Cast iron cookware has been around for a long time, and for a good reason. This material is highly durable and easy to use, meaning that you can get a lot of mileage out of a single frying pan or cast iron pot.
However, what turns most people off of cast iron cookware is that it requires extra care and maintenance. A stainless steel or carbon steel pan is much more convenient, but it won't last quite as long.
Fortunately, we're here to help you get the most out of your cast iron pots and pans. In this article, we'll dive into the world of cleaning and caring for these pieces so that they'll last for generations. And no, we're not being hyperbolic. If you take care of your cast iron cookware, it will last for decades.
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What is Cast Iron Cookware?
This method of production actually has ancient roots, dating back to China in the sixth century. Iron is melted in a blast furnace, then poured into various casts to cool, hence the name.
This production process is the main reason why cast iron skillets and pans have tiny holes along the surface. However, these holes are practical, as they allow cooking oil to penetrate the iron to make a non-stick surface. For even better results, you can choose enameled cast iron, which has a layer of ceramic on top.
Another side effect of this process is why cast iron frying pans and skillets are one piece without a handle. Other materials like stainless or carbon steel have a separate handle screwed into the base, which is why it can be made of other substances.
Pros and Cons of Cast Iron Cookware
Some chefs swear by cast iron, but the fact is that you probably want a mix of different pots and pans in your kitchen. That said, cast iron works well for a wide array of foods, which is why it's often a mainstay. Here is a breakdown of the advantages and disadvantages you can expect from cast iron.
Pro: The Metal Stays Hot for Longer
When cooking with a carbon steel pan, you'll notice that the metal cools down shortly after turning the stove off. So, if you're trying to keep your dish warm, you'll have to either hold the stove on simmer or put it in the oven.
Cast iron, however, will stay hot for a relatively long time. Since the metal is thicker and more porous, it retains heat better. Not only can this advantage help you keep your food warm, it allows you to finish cooking your food without having it on a hot flame.
A word of warning, though. Since cast iron pots and pans don't have a separate handle, the entire piece can get pretty hot. As a result, you'll often have to use an oven mitt or towel to move the pan so that you don't burn your hand.
Con: The Metals Takes Longer to Heat Up
On the flip side, carbon and stainless steel pans and skillets can get hot pretty quickly, especially if the stove is on full blast. Even when using these metals in the oven, they'll heat up fast so that you don't have to wait as long for your food to cook.
While cast iron's thickness helps it retain heat, it also prevents the pan or skillet from getting hot too quickly. This process can be beneficial in some cases since you may not want to burn or sear your food. However, if you're in a hurry, cast iron may take too long.
Pro: Cast Iron Lasts for Decades (When Properly Maintained)
As we mentioned, you can potentially give your children or grandchildren your cast iron cookware if you take care of it. Because of how these pieces are made, they resist scratching and denting, making them last longer than their steel counterparts. Also, as we'll discuss later, seasoning your cast iron skillet or pan helps it stay non-stick forever.
Con: Cast Iron Requires More Maintenance
The whole point of this article is to illustrate how to care for cast iron cookware so that gives you an indication of the maintenance and upkeep required. However, keep in mind that steel pots and pans also need maintenance, so it's not as if they're self-cleaning or healing, and cast iron isn't.
Overall, when caring for your cookware, you need to be careful when cleaning and seasoning it. Otherwise, you can use cast iron as frequently as you use steel or copper.
Pro: Cast Iron Makes Non-Stick Pans
As long as you keep your pans well-seasoned, they'll retain their non-stick surface. Unlike pans with Teflon or other non-stick chemicals, you can replace the oil on your pan to keep it working well. Once the non-stick film wears off of other pans, you have to replace the whole thing.
Con: Cast Iron is Heavy and Cumbersome
This disadvantage shouldn't be a dealbreaker, but keep it in mind when shopping for new cookware. Cast iron pots and pans can be tricky to put away, particularly if you have to lift them above your head. Ideally, you can keep all of your cast iron cookware in a bottom cabinet with plenty of space for stacking.
