How to Clean, Season and Care for Your Cast Iron Cookware

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Cast iron skillet
Image Credit: Dreamstime

In an era of planned obsolescence, cast iron cookware is an exception. Made without moving parts or connecting pieces, cast iron is close to indestructible.

But it does require maintenance, which can be intimidating, especially when there’s a lot of misinformation that keeps people from taking full advantage of these reliable work horses.

How I Learned to Treat My Cast Iron Skillet Well

A friend recently gifted me a rusty (and frankly filthy) cast iron skillet, which provided the perfect opportunity to experiment with how to strip and season a pan.

Check out the crusty baked-on layers and superficial rust. Far from appetizing:

Cleaning

Unfortunately, a web search on how to refurbish cast iron led me down a rabbit hole deep with conflicting instructions on everything from how to set up an e-tank using a car battery to even using lye, complete with steps that made me fear for my respiratory safety.

Instead I chose a Dollar Tree box of Brillo pads and straight up elbow grease.

I’ll admit that it took a few scrubbing sessions, but I was finally able to get down to the bare iron-grey surface to ready it for seasoning.

Seasoning

Again, researching the seasoning step was a bottomless pit of conflicting information.

People swear by everything from Crisco to corn oil, bacon fat to flaxseed oil, and canola oil to an oil made specifically for cast iron cookware. The only consensus seemed to be to avoid olive oil as it has too high of a “smoking point.”

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I chose bacon fat. Because…bacon. As you can see, it was also an opportunity to put my well loved Clark Howard mug to use.

Before I go further in the process, let me explain what it means to “season” a cast iron pan.

To season a pan is to lay down micro-thin layers of oil to create a polymer coating that serves to protect the cast iron from rusting. Most importantly, it creates a non-stick surface for cooking. This article from Serious Eats does a nice job of explaining the process.

I spread a very thin layer of bacon fat across all surfaces of the skillet, making sure to wipe away any excess.

I then placed the pan upside down in a preheated 450° oven for 30 minutes and spent the next few hours repeating the bake-wipe with bacon fat-bake cycle until my once grimy pan boasted a shiny black surface.

Gone was the rust and baked-on particulate, replaced with a non-stick surface perfect for everything from fried eggs to cornbread.

Care

Do you have an unloved cast iron skillet in your kitchen? Follow these tips to make best use of your amazing possession.

Do:

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  • Dry your pan completely after each use, as standing water can lead to rust
  • Wipe your cast iron down with a thin layer of oil when it starts to look dried out
  • Enjoy the knowledge that cooking in cast iron can decrease your risk of iron-deficiency anemia

Don’t:

  • Put cast iron pans through the dishwasher, as this removes the seasoning you’ve worked so hard to create
  • Put cast iron straight into a campfire, as overheating can lead to warping, cracking or “red scale,” where seasoning no longer adheres to the surface
  • Put your cast iron pan through your oven’s “self-cleaning” cycle, as this has been known to start fires as well as ruin the cast iron due to extreme temperature

Final Thought

You might wonder why I would put so much effort into refurbishing a cast iron pan, when a classic pre-seasoned Lodge skillet costs a mere less than $15 on Amazon.

But there is a significant difference between old and new cast iron, as new products tend to have a pebbly surface and weigh significantly more than their vintage counterparts.

What can you cook in your cast iron skillet? Everything from sweets to savories. I could share my family’s recipes, but instead I’ll direct you to Bon Appétit’s 50 Cast Iron Skillet Recipes and let you loose.

Do you have a favorite piece of cast iron? Let us know in the comments or on Facebook!

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