Why Cast Iron? While cast iron isn’t inherently non-stick, with use and proper care, it develops a non-stick surface over time. And unlike traditional non-stick pans, you don’t have to worry about chipping or scratching, because cast iron is pretty much indestructible. Even if your cast iron skillet gets crusty or rusty (or you find some old cast iron at a garage sale or flea market), you can revive it with a good seasoning. I have friends who are still using cast iron cookware that has been handed down for generations.
Cast iron is also very versatile, and can go straight from the stove-top to the oven. It’s also great for camping and cooking over an open flame.
Speaking of versatility, one of my favorite cookbooks is Cook’s Illustrated: Best Skillet Recipes. It’s full of fabulous recipes! Some are cooked entirely on the stove-top, and some require transferring the pan from stove-top to oven. I’ve made everything in my cast iron skillet, from tuna casserole to apple crisp. Because what’s not to love about a one-pot meal?
And let’s be honest, a lot of recipes are so much more appealing when served up in a cast iron skillet. Like this skillet chocolate sundae cake:
This is the one time it’s okay to clean your cast iron skillet with soap, since you’re going to be seasoning it anyway. Once your skillet is clean and dry, rub a thin layer of food grade oil (about a tablespoon), such as shortening, canola oil, or even bacon grease, over the entire skillet. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and place the skillet upside down on the center rack.
Place a foil lined baking sheet on the rack below, to catch any drips. Bake the skillet for an hour, then turn off the oven and allow the skillet to come to room temperature. You may notice a bit of smoking from the oven during the seasoning process, although I’ve never had an issue with this.
You can repeat this process several times to get the result you’re looking for. The pan should be smooth and shiny, although it may be a tad sticky at first.
Basic Care and Cleaning: After cooking in your cast iron skillet, rinse it out with hot water while the pan is still warm. If you need to scrub, try using coarse salt. Salt is a natural abrasive that won’t harm the pan’s seasoning. When you’ve finished scrubbing, rinse away any excess salt with warm water.
Dry your skillet immediately and rub it down with some canola or vegetable oil to prevent rusting. Never put a cast iron skillet hot off the stove-top into water or it might crack. It’s also not a good idea to let your cast iron soak. If you have to really scrub to get it clean, then it might be time to re-season.
Bringing Rusty Cast Iron Back to Life: If you’ve got some old, rust cast iron hidden in the back of your cupboards, don’t despair. Mix together some vegetable oil and coarse salt and scrub vigorously with some steel wool or a stiff metal brush. Your pan will probably look dull and grey after you’ve scrubbed out all the rust, but don’t worry. Just follow the directions for seasoning to return your cast iron to it’s original sheen. You may need to season a few times to achieve the desired results.
Cast iron stays hot long after you remove it from the heat source. And unlike some cookware, the handles get just as hot as the rest of the pan. So be careful and always wear your oven mitts!
If you don’t own any cast iron yet, I’d suggest starting out with a 10 or 12-inch skillet. After that, the sky’s the limit! If you’ve been in the habit of seasoning and caring for your cast iron in a slightly different manner than what I’ve outlined here, don’t worry. There is more than one “right” way to do it. For example, I’ve come across several sites that suggest a stove-top method for season, and I’m sure that works just as well.
The point, really, is that if you take care of your cast iron, you’ll learn to love it and enjoy years–decades even–of cooking with it!