Truth or myth?
The mystery and skepticism surrounding cast iron has been the best marketing tool that non-stick cookware could ever ask for. But that cloud has also turned plenty of people away, scared that it's too hard to take care of. I myself was skeptical of cast iron for many years, but now I use it daily and I can assure you that it isn’t difficult to care for.
All you have to do is follow a few simple guidelines and you'll have a tool in your cooking toolbox that will last you a lifetime.
BUT FIRST, A CAST IRON PRIMER
Before we dive deeper into how to care for cast iron, there are a few basics you need to know about the popular heavy-duty cookware.
Cast iron isn’t just for making cornbread
Many people unfamiliar with cast iron connect it to the American South in their minds, thinking that you can only cook southern foods in them. While cast iron is great for these types of meals, this idea could not be further from the truth. You can make just about anything in a cast iron pan, from zesty chicken quesadillas to scrumptious desserts like chocolate chip cookies.
Cast iron is nearly impossible to break
It is extremely difficult to destroy a cast iron pan. Cast iron is as durable as it is versatile and anything short of breaking the pan in half can be fixed easily, so don’t be afraid to dive in and discover what works best for you. You won't cause any major problems that cannot be undone.
Avoid fast temperature changes
You should never run cold water over a hot pan or put a cold pan on a hot burner. With cast iron your goal is to raise and lower temperature gradually.
Don't be afraid to use dish soap
Dish soap and cast iron are not mortal enemies, as many might assume. As long as you stay away from soaps that contain harsh abrasives and instead start with a soft chemical cleaner like Dawn, your pan won't become permanently damaged and any stuck-on bits of food will come off without too much trouble.
Never completely soak your pan
This is extremely important. Soaking your pan is the easiest way to ruin your seasoning and introduce rust, which will make re-seasoning a slower and more frustrating process.
Cast iron is not necessarily non-stick
You may have heard that a well-seasoned cast iron pan is non-stick. While this is more or less true, it's more accurate to say that cast iron cookware has non-stick properties.
In other words, it is possible that food will get stuck to your skillet. The best way to think of it is that your skillet has an easy-release cooking surface similar to 100% non-stick kitchen tools.
Despite the fact that food can still leave a residue that will need to be cleaned up, if you give your cast iron cookware a good base seasoning, fatty foods and foods cooked in oil will not stick.
Now that we have those bases covered, let’s walk through how to care for your cast iron from day one.
HOW TO SEASON CAST IRON
When it comes to cast iron, seasoning means adding a layer of oil to serve as a protective coating between your food and the pan. One of the first things you'll want to do with your new cast iron pan, griddle, or dutch oven is make sure that it is properly seasoned.
When you purchase cast iron today, it will typically come pre-seasoned. Some newer lines of cast iron cookware will actually come with multiple layers of seasoning already applied. This doesn't mean you can't add a layer or two once you get home.
No matter how prepared your cast iron cookware is when it gets to you, if you choose to cook with it immediately, you will want to start with a recipe that includes high-fat proteins like pork, chicken or turkey, as they will help you season the pan as you cook.
The more you cook with a cast iron pan the more layers of seasoning it has, and the more layers of seasoning it has the more non-stick it becomes. Plus the pan's seasoning will improve over time through proper use and care. This is why repeated and regular use is so highly recommended.
What you need to season your cast iron skillet
- Your Cast Iron Pan
- Cooking/Seasoning Oil (preferably with a high smoke point)
- Cloth or Paper Towel (something that won't leave lint)
It's all about the process
The conversation around how to season cast iron is chock full of opinions both good and bad. Basically if you were to ask two or three people on the street which oil to season your cast iron with, you’re likely to get two or three different answers.
Based on my experience, however, the process is more important than the oil. That's because for thousands of years (Fun Fact: the first known use of cast iron as cookware was 202 AD during the Chinese Han Dynasty) humans have seasoned their cast iron with everything from bacon grease to lard to more modern refined vegetable oils. And since each one has ended up with a well-seasoned cast iron pan, there's no need to sweat it.
Picking the right oil
That being said, you do still have to pick an oil and go with it. If you ask me, I will tell you to use avocado oil because it has a high smoke point and I personally use it for other cooking projects so there is always a bottle of it on my counter. Flaxseed oil will also give you solid results if you prefer that.
Again though, it’s more important to focus on the process of seasoning cast iron, and that process does not have to be difficult at all.
Let's get to it.
