Complete Guide to Cast Iron: how to cook with, clean, and maintain cast iron cookware

I am a relatively new cast iron convert. It happened a few years back when I was about to replace yet another cheap non-stick skillet. We were cooking in this flimsy pan every single day, and after a few months it would inevitably get scratched or the food would start sticking terribly. I started to think about all the chemicals they had to use to make the skillet non-stick in the first place, and about how much of it was leaching into our food. I was also pretty tired of constantly throwing out and replacing skillets. Not exactly sustainable.

One of these times I remembered that I had a Lodge cast iron skillet we had received as a wedding gift. I’m pretty sure I had even registered for it, but I had no idea how to use it. It was collecting dust in some corner cupboard of our kitchen, brand new and unused. 

I had never used it because I was super intimidated by cast iron. I thought it was too complicated and not worth figuring out. A quick google search and a YouTube video later, I realized it was not as high-maintenance as I originally thought! Sure, there are a few differences from cooking in a traditional pan. But after consistently cooking in cast iron, you couldn’t pay me to go back to the non-stick world. I find cooking, cleaning, and maintenance on a cast iron skillet simpler, more enjoyable, and better in just about every way. 

If you have a cast iron skillet sitting around and would like to start using it but feel intimidated, as I did, I hope you’ll find value in this post and give cast iron a chance! I think you’ll love it. While I’ll mostly be referring here to a cast iron skillet you can apply this information to any cast iron cookware you use.

Why cook with cast iron?

Cast iron is naturally non-stick, without any of the harmful chemicals used to make most non-stick pans.

Cast iron is long-lasting. I consider a cast iron piece an heirloom that will last generations. It is almost indestructible, provided you have well-made cast iron from a reputable company. You can scratch it, ruin the seasoning, or even rust it completely, and it can still be restored. 

Cast iron cookware is time-tested and proven and has been used for hundreds of years. 

Cooking with cast iron is overall a more pleasurable cooking experience. Cast iron sears, crisps, sautees, and fries beautifully. It is heavy and sturdy and I so enjoy cooking with it. 

Cast iron is an aesthetically pleasing choice. I don’t mind if my cast iron gets left out on the counter because it is nice to look at. I rather like seeing my stack of shiny black skillets out on the stove, ready to get to work.

FAQ’s

Q: Can cast iron be used on a glass cooktop?

A: Yes, carefully. The main concerns are scratching and breakage from dropping a heavy plan. If this is a concern for you, you may want to limit your cast iron usage. For me, the benefits of cast iron outweigh the concerns, and I proceed with caution. 

Q: Does cooking with cast iron introduce too much iron into your food?

A: There have been a few studies measuring iron in food cooked on cast iron cookware, and food cooked in cast iron does have a higher concentration of iron than food cooked in other cookware. Acidic food seems to absorb more iron than non-acidic food. Foods with a higher water content, like sauces and soups, seem to absorb more iron from the pan as well. Newer cast iron, which hasn’t built up as much seasoning seems to have a higher iron transfer rate than older, well-seasoned cast iron. 

Anemia is relatively common in most populations, so this transfer of iron could be a good thing for some people. However, the amount of iron you will get from cooking your food in cast iron is likely not enough to replace iron-rich foods in your diet, or an iron supplement if you need to be taking one. 

Excessive iron can be a problem for some. If you have hemochromatosis or are concerned about iron overload, you may want to do your own research and maybe even consult your physician before using cast iron cookware. 

Q: Can I cook acidic or liquid foods in cast iron?

A: Yes, with caution. As mentioned above, the iron transfer seems to be higher when cooking acidic and liquid foods in cast iron. Another precaution is that liquid and acidic foods will break down the seasoning. The longer the acidic or liquid ingredient is in the pan, the more it will break down the seasoning, which may also lend a metallic taste to your foods. It’s not off the table entirely, but keep in mind that your skillet may need a re-seasoning if you cook something like tomato sauce in it, and limit the amount of time these types of foods spend in your pan.

Q: Can I use soap when cleaning cast iron?

A: Yes! Contrary to popular belief, you can use soap if your cast iron is well-seasoned. If the oil has been properly bonded to the cast iron, a bit of mild soap will not be able to break down this polymerized layer. If you are working on building up your seasoning or have a new piece of cast iron you are breaking in, use soap more sparingly. I only find it necessary once every few washes.

Initial wash & seasoning / re-seasoning

If you are starting with a new cast iron pan, or one that has been purchased second-hand, you’ll want to give it an initial wash and seasoning. This is not necessary if you have been using your pan and have a seasoning that you are happy with, or if you inherited your grandmother’s cast iron that has been well cared for and seasoned. 

You will follow the same set of instructions if ever you need to re-season your pan. I tend to repeat this maybe a few times a year, or as needed. How do you know when to re-season your pan? If foods are sticking and the finish is looking dull, your cast iron might need a little re-seasoning. 

For your initial wash, use hot soapy water and give your pan a good scrub.

Next, add a small amount of oil to the pan and buff it in well using a paper towel. You don’t want a thick coating of oil or any of it pooling up anywhere. This will make your skillet sticky. We’re looking for a thin, light coating of oil.  

Cast iron cookware builds its seasoning when oil on the pan hits its smoke point. A chemical reaction occurs, and the oil bonds, or polymerizes, to the pan, creating a smooth, non-stick coating that we call seasoning. From Lodge: “Whichever oil you choose, it’s important to make sure you heat up your pan to that oil’s smoke point. When the oil hits that smoke point, a chemical reaction called polymerization occurs, bonding the oil to your pan to create a layer of natural seasoning.”

