Cast iron cookware is well-loved for good reason. This workhorse is versatile, durable, chemical-free, and if cared for properly, can last generations. It’s equally at home on the stovetop, in the oven, or over a campfire. Cast iron retains heat beautifully, making it an ideal choice for searing steak or creating a glorious, golden crust on cornbread. If you’re confused about cast iron, we’ve got you covered with tips for purchasing, caring for and cooking in cast iron cookware.
Buying Cast Iron Cookware
If you haven’t been blessed with an old family heirloom, don’t worry. You can purchase a previously owned pan or a brand spanking new skillet and season both into polymerized, non-stick perfection.
For your first piece of cookware, go classic. A 10-inch cast iron skillet can be used for searing meats, pan-frying and baking the perfect cornbread. Top quality brands, such as Lodge, sell a 10-inch skillet for around $20, but don’t hesitate to look at local thrift stores or garage sales. Maybe a family member has one tucked away in the back of their cupboard.
Cast iron isn’t 100% non-stick, and unlike modern pans, it’s a piece of cookware that works better the longer its used. When you first get your cast iron a seasoned pan will have an opaque, bullet-looking finishing. Unseasoned skillets will appear black, with a slightly pebbly surface. Modern cast iron pans are cast in sand, which give it a bumpy texture, unlike the solid cast iron pans of yore. Whether new or old, the key to using cast iron is all in the seasoning.
How to Season Cast Iron Cookware
Before you start cooking, take time to build up that first layer of seasoning with these tips:
Scrub your pan. Pour a big handful of kosher or large-grained sea salt into your skillet and scrub it thoroughly to remove any dust or debris. Then wash with hot soapy water and dry thoroughly with a soft cloth or paper towel.
Oil it up. Rub every exposed cooking surface with an unsaturated oil such as vegetable or canola oil. These fats work better to polymerize your pan than animal fats such as lard or bacon grease.
Heat your pan in a 450-degree oven for about 30 minutes. Don’t worry if it smokes, that’s to be expected. You can also do this step on the stove, but the oven heats more evenly, resulting in a better layer of initial seasoning.
- Repeat the oiling and heating cycle about three times, until the pan is black. Pull it out of the oven (using pot holders, of course) and allow it to cool on the stove.
- Congrats, you’re ready to cook in your cast iron.
Cast Iron Cookware Maintenance Tips
Seasoned cast iron is highly versatile and durable, and metal tools are no match for it’s polymerized patina. To maintain your pan:
- Cook in it often. Frying, searing and other cooking techniques that use oils are your best friend. They’ll replenish the initial seasoning and maintain it. But be careful with acidic liquids like wine or tomatoes at first, as they can break down the fats you so lovingly built up.
- Clean it gently and dry it thoroughly. After cooking or baking, scrape off any food debris and clean your pan in hot, soapy water. Avoid harsh abrasives such as Comet or steel wool scouring pans, which can damage the season. The textured, scrubby side of a sponge should work well. If food is still caked on after a thorough scrub, use a handful of kosher salt as an abrasive. Don’t allow your pan to air dry. Instead, dry it completely with a soft cloth or paper towel.
- Add more oil and reheat. Place it over the burner and reheat just until it smokes, then rub a thin layer of oil over the cooking surface. Allow your pan to cool completely before storing.
Tackling Rust and Scaling in Cast Iron Cookware
One cast iron problem you may run into is rusting or scaling. We we recommend drying and re-oiling after each use, sometimes bad things happen. Rusting and scaling aren’t the end of the world, and you can restore your pan to its past perfection.
Scaling occurs when layers of the polymerized fats chip or break, often due to long periods of use without re-oiling. Avoid this problem by following the above maintenance tips. If your pan is showing signs of scaling, simply re-season according to the initial seasoning steps above.
Rust can occur when a pan is left to air dry. Simply scrub off any signs of rust, heat your cast iron and rub with oil. Avoid rust by thoroughly drying, heating and re-oiling your pan after use. Over time, the rusting spot will build up another layer of protective, polymerized fat.
Cooking with Cast Iron Cookware
With proper care and use, cast iron will be your go-to cooking, searing and baking tool for generations to come. From steaks and chops, to cornbread and cakes, here are some of our favorite recipes to cook in cast iron: