Guest Post: Lessons on finding the best cast iron skillet by Doug Thomas

Doug Thomas

Doug Thomas, my friend and fellow founding member of the Northern Sierra Dutch Oven Group, spends a lot of time researching and collecting cast iron cookware. He is one of Nevada’s reigning State Dutch Oven Champions and recently competed in the 2014 International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championship Cook Off. I asked him awhile ago if he’d be interested in writing some guest posts for my blog as his knowledge on cast iron, both new and vintage, is boundless. Below is a lovely article on what types of cast iron make the best skillet, along with some tips on collecting vintage pieces.

What is the best skillet for cooking and why?

Without a doubt the best skillet for cooking is made of cast iron. Cast iron skillets hold heat more uniformly and for longer periods of time than other types of metals. Additionally, they should be bare cast iron, not coated with enamel or porcelain. They should not have wooden handles so they can be interchanged from stovetop to oven. Bare cast iron cookware, however,  does require seasoning with oil to seal the pores of the metal to prevent rusting and provide a smooth surface. Bare seasoned cast iron also imparts a certain flavor to the food being cooked and many medical personnel proclaim that it adds a certain amount of iron to the cooked food. Some doctors have even proclaimed that iron supplements can be reduced or eliminated with regular cast iron cooking.

What brand is the best?

There are many differences of opinion as to which brand is preferred. Perhaps one of the best skillets is the one grandmother or great-grandmother used.  With proper care, cast iron skillets can last indefinitely. In addition, the early cast iron skillets were manufactured differently than the ones currently made. They were thinner and therefore of lighter weight. The surface of the metal was also very smooth compared to the porous surfaces found today.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Skillet with Griswold markings. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Early manufacture of cast iron skillets began in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  One of the earliest companies was Griswold. Their pans were marked with “ERIE” due to their production in Erie, Pennsylvania. In the early 1900s this was changed to “GRISWOLD.”

Another company, Wagner Ware went into business in 1891 and continued making cast iron for over a century. Today there is a Wagner and Griswold Society that is still quite active. Beware of Wagner skillets currently being sold in cardboard boxes as they are made in Asia. This skillet says “Wagner’s 1891 Original” and was manufactured between 1991 and 1999.

Lodge Skillet with Lid

Lodge Skillet with Lid

Lodge is the only factory still making cast iron skillets in the U.S.A. today. They were founded in 1896, and are manufactured in Tennessee. The current skillets are quite porous and thick-walled compared to the earlier versions.

Skillet with Piqua marking. Photo courtesy of etsy.com.

Skillet with Piqua marking. Photo courtesy of etsy.com.

A lesser-known skillet manufacturer was the Favorite Stove Company. It manufactured pans from the 1910s through the 1930s. These skillets have a very smooth surface and are lightweight. The bottom says “PIQUA” or “FAVORITE PIQUA.” Some have a smiley face under the name. This is an excellent skillet that is often overlooked.

Wapak Hollow Ware Chief Marking. Photo courtesy of ebay.com.

Wapak Hollow Ware Chief Marking. Photo courtesy of ebay.com.

Lastly, the Wapak Hollow Ware Company was formed in Wapakoneta, Ohio in 1903 where it produced several lines of “thin wall” skillets that were lightweight until 1926. These are currently some of the most sought after pans. Some have the word “WAPAK” on the bottom and the most collectable ones have the crest of a Native American chief on the bottom.

Several companies currently import cast iron skillets and include: Bayou Classic, Camp Chef, Coleman, Old Mountain and Texsport.

Choose your cast iron skillet wisely and it will treat you with a lifetime of pleasure.

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Cooking with the Moroccan Tagine

Williams Sonoma TagineFor my birthday, my husband gave me a beautiful tagine from Williams Sonoma. Little did he know that I had been intrigued by the tagine for years and wanted to get one. He must have used his Jedi mind powers to read mine.

Tagines are made of ceramic or cast iron, and come in a variety of sizes, prices, colors and embellishments. They can be found at such stores as World Market or Williams Sonoma, and there are high-end cast iron varieties produced by Le Creuset. The Williams Sonoma tagine is in the medium price range, about $50, and serves as a quality pot for beginners, like the hubby and me.

A tagine (pronounced ta – jeene) is a North African earthenware pot traditionally formed entirely of a heavy clay, which is sometimes painted or glazed. It consists of two parts: a base unit that is flat and circular with low sides and a large cone- or dome-shaped cover that sits on the base during cooking. The cover is designed to promote the return of all condensation to the bottom. With the cover removed, the base can be taken to the table for serving. Tagines can be used either on the stove or in the oven.

My particular tagine is of the ceramic variety, so forgive me this one post for not using cast iron (although I do use a cast iron item with the tagine – you’ll see below in the recipe). Both my husband and I have used our tagine about four times, all on the stove, and every dish has turned out beautifully. It is a slow cooker with dishes taking about 1 1/2 hours to cook. We have mainly made Moroccan dishes, inspired by sauces we purchased at Williams Sonoma, but I also cooked short ribs in a lovely pulled pork sauce that basically crumbled with a fork. Every dish is succulent, flavorful and pull-apart tender. I have not experienced such tender food with any other dish – crock pot or cast iron.

I am in love with the tagine so don’t be surprised if a I throw in an occasional post inspired by it.

