If I had to live alone on a remote island for the rest of my life and somehow the terms of my imprisonment allowed me to bring one and only one kitchen essential, it would be this: the cast iron skillet. Infinite in its versatility, exquisite in its simplicity, incomparable in its longevity — once you bring a cast iron skillet into your kitchen, your culinary world will never be the same. You can make a perfect pan of cornbread. You can flip the most amazingly delicate omelette. You can make fried chicken. You can sauté kale. You can sear the most beautiful goddamn steak you’ve ever seen. You can use all 8 pounds of it to smash the hell out of a handful of garlic cloves or pound chicken breasts into whisper-thin cutlets. (You can also brain a home invader in the back of the head and probably kill the guy.)
“But listen,” I hear you saying. “I can do all or most of these things with my nonstick sautée pan, or my half-quart saucepan, or my wok, or even my big heavy pot.” And it’s true, you can. But the cast iron skillet is one of those things that a sufficiently gastronomically-inclined creationist could use as proof of God: how could a material so perfect for our needs — so durable (if you care for it properly, it’ll last literally forever), so evenly heat-distributing (less susceptible to variations in temperature than aluminum or copper, it warms more slowly but then conducts a steadier heat), so naturally nonstick (the seasoning that builds up with use will rival the most frictionless Teflon coating) — simply exist? Surely iron was created just for us! And surely the cast iron skillet is the highest calling to which the metal can be put!
Here are the things you shouldn’t use your cast iron skillet for: boiling water, cooking acidic foods like tomatoes. I mean, you can do these things, but you can do many things you probably don’t do because they’re stupid. Also, be warned: Caring for your cast iron skillet is not as simple as letting it soak in the sink or throwing it in the dishwasher. (You want to do that? Go for enameled cast iron: all the pleasing thermodynamic properties without the tendency towards rust, the unlovely reactions to acidic foods, or the chic Little House on the Prairie aesthetic.) As with all iron, the skillet has a tenuous relationship with water; give it just a quick rinse and then scrub down with an abrasive like kosher salt or (this is one of my favorite things in my kitchen) a spaghetti scrubber. Make sure it dries thoroughly, either by fully rubbing it down with a cloth or by drying it out over a low flame or in a low oven. But don’t burn the house down.
My pick: I have a 12-inch Lodge skillet, which is probably the one that most people have. They come pre-seasoned, which is kind of gross and weird, but saves some time I guess. If you want to be really cool you’ll buy vintage: you can find skillets from as far back as the late 1800s at hipster cookware stores or Etsy or probably your grandma’s house.