Our family, unlike those depicted on television for the last two months, never give $40,000 SUVs or the latest tablet or phone as Christmas gifts. We lean toward less glitzy items: hand-knit mittens, huge amaryllis bulbs, fancy puzzles and, my very favorite present this season, The Ringer — a scrubber made of stainless steel chainmail rings that is used for cleaning cast iron pans, but can also clean up stuck-on gunk from Pyrex and other glass surfaces, pizza stones or baking pans. It’s the last scrubbie you’ll ever need to buy to clean cast iron cookware and baking pans, because it will never rust. The Ringer looks like a piece of fancy jewelry and slides through the fingers like a fine necklace, but can scrub down a Dutch oven or griddle without needing a bit of soap. Give it a quick rinse and it’s ready for use again.

If you haven’t yet become a cast iron pan aficionado, it’s time to give them a try. Even the highest-end coated pans are coated with substances that give off toxic fumes when heated. Cast iron pans, in contrast, offer a non-stick, chemical-free cooking surface. Whether they’re collectible antique pans, such as the ones made by Wagner, Griswold or Lodge, or one of the Lodge Foundry’s new line, cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens go from stovetop to oven and always look good; their basic black surface doesn’t scratch, so you can use any kind of cooking utensils on them without scratching or damaging the pan and there’s no way to break or bend a cast iron skillet out of shape. While I love the brightly enameled cast iron cookware, I know I can treat the cast iron roughly and it won’t hold it against me. And the price is right. Name-brand enameled cookware and quality stainless steel pots and pans can cost over three times as much as their cast iron equivalents.

For fried or sautéed dishes browned to a crisp, a non-stick pan can’t touch a cast iron skillet. Southern cooks know that corn bread made in a cast iron skillet has that perfect moist inside and crunchy bottom crust. And if you don’t have a steam-injection oven but want to turn out artisan bread with a shaggy crust, a cast iron Dutch oven is indispensable.

One common misconception about cast iron cookware is that it’s difficult to maintain its seasoned surface. But if you season a pan when you get it, even the new, pre-seasoned ones, you’ll have a durable, nontoxic, non-stick surface.To season your pan, heat it up on top of the stove until its smoking hot, then rub a little cooking oil into it, wipe the oil around with a paper towel, and let it cool. Repeat this process a few times and you’re good to go. To clean your pan thoroughly after using it, scrub it with The Ringer, rinse clean, then place the pan over a burner set to high heat. When most of the water inside the skillet has dried out, add a half teaspoon of oil, rub it around with a paper towel as you did when first seasoning the pan, continue heating the pan until it just starts to smoke, then give it one more good rub. Let it cool and you’re done. Since water is the natural enemy of iron and even a drop of water in your pan when you put it away can lead to a rust spot, I always go on to dry out my pan with a paper towel and coat it with a tiny amount of oil before storing it.

If you have a cast iron Dutch oven with a lid and want to make an impressive loaf of bread, use the following no-knead recipe, first popularized by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery.

No-Knead Bread

3 cups flour
112 tsp. salt
12 tsp. instant yeast
112 cups very warm water
In a large mixing bowl, mix flour, salt, and yeast together. Stir in water until a chunky, thick dough forms. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and ideally let it rest for 8 hours at room temperature, although I’ve used the dough in as little as four hours. When you’re ready to bake, preheat oven to 450 degrees and put a six-quart cast iron Dutch oven with lid in the oven for about 30 minutes to heat up. While pot is heating, scrape dough onto a floured surface and shape it into a ball. Then sprinkle cornmeal on a piece of parchment paper and set the ball of dough on it to rise, covering it with the plastic wrap. After 30 minutes, remove the plastic and cut two deep slashes in the loaf with a razor or sharp serrated knife. Lift the dough and slide it off the parchment into the heated pan (be very careful not to touch the pan since it’s smokin’ hot). Bake, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove the cover, lower heat to 375 degrees and bake another 15 minutes to get a dark brown, crispy crust.