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The Joy of Cast Iron Cookware: How to Season, Rehabilitate, and Care for Cast Iron Cookware

Updated on March 19, 2016
Cast iron favorites
Cast iron favorites

Many years ago, I gave handwritten cookbooks of favorite family recipes to each of my daughters, as the left the nest to set up housekeeping on their own. Several of the recipes came with the caveat: “Do not attempt this without a cast-iron skillet!”

It is simply inconceivable to me that anyone would attempt to make fried foods of any kind, or country gravy, in anything but cast-iron.

Personally, I wouldn’t attempt to fry an egg in anything but a cast-iron skillet. I was raised in a 1950s household in which almost all frying was done in cast iron, except for those desperate situations in which the cast-iron skillet was already in use and you were reduced to using the back-up stainless steel frying pan.

The inferiority of stainless steel cookware or—God forbid!—even lower quality cookware, such as aluminum or Teflon-coated cookware, is immediately obvious to those who are used to cast iron. The uneven heating—hot and cold spots—make frying an egg a difficult and unsatisfying experience.

I have always been puzzled by people (including my youngest daughter) who think a stainless steel frying pan works just fine. I know she is not used to having her food ruined, a strange blend of the overdone and the underdone.

Even heating, and the ability to retain heat longer, is what cast iron is all about. This means that the bacon doesn’t come out partly burned and partly flabby, the eggs don’t come out crispy at the edges and raw in the middle, and the sautéed onions come out evenly browned rather than having half of them burned and half of them still raw.

The other main advantage of cast-iron cookware is its natural non-stick surface. The non-stick qualities of a well seasoned cast-iron frying pan far excel those of a Teflon-coated pan, and without leaching unwholesome and possibly harmful chemicals into your food.

Another advantage of cast-iron cookware that gets frequent mention is that it “will last a lifetime.” This is also true of all but the cheapest cookware of other kinds—unless you run over your pans with the car. But cast iron cookware should last for generations—more than a mere lifetime or two—without becoming scratched or dented, and without the loss of handles (since handles are usually also cast iron).

Almost every conceivable cooking and baking implement is available in cast iron. Besides the ubiquitous frying pans, you can purchase Dutch ovens, griddles, saucepans, panini pans, and baking pans of various types, including popover pans and pans for baking gingerbread houses. I once saw a cast-iron egg poacher in a thrift store.

Buying Cast-Iron Cookware on the Cheap

Almost all the cast-iron cookware I’ve ever owned came from either a thrift store or a junk store, and it often seems a little pricey even when purchased used. Nevertheless, you will often find modestly priced cast-iron cookware at such places. In most cases it can be cleaned up and seasoned, and it will then be good for several more generations of use.

CAN IMPERFECT CAST-IRON BE MADE AS GOOD AS NEW? YES!

How concerned should you be about imperfections in a cast-iron item? The most likely imperfection in second-hand cast iron is rust. Cast iron is, after all, made of iron. If it is stored unused for long periods, areas of rust can develop simply from the humidity in the air. And some used cast-iron cookware may have been washed and hastily dried, so that it was stored while still damp. Even your carefully dried and seasoned home collection of cast-iron cookware may develop patches of rust, if it is long stored unused.

Rust on cast iron is a problem that is easily fixed by washing the piece and scrubbing away rust with a metal scouring pad and then re-seasoning.

Another problem sometimes seen in used cast-iron cookware is “scaling”—black scale-like flakes marring the piece. This problem was caused by overheating, so that old “seasoning” on the piece was burned away in flakes. Usually this problem can be cured simply by scouring away the scaly flakes with a metal scouring pad.

The pan is now ready for re-seasoning.

THE NEXT LEVEL: MORE SERIOUS IMPERFECTIONS

You may want to go to the next level for cast-iron that is heavily scaled or rusted, or that has strangely shiny areas that look almost as if plastic were melted onto the pan at some point in time. When a pan has this “plastic” looking sheen, it is probably because fat was allowed to pool in the pan during seasoning. You are looking at a poor seasoning job that was done at some time in the past.

Where used cast iron has problems that won’t yield to a scouring pad and a little elbow grease, you can still make it as good as new. The trick is to super-heat it to remove the old seasoning, rust, and scale.

The easiest way to do this is to put it in a self-cleaning oven and run the oven through one cleaning cycle. If you don’t have a self-cleaning oven, the pan can be placed directly on a hot charcoal fire, or in a wood fire, for about a half and hour. The fire should be hot enough to turn the pan a dull red.

Allow the pan to cool and scrub away any remaining rust or scale with steel wool and water and quickly dry in the oven or on a hot stove burner.

One of the key concepts to caring for cast iron, both at the beginning and forever after, is that it must always be dried quickly with heat (and plenty of it). Cast iron can never be allowed to air dry after washing.

The pan is now ready for re-seasoning.

How to Season Cast-Iron Cookware

The familiar cast-iron skillet with its all-over deep black satiny finish is a skillet that has been “seasoned” to bond a layer of carbonized fat to its surface. It is this carbonized layer that gives an iron skillet—and other iron cookware—its non-stick surface, and which protects it from rust.

Brand new unseasoned cast-iron cookware is a dull gray color and is both subject to rust and lacks any particular non-stick qualities, so that seasoning is a must. Used cast-iron cookware should be cleaned up and re-seasoned before use, because it is likely to have rust spots or other defects in the seasoning because of long storage and disuse. Even pre-seasoned cast-iron cookware benefits from re-seasoning, since many people feel that pre-seasoned cookware has not been adequately seasoned to the perfect satiny finish.

SHOO EVERYONE OUT OF THE KITCHEN

The way you achieve the perfect satiny black seasoned finish is by coating your cast-iron cookware with a layer of fat of some kind and then heating the cookware enough to carbonize (burn) the fat so that it bonds to the pan’s surface. This process will necessarily generate some smoke.

DECIDE WHAT TYPE OF FAT OR OIL TO USE FOR SEASONING

But before you shoo everyone out of the kitchen for this interesting project, you will want to decide what type of fat or oil you want to use for seasoning.

The pre-seasoned Lodge cast-iron cookware is seasoned at the factory with soy oil. As a matter of fact, you can use just about any kind of fat or cooking oil you have on hand, although some kinds work better than others. Almost everyone has a particular favorite. Bacon grease is widely acclaimed by some. Personally, I think butter works especially well, because it has a low smoke-point and hence carbonizes readily.

Some people feel that flax-seed oil—the food-grade version of the oil used by the Old Masters (in the form of linseed oil) for the multiple layers of glazes used in old paintings—is the very best oil for seasoning cast iron. There is no getting around flax-seed oil’s durability and high gloss.

Interested in the science of seasoning cast iron? Here is an excellent and full scientific discussion of the merits of different types of fats for seasoning cast iron: http://sherylcanter.com/wordpress/2010/01/a-science-based-technique-for-seasoning-cast-iron/. The author comes down in favor of flax-seed oil as the very best choice for seasoning cast iron—in part because of its very low “smoke point.”

My opinion: Bacon grease, lard, butter, or almost any other type of fat will do a satisfactory job for most people.

COAT YOUR PAN WITH A THIN LAYER OF FAT OR OIL AND HEAT IT

Using a rag or paper towel, rub a thin layer of fat or oil all over the pan, inside and out. The pan can then be placed in a 300° - 500° oven and baked for an hour. The “smoke point” of most fats and oils is well under 300°, but many people argue that high temperatures are best for creating a durable finish. Heating cast-iron to a temperature above the “smoke point” of the oil you are using is what produces “polymerization”—the cross-linking of the free radicals produced when fats and oils are heated, and which produces the tough, hard, non-stick surface of a well seasoned cast-iron pan.

It is important to apply only a very thin layer of oil to the pan, to ensure good results—good results being smooth even seasoning of the pan’s surface. Seasoning is normally repeated several times to build up a polymerized surface that will hold up to cooking, washing, and abrasion from cooking utensils.

