, create a nonstick surface, and prevent the food from interacting with the iron. To season my pan, he explained that I should, "glaze the piece with a very thin coat of oil, then bake it at low heat in an oven overnight."

I tried that with a few pieces, but they came out gummy.

Years later, my brother came to the rescue. He hollered at me for washing my skillet with soap, and sternly informed me that it should only be cleaned with water, coarse salt, and hot oil – never soap. He seized my trusty-but-iffy skillet, scrubbed it with handfuls of coarse salt, and snatched the canola oil, pouring in a very small amount onto the skillet. Next, he proceeded to quickly heat the skillet to a high temperature, spreading the oil with a paper towel. When he was finished, it was smooth and clean.

Today, I clean all my cast iron with water, a sponge, and salt if necessary. In dire circumstances, I'll use a bit of soap, always drying it over a hot flame and adding a dash of oil if need be.

One sunny Saturday morning, I spied a cast-iron frying pan at the center ring of our town dump: the swap table. Here, household items of no use to others, but still in good working condition, are left to be taken by anyone. There the pan sat – a tad rusty and all alone.

"Who would throw out such a beautiful and reliable thing, and why?" my soul cried.

"Such a terrible waste," I mumbled to myself as I snatched it from the table and gave it a thorough once-over searching for cracks and chips. There were none.

So I took it home, grabbed some steel wool, and rubbed the inside of that poor pan with all the elbow grease I could muster. With the rust removed, I rinsed it with cool water, threw it onto the stove, turned up the heat, and poured in the oil. And voilà! Black and smooth to the touch, it was ready to become a useful member of my kitchen family.

More recently, I found another rusty cast-iron frying pan at the dump. Under the few spots of rust, I noticed it still had the original battleship gray color, meaning it was new, since it did not have the standard black patina that cast-iron cookware develops with use. Again my heart cried out for this poor thing, tossed out for no fault of its own, but because of the ignorance and lack of care of its previous owner. I already had a pan this size, but I also knew that this one only needed 15 minutes of loving care to be in prime condition, so I claimed it.

I now know that whenever there is a discarded piece of restorable cast iron on that table, I will take it home. But what will I do with all the saved castaways? I now have so much cast iron that the shelf that it sits upon sags under all the weight.

I guess that I must start finding suitable homes for my excess cast iron, but before I do, does anyone out there have a cast-iron waffle iron that needs some TLC and a good home? Just let me know, I'd be happy to take it off your hands.

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