I’m departing from my normal recipe posts this week, to show you how I take care of my cast iron. I use my cast iron skillet for everything. I realized this week how much this is true while I was cooking meals with my husband’s sister, because I was startled and confused every single time she cooked vegetables in a saucepan.
Besides nearly always cooking my vegetables in my cast iron skillets, I also use them for cooking eggs (scrambled or fried), browning meat, frying (meats or starchy foods like funnel cakes or fritters), and often even for making white sauces or reduction sauces. Occasionally I’ll even cook a casserole type food in the oven in my cast iron skillets.
I like the even heat distribution from the heavy bottom of the cast iron skillet, and honestly, I guess I just like the feel of them, and the kind of cooking I associate with such traditional cookware.
When I first read about cast iron, I thought it sounded like way too much work. I got the impression that after every use it had to be seasoned in the oven, including an overnight cooling period, and who wants to put that much work into their cookware?
Fortunately, it turns out that cast iron thrives just fine on a much simpler routine.
There a few basic rules for washing cast iron, the most important of which is NEVER use dish soap on a cast iron pan. The soap will destroy the seasoning.
In order the remove the food particles you will want to use the gentlest scrubber that’s reasonable for the amount of food stuck on the pan. The best tool for removing a lot of stuck food, such as when you’ve accidentally burned a layer of food to the bottom of the pan, or when you’ve forgotten to clean the pan promptly and all the food has hardened to an impenetrable level, is a nylon scraper. (I use one of these, but a cheaper one such as this, should be equally effective–affilliate links).
I like to let really stubborn food soak for 15-60 minutes and then tackle it with the scraper. In most cases in just slides right off the pan using this method. Try not to soak your pan longer than necessary–an overnight soak will probably cause it to rust, and definitely remove some of the seasoning.
For a basic cleaning of cast iron, I use a plastic scrubber much like this one (affiliate link), but I make mine by rolling up old mesh onion bags together. A green scrubbie (affiliate link) is equally good, it’s just a matter of preference.
If the above methods don’t work you can try steel wool, or better, a stainless steel scrubbie, but those should only be used when necessary, as they can damage the seasoning.
After cleaning and rinsing the cast iron pan, it should be dried on stove burner, usually set about medium, but it depends on the heat of the stove. You want it to get hot enough to evaporate off all the water, but not hot enough to start smoking. Also, you want to stay close enough to notice when it’s dry and remove it from the heat, or it will start to smoke, no matter how low the stove is set.
Now, after all the talk above about seasoning, you may be wondering, especially if you’re new to cast iron, what the deal is with this seasoning and why it matters so much. Seasoning is a layer of oil which has bonded to the iron, creating a chemical free ‘non stick’ surface to the pan. Removing this oil makes the pan much more prone to rust and much less useful, as food will stick and burn if the pan isn’t properly seasoned.
In order to maintain this seasoning, you want to add oil on a regular basis. You can do this after every time you dry the pan, or just when it seems like it needs it. You want to add the oil while the pan is still warm, so be very careful not to touch to the pan, and if you’re burn prone or think you might accidentally touch the pan in the seasoning process, wait until it cools somewhat before you start.
You can use whatever kind of oil you like, and long as it’s straight fat. I often use olive oil because it’s handy to reach for, but occasionally use whatever neutral oil I have on hand (such as grapeseed oil) or coconut oil. Lard and tallow should also work just fine, but butter is not ideal, because it has other food particles besides just fat.
Pour between a teaspon and a tablespoon of oil into your cast iron pan. Wipe the oil around with a paper towel or clean rag until all the inside surfaces of the pan are covered with oil.
Let the pan cool, and it’s ready to use again!
If your cast iron pan does get rusty, it’s often still possible to return the pan to a usable state. Scour off the rust (this would be a good time to use one of those metal scrubbies that’s only for dire circumstances), rinse, and continue with the normal drying and seasoning steps.
A note about allergies: because of the nature of the seasoning of a cast iron pan, it may retain some small food particles that can be enough to trigger food allergies in those who are particularly sensitive. If you or someone in you immediate family has food allergies, you may need to completely strip the seasoning from your cast iron pan and start over, proceeding to season and cook ONLY with non-allergenic foods in the cast iron from that point forward. (Google ‘strip cast iron seasoning’ for more detailed instructions: common methods are putting it through a cycle in a self cleaning oven, or leaving it in a campfire/coals for an hour.)
(Notice how at the end of the video I said the pan needs to dry? I actually meant it needs to cool. In case you were wondering…)