Cast iron cookware is here to stay. Whether you love it or hate it, and I hope you love it, more than any other this is one kind of cookware that has withstood the test of time.
The “black iron” has been with us for centuries, and I hope it will be with us for even more centuries.
Beloved by professional and home chefs alike for its unique combination of natural non-stick capability, durability and heat retention, nothing does the job that cast iron can do- so long as you can put up with the weight!
And unlike most of our other cheaper metal pots and pans, cast iron is tough enough to go into the field with us and do its job around the campfire. You can’t say that about a Teflon pan, can you?
It is your cast iron collection, not your aluminum pan collection, that your children and other family members will fight over when you are dead.
But if you want to leave them something to fight over you’ll need to know how to take care of it.
Although sometimes hyped up as a bear and a burden to care for, with a few simple techniques cast iron is anything but. We will show you everything you need to know in this article.
Table of Contents
It’s All About the Seasoning
If you know anyone who is enthusiastic about cast iron cookware, you have probably already noticed that they won’t shut up about seasoning.
The seasoning is good, the seasoning is bad, I need to replace my seasoning, and I use this, that or the other for seasoning.
Gosh, why won’t they be quiet about this seasoning? Do you have to use special seasonings when cooking with cast iron?!
No, you don’t, and your first lesson when it comes to caring for cast iron is understanding what the term seasoning means.
Seasoning refers to the natural non-stick coating that builds up on cast iron. That smooth, glossy black surface that these pans seem to have? That is seasoning.
A pan that has excellent all-over coverage that virtually nothing will stick to is said to be well seasoned.
A pan that is splotchy or unevenly coated is said to have bad seasoning or seasoning in need of repair.
When you take the time to manually coat a vintage or damaged pan and it heat it in the oven or over the fire to reestablish this coating, you are seasoning it.
The seasoning is made up of nothing more than carbonized fats. These fats form a sort of polymer coating that will permanently bond to the metal, though it is not indestructible.
When you use your pan correctly and with care, this coating will build up more and more over time until it forms a tough and all-natural teflon-like coating that will both protect the cast iron beneath from rusting entirely and also keep every kind of food from sticking to it.
But, better than any other man-made coating, the seasoning of cast iron is completely natural and completely harmless.
It won’t taint your food with any weird chemicals or break down and leach toxic substances if it gets too hot.
Is Your Cast Iron Pre-Seasoned?
Today, the vast majority of cast iron is sold preseason, meaning it has an all-over coating when you buy it. This cast iron is ready to use.
However, you might buy a cast iron piece that is not seasoned, or else own one that is in dire need of re-seasoning.
Cast iron that has lost its seasoning or never had it to begin with will have a dull, dusty gray color as opposed to that glossy, even black that all cast iron lovers want to see.
It is especially easy to notice damaged seasoning on a pan you use regularly since the difference in finish is readily apparent.
In all cases, you want your cast iron to be well seasoned both for good performance and for longevity since it is the seasoning that prevents rust.
If your cast iron lacks seasoning or needs to have its seasoning re-established, the next section will tell you how. Don’t put your cast iron away, especially for long-term storage, if the seasoning is compromised or in rough shape all over, as it will rust!
Seasoning Cast Iron Yourself
To season a skillet or any other piece of cast iron cookery, you should use vegetable oil, butter, olive oil, or any other kind of fat. Bacon grease or lard is traditional, but not required. Oils that are higher in omega-3 fatty acids work best at this job, as they tend to be more drying.
They will, as a result, produce a durable, hardier coating. The oil highest in omega-3s is, ostensibly, flaxseed oil, so consider using this type of oil for the longest-lasting results.
Whatever type of oil you use, the process of seasoning is the same. All you need to do is pour a few tablespoons of oil into a dry pan and then spread it around the inside and outside of the skillet.
Use your hands or a cloth to scrub the oil into every angle and divot in the pan. Wipe off the excess oil, leaving a thin film over the entire pan.
Then, bake the skillet upside down for an hour at 375 degrees F (190 C). To keep your oven clean, it’s not a bad idea to put a pan on the rack below your cast iron pan to help collect some of the drippings.
For best results, repeat this process a few more times. Let the skillet cool completely before repeating. You want the surface of your pan to look glossy when it’s dried. This indicates successful seasoning.
