Caring for and Cooking With Cast Iron

Cast Iron Skillets
Cast Iron Skillets

The Spruce / Diana Rattray

An old used frying pan as a wedding gift? It seems beyond cheap, doesn't it? Yet, an old piece of cast iron used to be considered a cherished wedding gift, much more valuable than a new cast iron pan or pot. An old piece of cast iron has already been well-seasoned with years of use. Giving such a gift to a bride and groom was more than a wedding present: it meant that the giver was presenting a valuable family heirloom. 

Iron cookware has been used in North America since the earliest New England settlers, and every Southern cook has at least one well-seasoned skillet they couldn't do without. Corn stick and muffin pans, grill pans and griddles, and Dutch ovens are some other popular items. 


Why Use Cast Iron?

Nonstick cookware before such was even invented, cast iron rivals coated non-stick pans, and its coating will not come off, as it has none. All it needs is the seasoning that comes with use. It can withstand extremely high temperatures and is strong and durable.

Cookware made of cast iron can go from the oven to the stovetop and straight to the table, all while retaining heat better than virtually any other cookware. This ability to withstand and maintain very high cooking temperatures makes it excellent for searing and frying. Dishes that need to go from stove to oven need not be moved to another pan if cooked in cast iron, saving time and effort as food can be browned stovetop, and then moved directly into the oven. The cast-iron Dutch oven and skillet are perfect for campfire cooking, too.

Cookware comes and goes with the current fads and sales pitches. While it is not immune from foods sticking to it if used and cleaned properly, it is a preferred choice for everything from omelets to scrambled eggs to delicate sauces. Besides the heat control cast iron offers, it is heavy enough not to be jostled and spill its contents when accidentally moved or bumped.

Furthermore, cast iron is not one of the toxic metals. In fact, cooking with cast iron is a good way to add iron to your diet. Acidic foods such as tomatoes will darken if cooked too long in a cast iron pan, and you might detect an unpleasant metallic taste. Unless your cast iron pan is very well seasoned, avoid cooking acidic foods in it. If the pan is highly seasoned, cook acidic foods quickly and remove them from the pan as soon as they're ready.

If you still aren't convinced, compare prices. Most cast iron pans—with the exception of high-end enamel lined cast iron—cost much less than a heavy stainless steel pan.

How to Care for Cast Iron Cookware

Caring for cast iron is simple, and instructions come with the cookware. If cared for properly cast iron will last for generations, but in case you find some at a garage sale or thrift store, instructions for seasoning and care are as follows:

Wash any protective coating off all pieces with warm water and a bit of gentle soap (a harsh soap will remove the seasoning). To season it, warm the item in a 225 F oven. The warmth of the oven opens the pores. Remove the pan—leave the oven on—and wipe a thin coating of solid vegetable shortening or lard over all surfaces (even over the outside the first few times you season it). Place it back in the oven for 1 hour and then wipe almost all of the excess oil off with paper towels. Return it to the heated oven again for another 30 minutes.

If you have an old piece of cast iron, remove any rust with steel wool and season it before use. If food begins to stick while cooking, it needs to be seasoned again. The more a cast iron pan is used, the more seasoned it becomes. Always wash your cast iron by hand, dry it thoroughly and store it with the lids off so moisture will not cause it to rust. 

If you are hesitant to use cast iron because of the seasoning process, you can purchase seasoned cast iron. The Lodge company makes pans that are already seasoned. With the initial seasoning process done, you only have to maintain the seasoning after cooking and cleaning.

There's also enameled cast iron, which offers most of the benefits of seasoned cast iron with no need for seasoning. Enameled cast iron can't be used on grills or campfires, but the pans and Dutch ovens are oven safe up to 500 F (remove the knob it isn't metal). 

General Do's and Don'ts

  • Because cast iron pans do not conduct heat evenly, don't place it on a too-small burner, and heat it gradually and completely before you add the food.
  • Don't pour a large amount of water in a very hot pan, as this could cause the cast iron to crack. 
  • Don't store food in cast iron, as it may impart a metallic taste to the food. Acidic foods can ruin the seasoning on the pan if left in it too long.
  • The pans and handles get blazing hot, and they retain that heat for quite a long period of time. Keep potholders and mitts handy. If you've ever grabbed a hot handle, you know that silicone handle covers are an excellent investment.
  • Don't use cast iron to cook a pan full of okra, as the okra will turn black. If okra is just one ingredient in a dish this isn't a problem.
  • If rust does develop, clean and re-season the pan.
  • If you need to stack your cast iron cookware, place a potholder, paper towels, or folded kitchen towel in between each piece so they don't scratch each other and break down the seasoning,
  • It is very important to replenish the seasoning of your cast iron cookware by applying a thin layer of vegetable shortening or lard after each cleaning. Seasoning is an ongoing process.
  • To remove baked-on food residue, scrub the pan with coarse kosher salt and water. For particularly stubborn baked-on food, boil some water in the pan. 
  • For persistent stains on enameled cast iron, soak interior of the cookware for 2 to 3 hours with a solution of bleach, consisting of one teaspoon of bleach for every 2 cups of water. For baked-on food, boil a solution of 2 cups of water and 1/4 cup of baking soda for a few minutes and then use a pan scraper.

Cooking With Cast Iron

Cast iron may be used on various heat sources including gas, electric, induction, ceramic/glass top stoves, and ovens. Seasoned cast iron can also be used on the grill or for camp cooking. Do not drop cast iron cookware on the stovetop or slide it across the surface. Begin heating cookware on low and slowly bring heat up to medium or high

For a casual dinner, bring a skillet cornbread, jambalaya, or another main course dish to the table in the cast iron vessel in which it was cooked. Make sure you place it on a heat-proof trivet and cover the handle so it isn't inadvertently grabbed. The food in cast iron tempts the diner, and it's fun for everyone to be able to load up their plates as desired. Serving from the pan also makes cleanup easier, and leaves the cook free from running back and forth into the kitchen for refills.