As any cowboy or Boy Scout will tell you, one good 10″ cast iron pan can be far more useful than an elaborate set of gleaming, bonded-metal cookware designed to be admired more than used. Buy one of these and it will soon become the workhorse of your kitchen. Forged in an iron foundry, skillets are tough and versatile: they can go in the oven, on the grill and, of course, they’re at home on the range. The even conductivity of the metal makes browning everything from steaks to cornbread to potatoes to grilled cheese easy (it also makes burning yourself easy. Never grab an iron skillet handle barehanded).
Even better, one develops a relationship with a cast iron skillet through years of daily use. Since cast iron is porous, it takes on the accumulated flavors of whatever you cook on it—this is called “seasoning”—developing a glassy, oily coating that renders it nonstick without employing the possibly toxic chemicals sometimes used on other pans. Once you have a seasoned skillet, you’ll never want to part with it. Thankfully, you won’t have to. Cast iron skillets have been known to last for centuries. Just don’t use scourers or soap, which strip away the hard-earned seasoning.
Even better, skillets are reasonably priced. A good new 10″ pan from Tennessee’s Lodge, the undisputed king of the cast-iron genre since 1986, runs between $75 and $100. But don’t be afraid to scour—just not literally—flea markets. Cast iron pans last longer than most cooks, so you might find your skillet in the rough.