“Hold a cast-iron skillet and you’ll feel the weight of this history through the handle.”
I received my first cast-iron skillet in March 2016, when my old cheap nonstick frying pan I took with me to university finally gave up the ghost. A potato rösti, the last component of a fairly sizeable hangover breakfast, clung on to dear life when I tried to flip it, and that was that. If your nonstick pan can’t deal with grated potato, it’s time to rethink your armory.
A good friend of mine, the food blogger and columnist Ella Risbridger, is more sympathetic than most to kitchen strife. For context: Ella’s kitchen is about the size of a hotel elevator. Four burners, a small oven, minimal cupboard and countertop space. Baking ingredients have had to find shelter elsewhere, taking up a bookshelf in the lounge. All her spices are nailed to the wall. It is the culinary equivalent of Snoopy’s Kennel, and from it I’ve had some of the nicest dinners I’ve ever eaten, with the best company. Ella saw my predicament and decided to help.
A friend of hers had recently gifted Ella a cast-iron skillet, under the proviso that she pay it forward. When you’re a twentysomething in a city, having been away from your family for a reasonable amount of time, having built up your own support network, you start to establish your own traditions. Join a pub quiz team. Have your own Christmas for the first time. This was one of those traditions born out of nothing, and I happened to be the next link in the chain.
So the next day, I became the owner of a beautiful cast-iron skillet. A sturdy, heavy, twenty-centimeter-wide hunk of black metal that was going to last me forever. An investment pan, the closest thing to a pension I’ve currently got. When you’re holding something that, technology-wise, hasn’t changed a lot since its inception, it’s comforting and grounding in equal measure.
There’s a fair argument for cast-iron pans dating back to China in 513 BC—a passage from the Chinese narrative history Zuo Zhuan states that tripods were cast with iron in the city state of Jin. However, due to the complexity of these pots, many scholars assume that Jin, if not many other Chinese regions, were making cast-iron artefacts long before. So that’s—quick math—around 2,500 years old.
By this point, I’d already decided that cooking was going to be the thing I did to decompress. I tried going to the gym, which worked for a bit, and I’ve always played music, but there’s something very methodical and paced to cooking—not to mention there being the promise of deliciousness at the end—that makes it very relaxing. I set about using the skillet regularly, for whatever I happened to be making, with mixed results.
I over-filled it with curry until it nearly bubbled over the side. I fucked up so many fried eggs, I’ve lost count. I’ve regularly burnt my hand—that’s one thing that you do need to get used to. Once cast iron gets hot, it stays hot. Crazy hot. As an aside, this is one of the reasons why the Tetsubin, a cast-iron teapot introduced to Japan by China, became so popular in Japanese tea ceremonies; it kept tea hot for hours, without impairing the flavour, like a proto-Thermos flask.
It’s that propensity to stay hot that is crucial to the skillet’s biggest advantage: slow cooking. Stews, curries, ragus, anything that you can stick over a low flame and just watch get more delicious with every passing minute. This was catnip for me really, given my inclination toward kitschy emblems of Americana. (I once had a mild existential crisis upon realizing how many check shirts I owned, but have balanced it out now.)
Cast-iron cookware was arguably essential to American colonial expansion. Lewis and Clark, who took Dutch ovens on their two-year exploration of the Louisiana Purchase, refused to discard them when they needed to lighten their loads. George Washington’s mother was also so fond of her cast-iron that she specifically bequeathed them in her will, though to whom it’s not clear. Americans may have popularized them, but the Dutch perfected cast-iron cookware manufacture in the sixteenth century. Their methods were picked up by the English soon after. Cast iron’s popularity peaked in the 1800s, with manufacturers such as Lodge out of Tennessee, who made the skillet that I now possess.
Hold a cast-iron skillet and you’ll feel the weight of this history through the handle. It’s a responsibility too, to maintain it, to keep it alive. Like cutting back plants to allow new growth, or like moisturising a new tattoo. You’ll panic when you see rust appearing. You’ll think something’s wrong when things chip away. After a while though, you begin to get a sense of what you need to do, and how much you need to do. These pans are resilient; they can take it.