Tagines, like cast iron cookware, require some special care and seasoning before use. Tips on caring for a tagine can be found here.

That said, following is a lovely recipe for Apricot Chicken Tagine with Peppers and Rice.

Apricot Chicken TagineIngredients
1 – 2 Tbsps. Oil (not pictured)
5 Chicken Thighs
1 Red Bell Pepper
Apricot Tagine Sauce (Williams Sonoma)
Rice
Slivered Almonds (not pictured)

When cooking with a tagine over a gas range, it is important to have place a cast iron heat diffuser on top of the burner to avoid direct heat to the ceramic pot. This will help your pot from cracking.

When cooking with a tagine over a gas range, it is important to place a cast iron heat diffuser on top of the burner to avoid direct heat to the ceramic pot.

Heat oil in the base of the tagine over medium heat.

Heat oil in the base of the tagine over medium heat.

Sear the chicken thighs, about 4 minutes on each side. Cook in batches so as to not overcrowd.

Sear the chicken thighs, about 4 minutes on each side. Cook in batches so as to not overcrowd.

Nicely seared chicken thighs.

Remove your batches to a plate. Nicely seared chicken thighs.

Once all of the chicken thighs are seared, return them to the tagine.

Once all of the chicken thighs are seared, return them to the tagine.

Pour the Apricot Tagine Sauce over the thighs.

Pour the Apricot Tagine Sauce over the thighs.

Next, add the chopped bell peppers.

Next, add the chopped bell peppers.

Place the tagine coned-lid on top of the base and simmer on low heat for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Place the tagine’s coned lid on top of the base and simmer on low heat for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

It is this small hole in the top of the coned lid that allows air to circulate and the pot to steam.

It is this small hole in the top of the coned lid that allows air to circulate and the pot to steam.

Once cooked, the Apricot Tagine Chicken will be colorful, infused with flavor and oh so tender.

Once cooked, the Apricot Tagine Chicken will be colorful, infused with flavor and oh so tender.

Serve over a bed of rice and top with slivered almonds. Enjoy!

Serve over a bed of rice and top with slivered almonds. Enjoy!

P.S. You can still make a tagine-inspired dish in your skillet, which I have done. Use the same ingredients, follow the same steps and you can still go to Morocco for dinner tonight! Check out the photo below:

Apricot Chicken Tagine

Apricot Chicken Tagine in cast iron skillet.

Addicted to Pots

Since I started this blog a couple of weeks ago, I have been pondering – or should I say, obsessing – over various recipes in which I can showcase my cast iron addiction, I mean collection.

So today I pulled out every piece of cast iron that I own and thought it would be nice to show how diverse cast iron cookware is and how, once you get started collecting, it’s very difficult to quit.

A few years ago, after watching a Dutch oven competition at a local festival, I told my husband that I thought it might be fun to give Dutch oven cooking a try. That Christmas, I received these two lovelies, plus some cookbooks.

Dutch ovens

Now, this is what my Dutch oven collection has become.Dutch ovens

From top to bottom, one 6-inch, one 10-inch, two 12-inch, and one 16-inch. I don’t have a 14-inch yet. What’s wrong with me?

And don’t forget my latest acquisition…9.5 quart turkey roaster.Dutch oven turkey roaster

And then there are all of my kitchen items.

The Skookie (not to be confused with Snookie) is basically designed for a skillet cookie…get it, skookie. Good stuff can be made in this little devil. And it even comes with its own oven mitt. I have two of these. Only two. I have it all under control.skookie

Ahhh…the fajita skillet. Ay caramba! I have this one, plus six that a friend gave me when she moved. They are rusty and need to be cleaned up and re-seasoned. Sounds like a project for a future post. Then I might have to plan a fajita party. You see the path I’m heading down…fajita skillet

I’ve already introduced you to my biscuit pan. (See Recipe for Cheesy Scallion Biscuits.) I’ve also used the pan to make mini pizzas on the grill…great for camping and kids love them. Plus, appetizers like mini spinach and bacon quiches. Oh, the cravings!cast iron biscuit pan

Cast iron pizza anyone?cast iron pizza pan

This is what you can do with this awesome pizza pan.

Margharita Pizza

This square griddle is perfect for paninis.  Why do I suddenly have the munchies?square cast iron griddle

This rectangular griddle is double-sided – the smooth side is great for pancakes.rectangular cast iron griddle

And the ribbed side is great for grilling burgers, shrimp, fish, etc. The griddle fits over two burners on the stove.cast iron griddle with ribs

I love this Dutch oven, which is designed for the stove and oven. Great for soups, stews, and pasta dishes.cast iron Dutch oven

And now the skillets. I call this one Monster. It’s huge – a 12-inch. Great for stir fry and jambalaya.monster cast iron skillet

Even its lid has teeth. I told you, it’s a monster. Am I hallucinating?cast iron skillet lid

I use these two skillets the most, for just about everything. The large is a 10-inch and the smaller is a 5-inch. I can’t live without them.two cast iron skillets

This deep 10-inch skillet is great for sauces and pasta dishes.deep cast iron skillet

And finally, to cap off this addict’s showcase, I received this lovely cast iron Japanese tea kettle from my hubby this past Christmas.cast iron Japanese tea kettle

I’m addicted to tea also.