How to Care for Cast Iron Pan
Since this is an ultimate guide, we're going to break down the various maintenance requirements of cast iron pans, pots, and skillets. Whether you've never used cast iron cookware before or you just want a refresher, this guide will cover everything.
Dos and Don'ts of Cleaning Cast Iron Cookware
As we mentioned, the porousness of cast iron is why you can have non-stick pans forever. As oil seeps into the metal, it stays there and forms a thin barrier so that your food doesn't get stuck or burned. Unfortunately, the pockmarked surface is also why cleaning can be a relative hassle, especially if you're used to cleaning and scrubbing all your pots and pans.
Follow these dos and don'ts, and you'll be fine.
Do Scrape Food Off
Once you're finished cooking, you should use a plastic pan scraper to get any leftover food off the pan. Doing this while it's still hot ensures that the pieces don't bond with the oil, making it harder to remove them later. Some people may say that you can't use metal spatulas or scrapers on cast iron, but that's kind of a myth.
Yes, if you scrape your cast iron skillet with a metal spatula, you'll remove some of the non-stick surface. However, assuming that you're not attacking the pan like Wolverine, it should be okay.
Don't Scrub the Pan Too Hard
Another "myth" is that you shouldn't scrub your cast iron pan at all. However, what really matters is how you do it. If you take a sponge and wipe off any residue, the pan will be just fine. On the other hand, if you use steel wool or a scrub brush and attack the surface as if your life depends on it, you'll remove most of the seasoning oil.
That said, one way to make scrubbing easier is to put a layer of baking soda in the pan. Let it sit for a few minutes, and then food should come right off. Doing this will help you clean cast iron much faster.
Do Use a Little Bit of Dish Soap
Since cast iron pots and pans can absorb oil and other materials, the thinking goes that soap will also get into the metal and then leach into your food. This myth is only true if you let your pan soak in soapy water.
You have to remember that the bubbles in cast iron are so tiny that it takes a while for anything to absorb. Plus, if there's already a bunch of oil in those bubbles (as there should be), soap won't replace it. So, feel free to wash your cast iron cookware with some mild dish soap.
Don't Put Your Pans in the Dishwasher
Dishwashers make cleaning a breeze, but they're far too powerful for cast iron cookware. The jets will remove much of the pan's seasoning, leaving you with a dry, sticky surface. Instead, make peace with the fact that you'll have to wash your pots and pans by hand forever (it's really not that bad).
Do Dry Your Pans Before Putting Them Away
One potential issue with cast iron is that it can rust. Copper and stainless steel don't have that problem because of how they're made, but cast iron can rust like any other type of iron. So, if you put wet or damp cookware away, the water will attract more oxygen, creating rust patches. One way to avoid this is to place paper towels on the surface to absorb any leftover water.
If your pans are getting rust on the cooking surface, don't worry - we'll discuss how to remove rust in another section.
Don't Soak Your Pans
Even if you're not using soapy water, soaking cast iron is still a bad idea. The longer it soaks, the more oil will seep out, removing the non-stick surface. Not only that, but soaking will make it harder for the pan to dry, leading to rust.
How to Season Cast Iron
We've talked a lot about seasoning your cast iron pans and skillets, but how do you do this? Fortunately, the process is pretty simple, and you won't have to do it very often. In fact, depending on what you cook in your cast iron, you might not have to re-season it for a long time. Here are the steps:
Step One: Clean the Surface
When we say "clean" the surface, we mean to remove any dirt or bits of food. There will likely be some leftover oil, but don't worry about that too much. You may need to wipe the pan with a paper towel before starting.
Step Two: Add Some Cooking Oil
You can use pretty much any kind of oil you want for seasoning, such as canola oil, vegetable oil, or olive oil. Don't use flavored oils unless you plan on cooking the same foods in your cast iron. For example, if you use garlic-infused oil then make a cobbler, the garlic will leach into the dessert, throwing the taste off balance.
Step Three: Coat the Entire Surface
The amount of oil depends on the size of the pot or pan. Start with a little bit and then add more as necessary. It's always easier to add more oil than it is to remove it. You can use a clean cloth or paper towel to rub the oil into the iron. Some chefs recommend adding kosher salt or some other coarse salt to help the oil bond more easily.
