No Appalachian kitchen is complete without a cast iron skillet.
➼ Growing up in Mason County, chef Marion Ohlinger never once saw a stainless steel pan on his grandmother’s stovetop. For Sevilla Ohlinger, it was cast iron or nothing. “Literally, it’s the only thing she used,” Ohlinger says.
It’s a sensory memory Ohlinger has incorporated into his Morgantown restaurant, Hill & Hollow, which serves what he calls modern Appalachian cuisine. Which is why, if you walk into the kitchen at Hill & Hollow, it’s not uncommon to see a black century-old skillet on a burner right beside the typical stainless steel implements.
These are not the fake cast iron—steel approximations often used at chain restaurants. The sizzling skillets that emerge from Ohlinger’s kitchen are the real deal. He knows, because he purchased them from Classic Cast Iron, a Westover-based business that restores and sells antique pans.
One Man’s Junk
Classic Cast Iron owner Keith Rigden developed an interest in cast iron about a decade ago when he bought two rusty skillets to take camping. Eight years and three moves later, Rigden still had not taken time to refurbish them. So in 2015 he decided he was either going to junk them or get them back in working order.
It took some elbow grease, but the effort paid off. “Once I got all the rust and crud off of them, they were just as they came out of the foundry. Still glass-smooth,” he says. “I started using it and it’s like, where’s this been all my life?”
Rigden was hooked. He started buying old pans, refurbishing them, and reselling them to fellow collectors, home cooks, and, in Ohlinger’s case, commercial kitchens. He found a way to reduce the amount of elbow grease required to get the pans in working order—a simple contraption consisting of a car battery and a stainless steel–lined 50-gallon barrel filled with water. Rigden connects the positively charged lead to the barrel and the negatively charged lead to the pan. What can take days by other methods can be achieved in just a few hours through electrolysis.
After a good scrubbing, it’s on to the final step—seasoning.
’Tis the Season
To season a cast-iron pan, you need just two things: fat and heat. These work together in a chemical process known as polymerization, where the fat gets so hot it becomes a hard solid. This is what makes cast iron a nonstick surface and prevents the pan from rusting.
Step one: Get fat.
All Classic Cast Iron pans are seasoned with shortening. Rigden puts the pan on the stove, drops in some shortening, and allows it to melt. Then he turns off the heat, lets the fat congeal, and wipes off the excess.
Step two: Get hot. Because temperatures inside a typical household oven can fluctuate wildly, he cranks his up to 500 degrees and allows the cast iron to spend at least an hour inside.
But Rigden is not finished once the hour is up. Each Classic Cast Iron pan gets three rounds of seasoning. The pans will pick up additional layers of seasoning in the line of duty, if they’re managed properly. “That’s why Grandma’s pan looks the way it does and cooks the way it does and is nonstick the way it is.”
Care and Feeding
Rigden sells his finished pans through his website. He also lugs his weighty wares to craft fairs, festivals, and barbecue cook-offs around the state. His booth always attracts lots of foot traffic—Rigden has discovered that just the sight of cast iron inspires passersby to spill their childhoods. “I hear all the time, ‘My grandma had one just like that.’”
But these are not collectibles that are meant to sit on a shelf. Rigden and Ohlinger agree, cast iron gets better with each use and makes food taste better, because it cooks food better. “It’s a slower, deeper heat compared to the shallow, faster heat you get from a steel pan,” Ohlinger says. “You get a great sear on meat, you get a great sear on vegetables.”
Some claim cast-iron cookware boosts food’s nutritional content. Rigden says the science behind this is a little sketchy. But it definitely imbues your cooking with an essential ingredient for down-home cuisine: nostalgia.
“It is one of the only things out there that is as good now, 100 percent as useful and productive, as it was a hundred years ago,” Rigden says. “Appalachia is full of tradition, and so is cast iron.” classiccastiron.com
Photos courtesy of Keith Rigden