The pan should be placed upside down in the oven. You may want to line the rack under your pan with foil, to keep the oven clean.

If you are seasoning a pan that has wood handles, remove the handles before baking the pan in the oven. Be sure to also season pan lids in the same way, if there are any.

This procedure can also be done on a hot burner on top of the stove. Use a paper towel to coat the pan, inside and out, with a thin layer of fat or oil and place it on a hot stove burner. Anywhere from medium to high heat works fine.

The only caveat to the stove-top method is that you will want to keep an eye on the inside of the pan to make sure that the fat is not pooling in the bottom of the pan. If fat seems to be forming a puddle, as opposed to a thin coat, redistribute it by wiping with a rag or paper towel—being careful not to burn yourself. Lids can also be heated on stove burners on top of the stove to season.

Most people are not really satisfied until they have repeated this process two or three times. Use only a thin coat of oil for each application. You don’t want the oil to pool in the pan and create a shiny patch.

If you are seasoning cast-iron pans that have been completely stripped, you may need to repeat the seasoning process up to six times.

After seasoning, the pans should be left to cool to room temperature undisturbed in the oven or on the stove top. Once cooled, they are ready to store.

Washing Cast-Iron Cookware after Use

There are purists out there who maintain that you should never, ever wash your cast iron cookware with soap or detergent. These folks maintain that food residue should be scoured out using only plain water and a metal scouring pad or brush. One reason that is usually given for this precaution is the risk that strong detergents could remove the seasoning. The other reason is concern that the porous surface of the pan will absorb some of the detergent, so that some residual “detergent flavor” could taint food.

These concerns are wildly exaggerated.

Here in the rural Midwest, where every household features a cast-iron frying pan, no one hesitates to wash the pan with dish detergent after use. Certainly my own mother never hesitated to do so, in all of her 50 years of homemaking.

If your pan is well seasoned, washing with dish detergent after each use will do no harm at all to the pan’s seasoning. Nor have I ever heard of anyone who has detected “off” flavors from detergent residue in the pan—and I’ve been eating food prepared in both my mother’s pans and my own for a good many decades. The “off” flavor issue simply doesn’t happen. Prolonged soaking with detergent should probably be avoided, but even that doesn’t seem to do any harm to a well seasoned pan.

If you can help being concerned about washing cast iron with detergent or soap, you could simply limit this procedure to only those times when you feel it is needed.

Will you need to re-season pans after washing them? Some purists feel that a pan should be lightly re-seasoned after each use, by wiping inside and out with an oily rag or paper towel before placing on the stove burner to dry.

For a well seasoned pan, re-seasoning after use should only be needed if the pan was used to cook watery liquids. For example, if you used a cast-iron saucepan to prepare soup or cook vegetables in water for an extended period of time, you will need to re-season the pan after washing. A frying pan that is used only to cook foods in fat oil should virtually never need re-seasoning.

WASHING AND DRYING A CAST IRON SKILLET

If you grew up in a 1950s household, you saw the cast-iron skillet washed on a daily—or several-times-daily—basis.

Heat the burner of your kitchen range to medium—or even high—heat. Scrub the pan and place it on the hot burner. Turn off the burner when the pan appears to be dry.

Do it this way every time. Never let a cast-iron pan air-dry.

If you wander off and leave your iron skillet sitting on a red-hot burner for an extended period of time (this happened to me once), just turn of the burner when you notice the problem, and leave it alone. Don’t attempt to cool a very hot pan under running water. This is one of the few ways to destroy a cast-iron pan. (It may be the only way.) The pan may need re-seasoning after such a little episode of super-heating.

WASHING AND DRYING A CAST-IRON SAUCEPAN

I have a set of three cast-iron saucepans that were thrift-store finds. Obviously, saucepans are used mainly to cook soups and sauces, and to heat vegetables in water, so cast-iron saucepans are likely to require light re-seasoning after each use.

Wash cast-iron saucepans, using detergent or soap if needed, and place them on a hot stove burner to dry. If the pan needs a light re-seasoning, rub the inside of the pan with a greased or buttered rag or paper towel and leave the pan on the burner (perhaps with the heat reduced to medium) until the grease has finished burning off.