Once you’ve added a thin coating of oil to your entire skillet, turn the skillet upside down and bake at 450°F for 1 hour. You may want a baking tray below it to catch any excess oil. Keep in mind, this will get a bit smoky. I try to do this on days I am able to open up all the windows. After an hour, turn the oven off and let the pan cool in the oven. You will not need to season in the oven every time, but it is beneficial the first time, and anytime you need to re-establish a strong seasoning. 

Choosing a seasoning oil

Any fat or oil can be used for seasoning cast iron, but some are better choices than others. Ideally, you want an oil with a somewhat low smoke point and a somewhat neutral flavor.  Lodge recommends canola or vegetable oil. Because I don’t keep those oils on hand in my kitchen, I prefer coconut oil. I don’t find that the flavor transfers because you only need a small amount of oil to season your pan. And the smoke point is low. Extra-virgin olive oil will also work. You can use lard or other animal fats, just keep in mind that they will eventually go rancid. So if you are not using your skillet regularly, this may not be the best choice. 

Restoring a rusty cast iron

If your cast iron has accumulated rust for any reason, or if you have an old cast iron you are trying to restore, the process is very much the same as the initial seasoning / re-seasoning process. 

Start by scrubbing all of the rust off with a stainless steel scrubber or one of these cool chain mail-type scrubbers. Scrubbing with a sponge or brush and some salt can work well here too. Some recommend soaking in equal parts vinegar and water if the rust damage is really bad, but I would steer clear of vinegar if you can. While the vinegar will eat right through the rust and seasoning, it will also start to eat away at the iron if left too long, leaving pits and scars in your skillet. If you’ve found an old skillet with pits and scarring, plan to hang that skillet on the wall or use it as a display. It won’t be of much use for cooking. 

Once you’ve removed all the rust, wash well with soap and warm water. Dry the skillet thoroughly.

Apply a light coating of your seasoning oil of choice all over the skillet and buff it in with a paper towel. 

Turn the skillet upside down and bake at 450°F for 1 hour, using something underneath to catch any excess oil. After an hour, turn the oven off and leave to cure and cool down in the oven for another hour. 

Daily Use

The best thing you can do for your cast iron skillet is to use it! Each time you cook in your skillet, you are building up that beautiful seasoning. 

When using cast iron, it is important that you pre-heat it. Let that skillet get nice and warm before you add any food. Doing this will enhance its non-stick properties. 

Next, add your fat. Oil, butter, lard, whatever you’re using.

As you cook in your cast-iron skillet, turn and flip as little as possible. If you move something around before it has a chance to cook thoroughly, the chances of it sticking are much higher. 

Daily care

If all went well, it shouldn’t take much to clean your cast iron skillet when the time comes to do dishes. With most things, you can simply scrape out any leftover food and it will slide right out. You can then buff in the remaining fat and your skillet is ready to use the next time. 

However, if you had a mishap or cooked something extra messy or sticky, your skillet might need a little more help. I like to go in with some hot water and a plastic scraper first to see if that will do the job. A stainless steel scrubber is a wonderful tool to use for those extra stuck-on messes. If you don’t have a steel scrubber on hand, try scrubbing with a bit of salt. You can even use a small amount of mild dish soap if necessary, contrary to popular belief. Keep in mind that the more you scrub and soak, the more the seasoning will wear down.

Especially when I’ve really had to scrub at my skillet, I do a quick stovetop re-seasoning. I try to do this at least once a day if I’m using my skillet frequently. Just like with your initial seasoning, take a small amount of your fat of choice and add a thin layer, but this time just inside of the skillet. Turn your stovetop on about medium/medium-low and let it heat the skillet until the oil reaches its smoke point, then take it off. Your seasoning has been fortified and your skillet is ready to be used the next time!

The main thing to remember with cast iron is this: water is your enemy, heat and fat are your friends. Only use water on your cast iron when you absolutely need to. Be sure to dry it thoroughly, and avoid stacking unless fully dry. Even a little bit of water, especially when trapped, will rust your skillet very quickly. You want to keep your skillet dry and keep layering on the fat. This will build up the nice shiny, slippery non-stick finish you’re after. 

Dos and Don’ts

DON’T put your cast iron in the dishwasher

DON’T leave your cast iron in the sink

DON’T let water sit in or on your cast iron

DO use your cast iron! The more you use it, the better your seasoning will be.

DO dry your cast iron thoroughly and immediately

DO pre-heat your skillet

DO layer on your seasoning oil of choice often and re-season as needed

What can I make in a cast iron skillet?

The possibilities are endless, truly. Here is a list of some of my favorite things to make using cast iron, with links to recipes where applicable.

Sourdough Bread

Sourdough Pancakes

Dutch Baby Pancake – Make this whenever your seasoning needs a boost

Galette

Cast Iron Cookie

Cornbread

Cast iron is also amazing for everyday things like frying eggs, searing meat, or reheating leftovers. It truly is so versatile.

Where to source cast iron

My favorite place to source cast iron has always been Lodge. They are a great company that has been making cast iron cookware for 120 years, and their product is high quality. With Lodge, I know I will be getting a piece of cookware that is well-made and long-lasting. They also have so many different kinds of cast iron. You are not limited to a skillet by any means. I have used their combo-cooker to bake bread for years now. My skillet gets used at almost every meal, and the grill pan is great for meat.

I am so excited for you to start cooking with cast iron! I hope you feel equipped with the knowledge and practical tips you need to use cast iron in your own home kitchen. I would love to know, what is your favorite thing to make in your cast iron? Be sure to tag me over on Instagram @vine.and.harvest so I can see what you’re cooking!

Until next time,

-Jourdin

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