Intro to Cast Iron: Lessons I Learned the Hard Way
Last year we were given old Dutch ovens. I knew absolutely nothing about cast iron cooking and so, naturally, I turned to the internet for advice. Generally, the internet serves me well for subjects I’m unfamiliar with. Things did not go well for the cast iron, however. I’ve learned, by trial and error, how to use and care for cast iron. If you’re willing to relearn some care and cleaning habits, you’ll be able to enjoy some amazing cookware!
If You’ve Never Used Cast Iron…
If you’ve never used cast iron, like me, here are a few things to know.
Cast iron cookware has been used for a long time, and for good reasons. They’re inexpensive to buy, last for generations, you can use them on almost any heating surface, get better (i.e. slicker) with use, are versatile, handle high heats, and work extremely well. Cast iron retains heat really well, making it great for searing meats, or caramelizing vegetable (or anything else). Once seasoned (seasoning refers to the oil buildup that gets baked into the cookware, resulting in a smooth, non-stick coating) they are slicker than non-stick pans and don’t require bizarre chemicals to achieve that feature.
We started looking at cast iron skillets to use with our induction burner in the RV, which we can use on solar power. Our old non-stick pans were getting worn out, and we wanted a cheap and durable replacement.
Handling cast iron may require you to get a few things you don’t already have in your kitchen.
- Heat resistant gloves—You may be fine with just hot pads, but these make things so much easier, especially for cleaning.
- Wooden spatulas—I’ve started using Bamboo, which is supposedly a harder wood. Here are some that I bought: Flat Spatula and Curved Spatula.
- Lint free cotton rags. Think old t-shirts. We didn’t have old t-shirts in the RV, so I bought a package of cotton rags which are essentially cut up shirts at a hardware store for $1.50
- Don’t use paper towels. They leave behind lint that weakens your seasoning.
Our Dutch ovens were rusted and the seasoning was sticky and splotchy. It needed to be restored.
The internet has good information on the restoring process. Generally, goes like this:
- Strip the cookware of all gunk, seasoning, rust, and grime—get down to the bare metal. The bare metal is a dull silver color.
- Season the cookware several times in the oven
Stripping old seasoning and rust can be really hard. Working with the pan when it’s hot can make old seasoning and gunk come off easier. It does, however, make it harder to handle the pan.
Here are some methods I tried. You’ll find videos and articles for each of these methods. I’ve listed them in order from best to worst:
- Using a wire brush attachment with grinder tool. Highly recommended for difficult jobs.
- Steel wool
- Chain mail scrubber
- Salt + sponge or rag
Do what it takes. Get down to the metal. Then skip to Chapter 3, Seasoning.
Chapter 2—Buying New Cookware
Buy Lodge. They’ve been doing cast iron for years. Their cookware has the best factory seasoning. Worth it. Also, the Wirecutter agrees.
Even though Lodge preseasons their pans, I think you should season it a few more times before using it.
For skillets, we have 3 sizes. 10″, 12″, and 14″. I use the 10″ the most because it’s lighter, making it easier to use. It’s large enough for about 70% of the things that I cook. If you’re getting only one skillet, the 12″ is probably the way to go. I don’t like the size of the 14″ that much. It’s really heavy, but when you need size, you’ll be glad you have it.
For Dutch ovens, we have 12″ Lodge ovens that we were gifted. 12″ seems to be the most commonly recommended size of Dutch oven, and I’ve been happy with the size. We recently re-gifted one of our ovens. RV life mandates minimizing!
Chapter 3—Initial Seasoning
So, now that you have your new or stripped cookware, it’s time to season it. Some people will advocate that simply using the pan for cooking will season it. That’s true, but I think for beginners (like me) getting more seasoning on the pan to start will help.
- Heat it until it’s hard to touch with your bare hands
- Rub a thin coat of Crisco all over the cookware. Inside, outside, everywhere.
- Take a dry cloth and wipe off all the oil. In reality, some of it won’t come off, and that’s okay. This step is to eliminate as much as you can. You may be tempted to put on extra to “shortcut” the seasoning process. This will backfire horribly.
- Bake the cookware, face down, in the oven for 90min+. People claim different temperatures work best, anywhere from 350 to Broil. I use 500° but I’m not certain my RV propane oven thermostat is correct. You want to bake the oil into the cast iron without burning/smoking it off. When my oven is set to broil, the oil just smokes away and no seasoning is achieved. So, get it as hot as you can without all the oil smoking away before hardening to the pan.