If at the end of this process, your iron has sort of a sticky, resinous surface then you either used oil that has a smoke point that is too low or allowed the temperature to get way too hot.
You can either scrub this away and try again or hope that it levels out in the course of normal cooking.
Your cast iron pan will need to be re-seasoned if food starts to stick to the pan too easily during cooking.
Another sign that it has passed its prime is that the surface might appear dull or rusted. You want the skillet to always appear shiny, even, and smoothly black!
Season Your Cast Iron the Easy Way Just by Cooking With It
Yes, it is easy enough to season a cast iron pan or other pieces of cookware yourself using the guide above. I have done it, and so has everyone else that has owned cast iron long enough.
That being said, I still prefer to season it slowly and somewhat more easily over time. How? Just cook with it!
So long as you are not cooking anything overtly harmful in your cast iron pan, all foods will contribute to building up the seasoning over time.
In fact, this is often the best way to get a truly awesome surface in your pan or other pieces. It just takes a little bit of care and patience.
Far and away the best things to cook in a pan if you have the intention of nurturing or rebuilding the seasoning are fatty meats.
Bacon and sausage are excellent, but pretty much any cut of meat of any kind that will sizzle a little bit in the pan will do the job. A little dash of oil or a small pat of butter will help things even more.
We will talk more about how to avoid abusing your seasoning in the section on cooking.
One of the biggest arguments concerning the use of cast iron cookware in the kitchen is what sort of utensils you should use with it.
On one side you have people who swear you should only use super soft silicone and wooden utensils to avoid damaging the seasoning in any way. Others use any kind of utensils they want, including aluminum and steel. Which side is correct?
In a way, they both are! Silicone and wooden utensils are as gentle as it gets when you are cooking with cast iron.
You have to work extremely hard to damage your seasoning or the cookware itself when using either.
But, unless you are dealing with a piece that has a sensitive, newly seasoned service, or one that you are really trying to baby, you don’t have to.
Aluminum and steel utensils are fine for cast iron assuming you aren’t going full drum set on your cookware while you are cooking.
If you are chopping, dicing, and scraping with steel utensils regularly while you are cooking, yeah, you’re probably going to damage the seasoning unless it is many years established.
But if you’re just moving food around, flipping, turning, or stirring it, you don’t have anything to worry about.
Cast iron is still iron, and seasoning, once it is established, is pretty tough. I use my cast iron every single day in the kitchen, for multiple meals a day, and I always use metal utensils unless I need wooden ones for whatever reason.
Don’t handle your metal utensils like a gorilla and you don’t need to worry about using them with your cast iron collection.
One of the most critical pieces of caring for your cast iron pan is how you cook with it. Let the heat build slowly on a low setting before adding food, rather than allowing the heat to start on full blast.
If you do need a hot, quick start, I recommend preheating the pan no higher than medium for a few minutes before stepping up to higher heat.
This will allow heat to be distributed more evenly, and you won’t have to worry about food sticking to the pan or burning.
Make sure you exercise caution when picking up the pan, as the whole unit, including the handle, will become hot.
Whatever you were going to use to protect your hand from the screaming hot metal of the handle on one of your cast iron pieces, make sure you have it placed conveniently or placed on the pan before you get started.
Silicone pot holders can withstand the heat, or a good oven mitt should be placed handily around. Don’t rely on a folded towel for moving heavy cast iron pans!
I stand by my assertion that a truly well-seasoned cast iron pan can handle anything you’re going to throw at it unless you’re actually trying to damage it.
However, for pieces that have newly established or poor seasoning, there are certain foods that can finish it off, meaning you’ll need to re-season.
Your two biggest offenders will be highly acidic foods and any food that can be cooked down into a hard, candy-like glaze that necessitates chiseling it off to clean it.
Some foods, like citrus and tomatoes, contain very high levels of acid, and these can wear away at the pan’s seasoning if it is not well established. While you can always re-season your pan, this can be a bit of a drag!
This means you should probably hold off on simmering a delicious homemade marinara, citrus glaze or lemon tart until the seasoning is up to snuff. Similarly, making gravy in a pan with shaky seasoning is not going to end well.
If you cook a sugary mixture down until it looks like a glossy varnish on the surface of your cast iron, you’re probably going to be horrified to find out that it will only break free after serious scraping and the surface of your pan will look like flaked paint.
But, once again, I have done it all with my personal cast iron, and I just make it a point to treat the pans that I am restoring or the ones that are looking a little rough gentler.
