Just like many home-cooks and chefs around the world, cast iron holds a special place in my heart. It’s inexpensive (when it’s not enameled), durable, amazingly effective, and truly a workhorse in the kitchen. Cast iron cookware comes in just about any size and type of vessel you would want, most popular are Dutch ovens and skillets, and you can use them for just about anything at all. I typically use one of my Lodge skillets when I (rarely) bake because it ensures even cooking and I wonderful crust. I also use the same skillet for browning meats and veggies, roasting in the oven, frying, and even as a makeshift panini press when I use both of my skillets together – and that’s not even starting to mention all of the things you can do with a dutch oven!
The key to cast iron becoming one of your favorite and most-used pieces of cookware though, is proper care and maintenance. I know, I know… sometime’s you just want to throw something in the dishwasher and not have to put in any work to take care of something – there is nothing to be ashamed about, I do it too sometimes. There has always been a great debate and panic over how to take care of it though. When I worked at Sur La Table, at least once a day someone would come in and ask about how to properly season it, or how to fix if after they “forgot” that it needed special care.
So let’s get to it! Here is your one-stop-shop for all things cast iron!
1. Wash with soap once.
Most of the time when you purchase a new cast iron, it will be advertised as being pre-seasoned. Although it seems to be pretty standard, I am always a little weary of how good that pre-seasoning is. I have done a little research online, and found that many manufacturers actually have different processes as far as their pre-seasoning goes. So I always just prefer to start mine from scratch right when I get home.
When you purchase a new piece of cast iron cookware, it’s okay to use mild soapy water for the first wash. This goes for whether it’s pre-seasoned or not. Make sure to not use anything too harsh or abrasive, because they will actually cause more damage than help. The only time that you want to do something like that, would be if you let your cast iron rust, and that calls for something much more dramatic. After you thoroughly wash the pan, inside and out, make sure to dry it as good as possible with a lint-free towel. It’s completely normal for some black to come off onto the towel, so don’t worry about it.
2. Season it.
“Seasoning” when referring to cast iron, is what makes the surface nonstick, and it gets better and better over time. Technically speaking, when you season your pan with oil, you are breaking down the bonds in the oil and denaturing the proteins and rearranging them. It creates a web-like structure inside the oil, and it becomes a cohesive surface instead of a liquid. It literally gets into any little pits or dents or imperfections in the surface, fills them in, and then seals the pan and protects it from moisture.
To season a cast iron pan, preheat the oven to 300°F. Place a layer of foil on the bottom rack of your oven and the pan on the top rack. Rub your dry cast iron with about 1 tablespoon of oil, inside and out. I generally use and recommend canola oil or flaxseed oil, but you can use any oil that has a high smoking point, and one that isn’t likely to go rancid. Turn the pan upside down on top rack of the oven (position it over the foil to catch any drips). Bake for 1 hour, turn off the oven, and let the pan cool in the oven. You don’t have to do this very often, but you can do it as often as you like to create a stronger seasoning. You might do it fairly frequently during the first month or two you have your cookware, but will need to do it much less over time. I re-season mine maybe once a year at this point.
3. Get Cooking!
You are all set to make your pan work it’s magic! Typically with a newer pan, it’s recommended to start with foods that are higher in fat to help seal the seasoning and make it stronger, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. One of my favorite things to do is to cook bacon nice and crispy, and then leave the grease in the pan while I whip up some cornbread. Pour the batter into the pan on top of the grease, and I swear, you will have the best cornbread of your life in about 40 minutes. Trust me.
The only thing to really be wary of, is cooking anything that’s acidic for long periods of time. It is totally fine to use cast iron for things like tomato sauces, chilis, and other acidic foods like vinegar- or citrus-based sauces, you just shouldn’t let them simmer for hours. It will begin to eat up your seasoning and you will need to re-season more often. It’s not the end of the world, but it can be a little irritating.
4. Keep it clean.
I don’t ever recommend letting your cast iron soak . It’s much easier to clean while it’s still just a little bit warm (at least until your seasoning is built up and things slide right out) and by using a soft sponge or stiff non-metal brush. I have a completely different sponge that I use for my cast iron, just to make sure that it doesn’t get any soap residue from my other one. If you have something that’s really stuck or burnt on, you can sprinkle some coarse salt and use that as a mild abrasive to help get those chunks out. Then just toss the salt and rinse the pan out with hot water.
5. Dry it. Every time.
Moisture is the bane of all cast iron cookware. If you don’t dry it properly it can rust, and that’s not a fun problem to have. After rinsing, dry it completely every time and place it on the stove-top over low heat. Allow it to dry for a few minutes, keeping in mind that even if it looks dry after you wipe it with a towel, there are tiny water molecules that you can’t see. These little buggers can still cause it to rust, so it’s always best to make sure it’s bone-dry.
After a few minutes, pour a little bit of canola oil (or whatever you like) into the pan. spread it around with a paper towel to coat the inside evenly. Allow it to heat up for another minute or two until it shimmers. Remove from the heat and use wipe out any excess oil. The finished look should be mostly matte, with a little bit of a shine. If you have too much oil in it, it will be gloopy or sticky when you go to use it next time.
6. Store it.
Since moisture is the enemy, storing it carefully is almost as important as drying it. Make sure to keep it in a dry place with the lid off. I usually just take mine right from the stove-top after rubbing with oil, letting it cool down in the oven, and then just keeping it there. It’s a handy spot, and saves me a little storage space in my tiny kitchen.
That’s all there is to it! I know it can seem a little daunting or like it’s a lot of work for a silly skillet, but it’s honestly so worth it. Keep in mind that this is all care for non-enameled cast iron. Care and maintenance for enameled cookware is completely different, because why would anything ever be that simple? Be on the lookout for an upcoming post about enameled cast iron, like Le Creuset and Staub, to get the most out of your cookware!