The seasoning process
Here is the method that has proven to work well for me.
First, slowly heat the pan to 200 degrees in the oven and apply a thin layer of oil to the warm pan.
Why a thin layer and not a thick coating? Because the next step is to wipe off that layer of oil with a cloth or lint-free paper towel until there is no standing oil on the pan. So there's no need to waste a lot of oil when you're just going to wipe it right off anyway.
This step is incredibly important because if you do not get all of the excess oil off, the pan will become sticky. And no one likes a sticky cast iron pan.
Once you've wiped the entire pan down, place the pan upside down in the oven and heat it to between 450 degrees and 500 degrees for one hour. After that hour has passed, turn the oven off and let the pan cool completely while still in the oven.
Feel free to repeat these steps as often as you like, because as I've mentioned before the more layers of seasoning you add to your pan the stronger your base layer will be, and a stronger base layer will improve your overall cooking experience.
I like to add 4-6 layers of seasoning to a new pan in my spare moments over the course of a couple days or a weekend because the only step that requires any effort from me is applying and wiping the oil off of the pan. The oven does all the rest.
Don't forget to wipe the pan clean while it's still warm and then dry it on the stove, giving it a simple coat of oil after each use. Then heat the pan up to at least 400 degrees in order to keep any oil from becoming rancid.
And that's it. Once you have an amount of seasoning you're comfortable with, use your pan as often as possible. I cannot recommend this highly enough. The honest to goodness best way to care for your cast iron is to just keep using it. If you're anything like me, the more you use it the more you'll enjoy using it, and if you continue to use it regularly, you'll have a quality cast iron pan for a long, long time.
Now we'll go over exactly how to remove stuck-on food or anything that may have been cooked onto the pan.
HOW TO CLEAN CAST IRON
The cleaning process
Cleaning cast iron is also an area of the cooking world that is misunderstood and, if you're not careful, you can easily fall into a trap that will slow you down and severely limit your ability to make a great meal.
Similar to the question of what oil to use, if you ask two or three people on the street what the best way to clean cast iron cookware is, you are almost certain to get very different answers.
But rest assured, cleaning cast iron doesn’t have to be difficult as long as you follow a few simple guidelines and ignore the various myths -- and bad advice -- along the way.
What you'll need to clean your cast iron skillet
- Your Cast Iron Pan
- Cooking Oil
- Non-Abrasive Sponge or Cloth
- Non-Abrasive Dish Soap (optional)
- Soft Bristle Brush (optional)
- Lodge/Finex Pan Scraper (optional)
- Lodge Chain Mail Scrubber (optional)
- Coarse Salt (optional)
- Bartender's Friend (optional)
Let's get cleaning
Remember that everything works better with cast iron when the pan is warm or hot. I always try to clean my pans while they are cooling down or I reheat them before I clean. This helps loosen the grease and cooked on foods, and it gives you a better chance to carefully remove more debris.
In fact, there are many situations in which a pan can be cleaned by simply using warm water and a little light rubbing with a sponge or cloth. This is the absolute best method for cleaning cast iron, so make sure and try it first before moving on to any other steps.
After you've tried using a little bit of Dawn dish soap, there are several methods at your disposal if you find that you need a little more scrubbing power. In order of escalation, you should first try a soft bristle brush, and if that doesn’t work, you can use a pan scraper like those made by Lodge or Finex.
If I have stuck-on food particles and I need to take a bit of seasoning off, I will use a stiff brush from Lodge or one of their scouring pads. You can also use salt and one of your favorite cooking oils to create a scouring paste as well.
If the food in the pan is too burned to scrape or scrub off, or part of the seasoning has already been removed by highly acidic foods, it’s okay to remove the seasoning completely with an abrasive powder such as Bartenders Friend or just some extra elbow grease.
Once you have cleaned the pan fully, it is extremely important to place the pan back on a burner and use heat to dry it off. Bring up the temperature from low-medium to medium-high heat to ensure the pan is completely dry.
This is also a great time to wipe another coating of oil on the pan to add to your base layer of seasoning. You can refer back to the above section on seasoning cast iron for instructions there.
If you do end up needing to strip down the cast iron in order to get it truly clean, you'll need to fully re-season your skillet or pan.
And that's it--how to season and properly clean your cast iron cookware, step by step.
I hope that these simple explanations help you rethink cast iron and understand that it's not something to be avoided, but rather an extremely valuable resource for tasty meals and delicious treats!