The next few months would end up being my last in London. It was a fairly fractious time, for the reasons that I think makes everyone a little fractious in London. Job worries, relationship worries, concerns over where I was going in my career. Needless to say, I cooked a lot. The same stuff, too. Things that used a few ingredients and took a decent amount of time to make, something that I could concentrate on, that I knew would be good at the end.
Since leaving, that fractiousness has given way to clarity. Headspace that was previously filled with the clamour of commutes and jobs and all that stuff has been replaced with empty space waiting to be filled. My first six months in Edinburgh were spent in a flat that, though beautifully located, didn’t allow me to feel at home. Now I get to look at Arthur’s Seat from my lounge, have people over on a whim, think of things to cook, and cook them.
One thing I hadn’t yet properly taken advantage of with my skillet was its ability to be used both on top of the stove and in the oven. When I was thinking of vegan desserts to make one night, I read that most shop-bought puff pastry is vegan as-standard, and so it follows then that you could make a vegan tarte tatin without too much substitution. Hello, skillet.
This tarte tatin is a great litmus test for how well you know your pan, and what you can put it through. You start by pouring sugar into the pan—I used caster and muscovado, because I wanted to get that toffeeishness that brown sugar gives—with a little flavorless oil, like a light olive oil, and some spices: a cinnamon stick, a couple of cardamom pods, a star anise. Put it on a medium heat, and watch the sugar change state. At first it’ll go grainy, and you’ll be tempted to pour more in. Don’t. Then it’ll start melting, but also separate, and you’ll be tempted to bin it and start over. Don’t. It’ll all melt into something resembling caramel, and you’ll taste it, and it’ll taste a little burnt. Don’t worry. Then you’ll take your spoon out and the sugar will go rock hard and you’ll think, “Fuck, I’ve made the wrong kind of caramel. I’ve ruined the pan.” Don’t worry.
Take some plums—halved and de-stoned—and push them face down into the caramel, taking the pan off the heat. The sugar will bubble around the edges of the fruit and glisten against its purple skin. You can fit more into the pan than you think. Put it back on the heat and watch the sugar go melty and soft again—try and get another couple of plums in after they’ve shrunk a little. Pour some Maker’s Mark into it, because you’ve been bought Maker’s Mark as a housewarming present by your Mum who, despite constantly referring to it as “Melody Maker,” nonetheless knows what it is and that you like it. Don’t pour water in. I did, assuming that would help it along its way to caramelly goodness, but you needn’t bother.
After a few minutes of bubbling, get your ready-rolled puff pastry and cover your plums, tucking in around the edges. Cut a little hole in the top, bake for half an hour at 180 degrees or so, until it’s brown and beautiful and simmering at the edges. Take it out, let it cool, then do that thing that looks super treacherous on telly but is, in reality, not that difficult: Put a big plate or chopping board on top of the pan, and flip the pan over. The tarte will cede from the bottom, and steam will rise from off the pan, like it’s just finished a marathon and is trying to catch its breath. That’ll do, pan, that’ll do.
You’ll have friends around, and the tarte will last for all of half an hour. You’ll save none for breakfast and sneak an extra slice for yourself. You’ll wash the pan, dry it down, and put some music on.
A postscript to this story. Obviously, given that I was a link in a chain, I had to then get a skillet for someone else. That was the contract I was bound to. It was a good friend’s birthday recently. She had moved this way in similar circumstances to myself, under a similar cloud, and is coming out of it. She is now the owner of a cream-colored cast-iron skillet, a little deeper than mine. The first link in a new chain, in a new place.
Harry Harris is a writer and musician from Wales, based in Edinburgh. His work has appeared in MEL Magazine, Eater, VICE, and Mundial. Tweets @Cmonharris, Laughs @ own jokes.