Cast iron is one if the best, most rewarding tools you can have in your kitchen, but it’s also a tricky SOB. It needs specialized treatment, especially for the first few months after you buy a new one, and then it has a slightly different cleaning routine from the rest of your cookware. But there are a LOT of great reasons to have and use cast iron pans, including:
- It’s basically unbreakable. You’ll have this puppy forever. Even if it rusts, you can just scratch it off and start over.
- It can take a lot of heat and it distributes it evenly. Unlike normal pans, cast iron doesn’t have a “hot spot” in the center. Plus it can go in hot-hot-hot ovens.
- Once it’s seasoned properly, cast irons are completely non-stick. Say hello to less oil and less scrubbing.
If you’re really lucky, your grandmother will past on her much loved and cared for cast iron skillet, which means it’s basically perfect after her 50 years of use. But if you’re most people, you’ll do what I did and just pick it up from your local kitchenware shop (in my case, REI – yes, these things are great for campfires, too).
If you’re thinking of buying a cast iron, here’s how to care for it:
If you’re inheriting your great-great grandmother’s cast iron, you can bet it’s already seasoned and skip this step, but if your cast iron is new or found in bad shape at a garage sale, the first thing you want to do is season it. A well-seasoned skillet is shiny and non-stick, so you know it will need to be re-seasoned if it becomes dull or food starts adhering to the bottom.
- Start by lining the bottom of your oven with aluminum foil and preheating it to 350 degrees.
- Give your cast iron a good scrub with soap and a sponge. Normally you’ll want to avoid washing cast iron with soap, but since you’re about to season, it’s okay, plus you want to make sure any anti-rust coating from the factory is washed off.
- Dry the pan throughly, then use a towel to rub a thin layer of oil into both the inside and outside of the pan. You truly don’t need much! Any oils work, but my favorites are vegetable oil or lard.
- Place the cast iron upside down in a center rack in the oven and cook for one hour. Turn off the oven and allow the cast iron to cool before removing (this can take a few hours).
For the first few weeks after you season your cast iron, make a point to cook mostly oily foods in order to continue to season and grease the bottom. The first food I usually cook after seasoning is bacon, because the cast iron just soaks up all that greasy deliciousness.
Cast irons are also incredible at cooking meats like steak – just give it a nice brown on the stove before popping the cast iron with the steak into the oven to finish it off. I love sautéing veggies in my cast iron because they get a nice browning that is just hard to achieve in a normal non-stick pan. A large one can even tackle a whole roast chicken with veggies! It is generally advised to not cook acidic foods like tomato sauce in newly seasoned cast iron, since the acid eats away at the seasoning, although well-seasoned cast iron shouldn’t have a problem handing it.
Cast iron cooks fairly differently than stainless steel and non-stick pans, so there are a few things to keep in mind. First, cast iron takes longer to heat up than normal pans because of their material and thick bottom, so give them a few extra minute on the stove before adjusting the heat. Second, cast iron disburses heat around the pan and maintains its temperature far better than other pans, which is partly why it’s so ideal for roasting.
There are two big downsides to cast iron, other than their special care needs: the handle gets very, very hot, so be careful when handling, even with a hot pad (the heat can go through it) and the pan is extremely heavy. Be careful not to burn yourself or drop your pan and break a toe!
A well-seasoned cast iron should actually be easier to clean that other cookware, because of it’s non-stick qualities.
- Most importantly, clean it right after use before food has a chance to cool and harden, sticking to the pan. Avoid soaking it in water or leaving it in the sink, since that removes the seasoning and causes rust.
- Always wash cast irons by hand without soap or steal wool, and instead just use hot water and a sponge or stiff brush.
- If food is stuck, you can dump some salt in the pan and lightly scrub with hot water. If food is truly adhered, reheat the pan on the stove to loosen.
This is technically step 2 in cleaning, but it’s so important, I decided to make it a second category. Cast iron cannot simply be put on a dish drying rack to dry, since the clinging water causes rusty. Follow these steps instead:
- After cast iron pan is properly cleaned, wipe with a towel to remove excess water.
- Place the pan on the stove over a medium flame for about five minutes or until throughly dry.
- Re-oil cast iron by dropping in a tablespoon of oil or grease (I like bacon grease). Rub the oil into the pan and buff to remove any excess.
- Once cooled, store in a dry place or do what I do and just leave it on the stove for next time.
A rusty cast iron does not mean it’s ruined! In fact, it’s quite easy to revive using half a potato and some baking soda. Once rust has been removed, soap throughly and re-season.