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Iron Ladies: Cast iron takes the prize for most versatile kitchen performance

Cast iron is the Swiss army knife of the kitchen. It is a versatile tool, a multipronged culinary threat capable of searing an ahi steak and crisping a cornbread crust.

"It's our favorite black dress in our wardrobe of pans," said Julie Kramis Hearne, co-author of this past fall's "Cast Iron Skillet Big Flavors" [Sasquatch Books, 2011; 157 pages; $19.95]. "Everything just tastes better."

Cast iron cookware also deserves the Swiss army knife's slogan, "Your Companion for Life." It's virtually indestructable and relatively inexpensive, with 10- and 12-inch skillets starting running from about $20 to $35. And once it acquires a good seasoning, it functions much like a nonstick pan.

To boot, it also can be good for your health, as the pans leach iron, which is helpful for those with iron deficiencies. [Conversely, if you suffer from excess iron, it would be best to steer clear.]

But the true benefit of cooking with cast iron is how it handles food. It withstands, and maintains, exceptionally high cooking temperatures, so it's a popular choice for searing or frying. Meanwhile, its excellent heat diffusion and retention make it perfect for stews or braises. Also, since iron skillets develop a "non-stick" surface, they are a good choice for eggs, particularly scrambled. Bakers use it for making cornbread, cobblers and cakes.

"The more you cook with cast iron, the better it gets,"

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