- Turn off the oven, let the cookware cool in the oven.
Repeat as many times as you want to. I did mine 5-7 times before using for cooking.
After cooking certain foods, you may want to re-season the pan again and can follow this same process.
Oh boy. Now this is where things get dicey. I’ve found that the internets advice on cleaning is based on working with a well seasoned piece of cast iron. A well seasoned piece of cast iron can deal with abuse. A new or recently restored piece can not.
If you have a new or recently restored piece of cast iron:
- Don’t use the salt scrubbing method for routine cleaning. It strips the seasoning.
- Don’t scrape with metal (ie metal spatulas). It strips the seasoning.
- Don’t use soap. Soap is designed to cut grease/oil. That’s what seasoning is made of. Soap may not be tough enough strip existing seasoning but it does you no favors in building seasoning.
- Don’t use chain mail for cleaning. They say it doesn’t strip seasoning, but it does.
- Don’t use paper towel during the cleaning process. It leaves behind lint that can get baked into the cookware, resulting in a weaker seasoning.
- Don’t let the cookware sit for hours and hours before you clean it. The sooner you clean, the easier it is.
I use a tiered approach to my cleaning.
First Pass Cleaning
If stuff is stuck on the pan after cooking, the first thing I do is:
- Scrape as much food out of the pan as possible
- Put the pan on heat and pour in enough vegetable oil to cover the pan
- Let the pan soak in oil on medium-high heat to soften
- Scrape the pan with a wooden spatula. I use bamboo.
- Don’t use metal spatulas, as some advise
- Don’t buy the plastic scrapers from Lodge. They melt in hot pans. They are worthless.
- Remember to use your heat resistant gloves!
- Dump the oil and burned debris out and dispose.
- Wipe the pan with a dry, lint free cotton rag to remove as much oil as possible.
If this process has sufficiently cleaned the pan. You are done. Wait for it to cool and then store.
Second Pass Cleaning
For new pans, you may have some messy, sticky jobs to clean up. If food has cemented to the pan during the cooking process, the first pass method won’t be enough. However, you also don’t want to strip any seasoning.
- Complete the first pass process
- Run hot water over the pan (which should still be hot)
- Use a stiff dish brush (not a steel one) to scrub off the burned food. Running hot water on the pan during this process helps tremendously.
- Dry the pan immediately using a lint free cotton cloth. Do not air dry or it will rust.
- Heat pan again until it’s hot enough you can’t touch the sides
- Wipe with a thin coat of oil. Use dry rag to wipe off excess.
- Immediately turn off the heat after adding oil. Some people say to leave it on the heat. I found this just smokes off the oil rather than letting it get absorbed into the cast iron.
Third Pass Cleaning
If you have severely stuck food, and the first two approaches haven’t worked, you can try any of the methods used in the restoring process. I’d probably start with salt/sponge, then work up to steel wool or chain mail if needed. Be gentle to minimize the amount of seasoning you remove.
For a newer pan, I’d recommend doing a seasoning pass in the oven afterwards (see chapter 3).
The main thing to remember is keep things dry and exposed to air. For Dutch ovens, put some paper towel between the lid and pot so it can breathe inside the pot.
Chapter 6—Cooking Tips
Here are a few things to keep in mind when cooking:
- You can use cast iron on any cooking surface. Glass flat top stoves, induction burners, gas flame, campfire, or charcoal. It’s heavy, so be cautious on surfaces that can crack, but cook away!
- Add food to a hot skillet to avoid food sticking
- Avoid acidic foods. Tomatoes, vinegar, citrus are common acidic foods
- Don’t store food in the cast iron. Remove it quickly to avoid food sticking. From what I understand, the cast iron has pores that expand when heating. As they cool, they will close again and the food will stick.
- Feel free to use metal utensils when cooking on cast iron
- Cast iron doesn’t always heat evenly. Preheating gradually can help ensure even heating.
Chapter 7—It’s Not That Bad
This looks like a lot of information. It may seem like it’s not worth bothering with cast iron. If you’re not interested in learning some new habits, then that is probably going to be true for you.
However if I was to describe how to cook and clean a normal pan, it would likely be pretty long too. It’s just a different process, but aside from the initial seasoning process it’s no lengthier or more difficult than a regular pan.