My mainstay pots and pans that are as glossy black as the surface of a moonlit lake I use for sauces, desserts, and everything in between.
More than anything else, it is the cleaning of cast iron that solicits the most vocal and sometimes violent opinions on the topic.
Much “common wisdom” is nothing more than myth, and some good practices are treated as outright heresy that will get you stoned or driven out of town.
You’ll usually see instructions for cast iron care that simply reads like a long list of “Nevers”. This more than anything else puts people off of buying and using cast iron, and that’s a shame because many of these admonishments are just not true.
No one wants to care for something so delicate and pretty that they are afraid of using it, but like I mentioned above cast iron is tough.
That being said, there are only three genuine “Nevers” when it comes to caring for your cast iron:
- Never, ever put it in the dishwasher for any reason; dishwashers demolish seasoning.
- Never, ever use abrasive scouring pads or chemicals on it (unless you are stripping it to re-season).
- Never, ever soak your cast iron in water for a long period of time.
And, that’s it. Much of the other stuff you’ll hear about cast iron care is either misguided though well-intentioned or outright old wives tales. The basics of caring for your cast iron are as follows:
- For a well-seasoned piece, use a stiff but non-abrasive brush or cloth and a little bit of water. Using a splash of hot water while the pan is still warm can help loosen stubborn residue without damaging the seasoning.
- Contrary to popular belief, you can use gentle dish soap to help you clean cast iron, though you should not do this for a pan with weakened or damaged seasoning.
- You can gently scrape seasoned cast iron to remove stuck food when needed. Use a plastic scraper for the tough stuff. Seasoning-safe scrubbing can be enhanced through the use of coarse salt.
It’s good to use the hottest water possible and to clean immediately after using your pan since it will help release food.
Lots of people throw a flag over perceived sanitation concerns regarding lack of soap, but these are overblown: people, you will be heating the surface of the pan or whatever to many hundreds of degrees, no germ can survive that!
While you’re cleaning, be careful. Don’t get too enthralled about scrubbing every last bit off the surface– be gentle!
If the pan is still too hot to handle for cleaning you can let it cool slightly, or use a pair of insulated gloves to help scrub the pan. Once all food residue is removed, give it a final rinse in warm water.
If you have particularly stubborn foods (crusty cheese, anyone?) combine a quarter cup of salt and a bit of warm water in the pan before buffing it off with a cloth.
You can also use a plastic scraper designed for cast iron or use a “chainmail” scrubber gently.
Use a wooden spatula to scrape the bits of food from the pan. You can also reheat the pan when it’s filled with water. Bring it to a full boil, and then scrape the particles of food off as they loosen up.
Once clean, dry the pan off at a low temperature over the stove. This is to make sure your pan gets thoroughly dry, as it is particularly susceptible to rust if put up damp.
Just a little bit of hidden water can spell disaster for a cast-iron pan, which is also why you should never put your cast-iron pan in water to soak.
A short drying session on the stove will allow any remaining liquid to evaporate before you need to store your pan.
Another tip for extending the lifespan of your cast iron pan is to lightly coat it with oil and reheat it for just a minute or two to help restore any seasoning that might have been lost during the cooking and washing process.
Long-term storage can be tricky for cast iron since it is vulnerable to moisture exposure. Any part of the pan that is not well seasoned can, and will, rust. Left unaddressed, the rust can spread beneath the protective envelope of the seasoning.
However, this is pretty easy to deal with using some smart preparations. The first thing you should do is ensure any cast iron you are putting away for storage is properly seasoned and given a nice coat of oil.
Then, use pan separators so your collection is not in direct contact with the pots or pans it is resting upon. That can trap moisture and promote rust.
Lastly, simply cover the cast iron with some kind of cloth or a box. Dust that comes to rest on your cookware has a way of attracting moisture and causing dust rust, which can turn into more serious corrosion.
So long as you follow these steps you can expect your cast iron collection to come out of storage looking as good as the day you put it in.
Care for Your Cast Iron Collection Correctly
Cast iron cookware is a wonderful addition to any kitchen, and if you are like me, you will come to prefer using it above all other kinds.
And despite the protestations of some people, caring for your cast iron does not have to be difficult. With just a little bit of caution and periodic maintenance, your cast iron collection can last several lifetimes.
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.