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Cast iron pans are useful for press the liquid out of tofu so it'll fry up crisp. [Photos: Donna Currie]

Cast iron frying pans are versatile, durable, and remarkably cheap. While pans that have passed down for generations might have a whole lot of sentimental value, you can buy a brand new cast iron frying pan without shelling out much cash. But do you think of using one when you're not frying up bacon?

A cast iron skillet can be used for baking or as a casserole dish for your potatoes au gratin. I've also used a cast iron pan for biscuits, cakes, sticky buns, upside-down cakes, and giant cookies. If bake a sugary-sticky cake in a cast iron pan and you accidentally let it cool too much and the sugar hardens, you can put the pan on the stove and heat it just enough to soften the sugar and release the cake—you probably wouldn't want to do that with a standard cake pan.

When you're baking in a cast iron pan, you might need to adjust your cooking time or temperature to get the same results you'd get from a traditional baking pan, but cast iron also offers baking options you couldn't get from your standard cake pan—like preheating the pan in the oven before adding your batter, or cooking your caramel in the pan on the stove top before adding the dough on top of that gooey caramel.

Are those uses too obvious? How about these?

Brick

Chicken under a brick sounds like a fun recipe: you use a brick to weigh down and flatten a half-chicken on the grill. But who has a brick sitting around? If there's a construction site nearby, maybe you can borrow a brick. But even if you wrap it in foil, are you sure it hasn't been in contact with things you don't want near your food?

A cast iron frying pan works even better than a brick, since it offers a larger surface area to press the chicken down. Better yet, it's food safe.

Personal Pizza Baking Stone

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Preheat the skillet on the stovetop over the highest possible heat, then put the pan in your broiler upside down. That's right, bottoms up. Slide your topped pizza onto the pan's underside, and broil it for just 1 minute and 35 seconds. Your pizza will come out cooked through and bubbling, with artfully charred edges and crust and a chewy inside. A larger pan will give you more surface area to bake on, but even a normal-sized cast iron pan is large enough for personal pizzas.

Want to get started making your own pizza dough? Here are a few favorite recipes.

Meat Mallet

When you need to flatten some chicken breasts or pound a round steak flat, a cast iron frying pan has the heft to do the job, and a nice flat bottom surface for even pounding.

While it seems logical that a larger pan would give you more weight for pounding, a smaller pan is easier to lift, and lets you flatten the meat with a little more precision rather that splatting it flat with one massive smack.

Sandwich Press

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Some people use their electric panini presses all the time. Others regret wasting the counter or shelf space. If you have a pair of cast iron frying pans, though, you're ready to make paninis anyway. Heat both pans, place your sandwiches in the larger one, then put the smaller pan on top, using the bottom of the pan to press and toast the sandwiches. You won't get grill lines, but you'll get a nice toasty surface.

A few sandwich ideas:
Caramelized Onion and Mushroom Panini With Sun-Dried Tomato Mayonnaise »
Pressed Stilton, Pear, Date, and Bacon Sandwiches
Grilled Pizza Panini Sandwich »
Grill-Pressed Italian Party Panini »

Heat Diffuser

Pots and pans have heavy bottoms for a good reason—to spread the heat out evenly to avoid hot spots. But what if your ideal cooking vessel doesn't have a heavy bottom? What if you need super-gentle, super-even heat? Just use your cast iron pan as a heat diffuser. Put the cast iron pan on the stove, and put your cooking vessel in the pan.

Tofu and Cheese Weights

If you're making crispy tofu, you need to get that tofu dry first. Wrap it in paper towels or a clean kitchen towel, then put the pan right on top, or place a baking pan on top of the tofu and use the cast iron pan to add weight.

If you've ever made home-made cheese, the same method works just as well. If you need a precise weight for the type of cheese you're making, you can use several cast iron pans (weigh them first, then add up the weights to get to the ideal amount) or use the pan to hold canned goods, pie weights, or whatever else you need to get to the proper weight.

Nut Chopper / Cookie Crusher

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You can buy a tool that'll chop up nuts (and maybe seeds), but you don't need it when you've got a pair of cast iron skillets that nest together. Put nuts and seeds in the bottom pan, place the smaller pan on top, and push and twist to break up the nuts into smaller pieces. By using two pans rather than just crushing seeds on your cutting board, you contain the seeds so they don't fly all over the kitchen. And, if you need toasted seeds or nuts, you can toast first, then crush.

Making a graham cracker crust or cornflake-crusted chicken? Put graham crackers, cookies, or corn flakes in a plastic bag and use a single pan to crush them to crumbs. Yes, it's good for crushing your stress away, too.

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