Step Four: Bake the Cast Iron
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, then bake your cookware for about an hour. You'll need to place the pot or grill pan upside down before baking. Otherwise, the high heat can dry the oil out, negating the whole point of seasoning.
Step Five: Rub More Oil On
You won't want to use as much oil during this step. The purpose of adding a thin, light layer on top is so that the non-stick surface will stay fresh for longer. Once you've finished this step, you can put your cookware away. Be sure to dab any excess oil away so it doesn't make a mess.
When using cast iron, you can tell if it needs seasoning based on how shiny it is. Once your cookware starts to look dull or faded, it's time to season it.
Another point to remember is that you can naturally re-season your cast iron by cooking fatty and greasy foods. For example, bacon grease is an excellent choice because the fat and oil will automatically seep into the metal.
So, if you need to re-season your frying pan or skillet and you have a craving for bacon, you can take care of two chores at once.
How to Remove Rust From Cast Iron
If you haven't used your cast iron cookware in a while, you may notice some rusted spots. Fortunately, as long as the piece isn't completely rusted through, you can remove the top layer, and the pan will work just fine. Here's how to do it.
Step One: Clean the Entire Pan
In this case, you'll want to wash and scrub the whole thing. Unless the rust patch is really tiny, you'll need to re-season the pan afterward anyway, so scrubbing isn't a big deal.
Step Two: Scrub Off the Rust
You might have to use steel wool or something similar. If you don't have that, you can use a ball of aluminum foil instead. Make sure that all the rust is gone before moving onto the next step. If you're scrubbing for a while and the rust isn't coming off, you may have to replace the pan. Typically, rust only forms on the top layer, but it can go deeper into the metal, causing it to become brittle and flakey.
Step Three: Rub Oil Onto the Surface
If you notice that your pan is flaking off old oil, you can add a little salt to the new oil to help it bond with the metal. Then, as with seasoning your cast iron pan, you can use a paper towel or cloth to rub oil across the entire surface.
Step Four: Bake for 20 Minutes
You shouldn't have to re-season the pan entirely, so set the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for 20 minutes. Again, you'll want to place the pan upside down. Once it's done, let the metal cool in the oven before removing it.
FAQs About How to Care for Cast Iron Cookware
Once you have a cast iron skillet or pan, you may have some additional questions about how to care for it and keep it looking its best. Here are some answers to common queries people have had about this metal.
How Often Do I Need to Season My Cast Iron?
It's hard to provide a definitive answer because there are so many variables at play. For example, we could say once a year, but if you only use your cast iron cookware a couple of times per year, you probably don't have to season it annually. Also, as we mentioned, cooking high-fat foods like bacon can help re-season the metal without having to bake more oil into it.
Overall, just pay attention to how well your cast iron cooks, as well as how it looks. If food starts to stick pretty bad, it's time to season it. Also, if the metal is looking dingy and dull, it might not have its non-stick qualities anymore.
Can I Cook Acidic Food in Cast Iron?
Technically speaking, high-acid foods like tomatoes, lemons, and other citrus fruits shouldn't be cooked in cast iron. However, the real problem comes with cooking these ingredients for long periods. The problem with acidic foods is that they can wear down the seasoning, causing the oil to come out of the metal.
So, realistically, if you simply re-season your cast iron pan or skillet after cooking tomatoes or lemon juice, it should be okay. However, if you're only cooking these foods for a short period, you probably don't have to do anything special afterward. For example, the juice from one lemon won't remove all the oil from the pan. That said, slow-cooking some marinara sauce will take out a lot of oil. If you use a dutch oven for cast iron cooking, you'll need to be more careful since most recipes take a long time to cook.
Should I Avoid Using Metal Utensils In My Cast Iron Cookware?
As you'll notice, most of the "myths" surrounding cast iron stem from the idea that the seasoning is the most critical aspect of the material. However, since it's pretty easy to re-season your cookware, you don't have to worry too much about ruining it. Yes, it can be annoying to season your pans and skillets a few times per year, but it's not like you'll ruin the cast iron in the process.
So, when it comes to metal utensils, you're okay to use whatever you want. Metal spatulas and spoons can remove the non-stick film from other metals, which is why it's not a good idea to use them. With cast iron, you can scrape the surface a few times without ruining the seasoning. As long as you're not scraping continuously, don't worry about it.
Should I Season My Cast Iron Pan Immediately After Buying It?
No, you shouldn't. Modern cast iron pans will come pre-seasoned (i.e., Lodge cast iron), so adding an extra layer of oil won't do anything. In fact, the new oil probably won't penetrate the existing layer, so you'll just be wasting your time.
Does Cast Iron Work on an Induction Cooktop?
Yes, it does. That said, because induction cooking doesn't use traditional heating methods, you probably don't have to wait as long for your pan to heat up. One of the main drawbacks of cast iron is that it can take a while to get hot because the metal is so thick. However, with induction cooktops, the heat transfers to the iron directly, so you can start cooking sooner.
Can I Put Cast Iron in the Microwave?
You shouldn't be putting any metal in the microwave, let alone cast iron.
Is Cast Iron More Brittle After Cooking?
Technically speaking, yes, it does. However, that doesn't mean that your cast iron skillet will snap in half if you set it on the counter too aggressively. Overall, cast iron is more brittle than other metals because of how it's made. That said, you can abuse your pots and pans without cracking them. In most cases, the only thing that will break a cast iron pan is a long drop onto a hard surface. So, as long as you don't drop your pan onto some rocks, you shouldn't have to worry.
Is One Type of Fat Better Than Another for Seasoning?
Technically, any type of fat or grease should work well for seasoning a cast iron pan. That said, liquid oil can be pretty messy, so some people may use vegetable shortening or lard instead. Spreading this substance is a bit easier and doesn't require as much clean-up afterward.
Do I Have to Put a Paper Towel On My Cast Iron Cookware When Putting It Away?
Only if the metal is damp. A paper towel will absorb any remaining water so that it doesn't cause rust. However, if the pan or skillet is bone dry, you don't have to worry.
That said, if you're stacking cast iron cookware, a paper towel is still recommended because it will prevent scratching between the pans.
Can I Scrub My Cast Iron?
Yes, you can, but be aware that you'll have to season it again much sooner. As we mentioned, a little bit of soap and warm water is okay if you don't let it soak for too long. However, if you're scrubbing your cast iron with a soapy sponge or steel wool, you may cause some problems.
One of the primary benefits of cast iron is that you don't have to scrub it as you do with other metals. So, don't make more work for yourself if you don't have to.
How Can I Remove Stickiness From My Cast Iron Cookware?
Sometimes, you might notice that your cast iron is sticky after cleaning it. This problem happens when there is too much oil on the pan. The easiest way to fix this issue is to bake your cast iron in the oven at 450 degrees F for about an hour. If the stickiness remains, wipe the surface with a scrub sponge and bake it again at medium heat.
Should I Season a Used Pan After Getting It?
Let's say that you've just inherited a cast iron skillet from a family member. It's pretty old and looks kind of dingy, so you might assume that it needs seasoning. However, that may not be the case. You can simply run your finger along the metal to tell if it has a nonstick surface or not. If your finger feels a bit oily afterward, it should be okay. However, if your finger is still dry, you might have to re-season it.
Another point to remember is that cast iron made before the mid-1950s is different from modern versions. In the old days, manufacturers would polish the metals to remove most of the imperfections. This process allowed the nonstick coating to remain longer. Modern cast iron cookware is more porous, meaning that it's easier for the oil to seep out.
So, if your "new" used cast iron is decades old, it might look and feel different anyway. The best way to tell whether a pan is good is to cook something on it. You can do a test run with some eggs or bacon to see whether they stick.
Bottom Line: Get the Most Out of Your Cast Iron Cookware
If you're still worried about cleaning and caring for your cast iron pots and pans, you're overthinking everything. While this metal does require a bit more TLC than steel or copper, it's not like you have to babysit your cast iron cookware. Just pay attention to how well it cooks and make adjustments as necessary. Remember, you have to clean and scrub any other pot or pan once it gets dirty, so cast iron is no different. Also, once you re-season the metal the first time, it only gets easier to do.