You will probably want to give cast-iron lids the same treatment, drying them by placing them directly on a hot stove burner, after a light once-over with a greased or buttered rag.

Once the pans have cooled, they can be put away.

Cooking Acid Foods in Cast Iron

The rule here is: Don’t do it.

It is best not to cook highly acidic foods such a tomatoes and tomato sauces in cast iron. These foods will absorb iron from the pan, which will darken the food and also impart a not-so-good flavor.

On the other hand, eating highly acid foods that have been cooked in cast iron will not hurt anyone. Such foods just don’t look or taste very good.

You will also probably not enjoy any dietary benefits from the extra iron intake, since the iron from your pans is inorganic iron that is not easily absorbed by the body.

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    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

      My teenage daughter, who love to cook, tells me that everything comes out better in cast iron. So she probably has a good point.

    • blueheron profile image
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      Sharon Vile 3 years ago from Odessa, MO

      There are many dishes that come out best when cooked in cast iron, because of the even heat. Cast-iron's non-stick surface is unbeatable.

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 21 months ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for an excellent article on the care and feeding of cast iron pans. Like you, I learned to cook and clean my cast iron pans from my midwestern mama, who learned from hers. We always washed ours.

      In fact, I dry mine with a clean white cotton dish towel. As long as they're well-seasoned, they do not soil the towel. I do rinse them in very hot water, then dry immediately, patting them with the towel. That saves fossil fuel energy.

      Thank you for the tip about placing a rusted pan in the oven and turning on the cleaning cycle. That just may save me hours of elbow-grease work, as I have a badly rusted pan--one I would rather rescue than discard.

      One question about that: Does the high heat cause the rust to bloom into the oven? Or will it completely stop the oxidation process without "fallout" so to speak?

    • blueheron profile image
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      Sharon Vile 19 months ago from Odessa, MO

      I am not sure about that. Given the condition of my over, I would not have noticed!

    • rking96 profile image

      Rick King 18 months ago from Charleston, SC

      We have recently discovered the joys of cooking with cast iron. I don't know how we missed it for so long. We had many questions about seasoning at first, but we are following many of the same routines you describe above.

    • blueheron profile image
      Author

      Sharon Vile 18 months ago from Odessa, MO

      Thanks for the feedback! Cast iron is wonderful for so many types of foods!

    • profile image

      Wagner Construction 13 months ago from Jacksonville

      Thanks for the good info! Is cast iron proven to be a safe method of cooking or can it come off on food?

    • blueheron profile image
      Author

      Sharon Vile 13 months ago from Odessa, MO

      Properly seasoned cast-iron cookware will not leach iron into the food prepared in it. "Seasoning" coats the cookware with a thin layer of hard oil (probably carbon, meaning burned hard oil). Unseasoned cast-iron cookware would leach iron into food (probably rust, if the food contained water), which could make the food unappealing, though not harmful.

      Fried foods will definitely not leach iron into food, since there is no water to dissolve the iron--and cast iron is without peer when it comes to frying. I don't know how anyone fries in anything else.

      It's best not to cook acid foods, like tomatoes, in cast iron for extended periods of time, as acid foods will start can eat into the seasoned surface and dissolve some of the iron, so it winds up in the food. Again, this is not harmful but causes and "off" taste. You can cook dishes containing tomatoes and other acid foods in cast iron, as long as they are not cooked for long periods of time--meaning more than an hour or two.

      One of my favorite dishes to cook in a cast-iron skillet is Sausage and Peppers, where you brown sausage, sweet peppers, garlic, and onions and then add a big can of tomatoes and reheat for 10-15 minutes. It takes hours for acid foods to cause the iron to leach into the food.

      It used to be claimed that cooking in cast iron provided people in the old days with a dietary iron supplement, and that this was beneficial. I don't know if the iron (if any) that might leach into foods cooked in cast iron is in a form that the body can assimilate, so this may or may not be true.

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