Cast Iron Cooking - Caring for Your Cast Iron Skillet
There’s a few essentials we think everyone should have in their cooking arsenal: a great set of knives, oven mitts, and most importantly (in our opinion) a cast iron pan.
Cast iron as cookware has a long and delicious history and can be traced back thousands of years from a beginning in great Chinese dynasties, booming popularity and expansion throughout Europe during the 18th century, and now all the way to your kitchen cabinet in 2021. Not just a trend after all, hm?
But why is cooking with cast iron better? And how do you use, clean, and care for your cast iron skillet? While it may take a little more elbow grease to maintain than your typical pots and pans, with a little love your trusty skillet will last for decades upon decades of mouth-watering meals.
Pros of Cooking With Cast Iron
While you can cook nearly anything in a cast iron pan, our favorite thing to cook is high-quality meat. In fact, Bytable’s extensively tested, nearly fool-proof American method for cooking steak recommends cast iron for getting the perfectly seared steak you’ve always dreamed of!
Cast iron is ideal for cooking meat for several reasons. Not only does cast iron heat evenly, resulting in an even sear across your steak or chicken breast, but it’s a cut above the rest when it comes to maintaining that heat. That means less time messing with your heat source and worrying about even temperature distribution while cooking.
Whether you’re looking to fry or bake your meat of choice, cast iron can handle it! Start your cut of meat on the stove top for a lovely, crispy crust, and then finish it off in the oven without having to change pans. Simmer, sear, roast - your skillet can do it all with rustic charm.
Plus, cast iron is nonstick thanks to the layer of fat that covers a seasoned pan, and will stay that way as long as you continue to season your pan periodically. If you’re new to the cast iron scene, we don’t mean adding literal salt and pepper to your pan - but we’ll elaborate more below.
P.S. If your skillet is new-ish, we recommend waiting until your pan has been seasoned a few times before trying to cook eggs, flakey fish like tilapia, or anything else that's fragile or tends to get a little stuck. If you wouldn’t cook it in a stainless steel skillet, don’t cook it in a new cast iron - even if it says it’s preseasoned!
The Care and Keeping of Cast Iron
You’ve just purchased your first cast iron skillet, or maybe you inherited the prized family pan (no joke, you can keep and use cast iron skillets for generations) and you’re ready to bring on the heat!
But before you begin, your new cast iron pan needs to be seasoned. Seasoning your pan is essentially coating it with a layer of fat and heating to the point where it bonds to the metal, resulting in the non-stick, slick texture that you’re looking for. Seasoning also protects your skillet against rust, so your pan can be used for decades to come.
To season your cast iron skillet, preheat your oven to 500 degrees (or as hot as you can). Break out a couple paper towels or a kitchen rag, and vegetable oil or canola oil. Other oils can work, such as olive oil, but generally you want to choose an oil with a high smoke point! Bacon grease or beef tallow also work well.
While you’re waiting for your oven to heat up, cover your entire pan with a thin layer of oil - enough to fully coat the metal, but not so much that the oil builds up in puddles. Make sure you also oil the handle, the bottom, and the outsides. The entire pan should have a dark sheen to it when done.
Pop your pan in the oven with the bottom facing up, and let it bake for around an hour. Depending on the oil or fat used, it may smoke a bit. Remove from the oven, let cool, and store on the stovetop or in a cabinet. Ta-da! Your cast iron skillet is now seasoned.
To maintain the seasoning, follow proper cleaning protocols (see below) and fully dry your cast iron after rinsing by putting it in a hot oven for 30-45 minutes. Give your pan a close look, and if it’s starting to miss seasoning in some places, give the insides a light oil before drying in the oven.
You may want to fully re-season your pan after cooking recipes that use a lot of ingredients that are particularly acidic (like tomatoes, lots of citrus, or lots of wine, beer or other alcohol). You can do a full seasoning like above, or just make sure the next thing you cook in the pan is very fatty - like making skillet bacon or frying potatoes.
How to Clean Cast Iron Cookware
Cast iron cookware must be cleaned by hand to keep its integrity! Never, ever violate this cardinal rule of cast iron care! Letting your pan soak or running it through the dishwasher will strip your pan and cause rust, and anything you try to cook in it will stick horribly until the seasoning is built back up.
The easiest way to clean your pan is to do it while it’s still warm - this helps keep food from settling onto the pan and means less scrubbing on your part! Can’t get to it right away? No worries. A little hot water and a stiff scrub brush or scrubbing sponge should do the trick. If you still have some stuck on bits, coarse salt or cornmeal can help remove stubborn pieces of food without too much harsh scrubbing. Do not use steel wool or metal scrubbers on a cast iron unless you are taking rust off of a mistreated cast iron pan.
One trick the Bytable team swears by for cleaning a cast iron is to use a chain mail cast iron cleaner. A chain mail cleaner (such as The Ringer) will easily take off any stuck on food bits from your cast iron in seconds - while maintaining your seasoning!
Some may recommend that soap never touch the surface of your skillet, but when it comes down to it a little dot or two every so often most likely won’t hurt any. If you do use soap on your cast iron, make sure to coat with a little oil and thoroughly dry your pan by placing it in the oven or putting in over a burner on low heat. Once dry, store your pan in a cool, dry space.
Restoring A Cast Iron Pan
Have you inherited or thrifted a cast iron in less-than-useable condition? Or maybe you’ve dug your cast iron out of a cupboard only to see it needs some TLC? Unless your cast iron is cracked or pitted, you should be able to save it.
Removing Rust, Soot, Old Seasoning, and other Mystery Matter from a Cast Iron Pan
A little (or even a lot) of rust, soot, and food buildup happens to the best of us, but it doesn’t mean the end for your cast iron pan! With a bit of elbow grease (any maybe some actual grease), you can restore a cast iron pan at home and continue to enjoy years of meals.
Before you get started, you’ll need a couple tools of the trade! Gather your pan, fine steel wool, a scrubbing brush, paper towels or a kitchen towel, your seasoning oil of choice, and make sure to have an oven available.
Is your pan extra crusty or in need of more than a little TLC? Have some basic white vinegar on hand for a vinegar soak before the next restoration steps. Mix equal parts warm water and white vinegar in a container large enough to soak your cast iron - the entire cookware needs to be covered! Check your covered cast iron once an hour for up to eight hours, but make sure to keep an eye on it - vinegar will strip the rust off your pan, but if left for too long it will start to eat away at the actual cast iron!
If you’ve completed your vinegar soak or have a lesser amount of damage that doesn’t require a vinegar soak, you can start removing the remaining rust from the surface of your pan. Start with warm water and your steel wool, and gently scrub in small concentrated circles on affected areas only. Continue to scour until you’ve removed the rust and the area returns to raw, unseasoned cast iron.
Next, clean your pan as you normally would to make sure you’ve removed all the rust spots and prep your cast iron for seasoning. Make sure you are prepared to season the pan immediately after stripping it, since a cast iron pan stripped of seasoning will start to rust again very quickly.
Time to season! Apply a thin layer of your oil of choice across the entirety of the pan, and let bake in the oven set as high as it will go for around an hour. Remove your pan from the oven, and admire your rust-free cast iron skillet, and immaculate handiwork, as it cools!
We wish you happy cast iron cooking!