Like many iconic and powerful things, cast iron cookware is both loved and feared. If you’re doubtful of its prolific nature in the kitchen, its 2,000-year history should, at least, make you a believer that cast iron deserves a place in your culinary arsenal.
Made of one solid piece of cast iron, these pans, griddles, skillets, and pots retain and distribute heat evenly, develop a naturally occurring non-stick surface, and are relatively affordable.
Many people, however, are deterred from including this kitchen jack-of-all-trades because of their perceived complex care. Do you season it, how, and what exactly is seasoning? Why can’t you use soap? What if it rusts? These fears push people to stick with plain old stainless steel – a perfectly acceptable choice, but one that neglects the power that a cast iron implement can bring to your cuisine.
Here we break down the basics of cast iron care to give you a simple lifetime’s worth of cooking results.
Cast iron must-haves:
At the bare minimum, you should have one good 10-13 inch skillet: this will be your workhorse. From seared meat to eggs, to cornbread or cobblers, this modest pan will never let you down.
Second to a skillet is a grill pan. This is perfect for indoor grilling, skewers, steaks, or paninis.
Third on the list of must-haves is a griddle. Great for pancakes, crepes, or breakfast for a crowd.
Now that you have your essentials, it’s time to season and care for these archaic wonders so that they will last a lifetime.
Seasoning…what exactly is it? No, it’s not using the right amount of salt and pepper. It’s using polymerized fats and oils to help create a non-stick surface and prevent rust.
When shopping for a cast iron kitchen tool, you may notice that many come ‘pre-seasoned’, meaning the manufacturer has created a stick-resistant coating of fats or oils on the pan. This is all well and good, but it is still recommended to season your own pan.
- Wash your pan with hot soapy water and a stiff bristle brush. This is the only time soap will touch your pan and never use steel wool on your cast iron; it will strip the seasoning and increase the likelihood of rust.
- Place two racks in your oven, one in the middle and one on the bottom. Line the bottom one with aluminum foil. Set oven to 350F.
- Apply a thin layer of cooking oil of your choice to the cast iron, inside and out. Many recommend avoiding vegetable oil as it can leave a sticky coating, so try oil of grape seed.
- Place the cast iron upside down on the top rack of the oven and allow to bake for at least one hour. Turn off the heat and allow the cast iron to cool completely in the oven.
Voilà! You have successfully seasoned your pan. It is recommended to repeat this seasoning process once a year to help maintain the non-stick surface.
Use and care:
Now that you have your pan nicely seasoned, it’s time to put it to work. The beauty of cast iron is that it maintains and distributes heat so easily; you rarely need to use a heat setting above medium. But be forewarned – these pans and their handles get hot. Because they are made of one single piece of iron, the handle is as hot as the cooking surface, so use a towel, mitt, or silicone gripper when maneuvering the pan.
The most crucial part of cast iron use is the post-cooking cleaning routine. Most importantly, never use soap and never put it in the dishwasher. The harsh detergents will strip the seasoning you worked so hard to create. But fear not, cleaning is easy and there are a few options –
The non-clean: simply wipe out the pan with a rag or paper towel, add a few drops of oil and rub into the pan until a sheen is achieved. This method is best after cooking food that doesn’t leave much residue, like eggs or vegetables.
The mild-clean: when you have some stuck-on debris you can rinse your still-warm cast iron with hot water and scrub carefully with a stiff brush. Dry completely and oil your pan until shiny.
The salt scrub: For a more intense clean, pour a cup of kosher salt into a still-warm cast iron implement. Scrub the salt in and around the pan using a cloth or paper towel. Remove salt and oil your pan.
The most important things to remember when caring for your cast iron is to always dry completely, oil after every use, and avoid soaps or soaking in water. You are really trying to prevent rust and maintain a seasoned, non-stick surface. If by some chance rust does develop, you can work it away by thoroughly scouring it and repeating the seasoning process above.
By avoiding neglect and following a few easy steps, a cast iron pan can last a lifetime and become a treasured heirloom.