Adding a cast iron skillet to your cookery collection will provide an endless range of tasty dishes! Here’s a simple guide to cast iron cooking, the benefits, how to select, use, clean and care for this durable and versatile tool.
A true American staple, a seasoned cast iron skillet is an essential kitchen tool for any home chef who loves to cook. And they’re easier to use and care for than you might think! If you’re lucky enough to own one but are too intimidated to use it, here’s some helpful info that might get that pan back in your regular rotation.
Why Cast Iron?
I’ll admit, I love my collection of Lodge cast iron pans. I started small, with only one 10” skillet, but after a while, I bought a larger one, then a slightly smaller one, and finally a tiny one, because it was so cute for an individual serving of something delicious. Now that I have the bug, I’m already contemplating what my next size will be!
Not limited to cast iron skillets, there are also dual-handle round pans excellent for baking, grilling pans, griddles, dutch ovens, and even cast iron woks.
Built to last
Cast iron is a tried-and-true type of cookware. First of all, they’re likely safer than a lot of modern cookware, especially non-stick cookware that could contain chemicals, the long-term effects of which aren’t always known until many years later. They also have been known to fortify the food you make with iron, something in which many people are deficient.
Health reasons aside, if you love to cook meat, potatoes, stir-frys, frittatas, vegetables, crusty bread, or fruit crisps, you might consider adding a piece of cast iron to your collection. And that’s only the beginning of what these pans can do. They go from the stove to the oven seamlessly and retain heat, keeping your food perfectly hot while on the table.
Advantages of cooking with cast iron
- Strength and durability: They’re workhorses, and when cared for properly will last many lifetimes. A good iron pan is a true heirloom.
- Browning and crisping: The surface of cast iron sears food really, really well. Anyone who appreciates a crispy crust and golden brown color from the Maillard Reaction, take notice.
- Heat: Cast iron pans hold heat for a long time, and emit heat high above the pan, allowing taller food like potatoes and roasted chicken, for example, to cook evenly.
- Versatility: If you can dream it, you can do it in cast iron.
Disadvantages of cooking with cast iron
- Care and maintenance: Though robust, a cast iron pan requires a certain level of care regarding cleaning and seasoning. You can’t just dump a dirty pan into a soapy sink and go to bed.
- Not as non-stick as the modern stuff: Few, if any, cast iron pans are as genuinely non-stick as new Teflon pans.
- Heavy: You will get your work out when transferring a cast iron pan from stove oven, but the retention of heat in the iron outweighs this downside.
- Acidic foods: There is some debate about whether foods with high levels of acids, such as tomato sauces, should be cooked in cast iron, for fear that the metal will leach out and impact the flavor. Others insist that a proper seasoning layer prevents this from ever happening. Cook with tomatoes, use wine, but generally speaking, shorter cooking times with highly acidic dishes are recommended. Don’t store acidic foods in the pans for extended amounts of time, either.
How to shop
If I piqued your curiosity and you’re finally ready to splurge on your first piece of cast iron, there are a few things to consider.
- Size: Cast iron pans come in all sorts of sizes, from “toy” size to giant skillets so large you’d need at least two arms to lift them, even with a helper handle. The most common size is about 10 1/2”, or a size 8, which I admit is a little confusing. If you just want one skillet, choosing a size 8, 9, or 10 should give you a solid foundation with a lot of versatility. I use my 12” cast iron skillet with a pouring spout the most.
- Where to Buy: Buy new cookware in stores like Target or online at Amazon (affiliate link). Diehard cast iron cookware lovers swear by their vintage pans, and with a little patience, you should be able to find a decent skillet in a flea market or antique shop.
- Condition: Look for cast iron without any cracks, warping, pitting, or significant rust damage, especially if vintage (a small amount of rust can be sanded out).
- Pre-seasoned: Most new pans come to you pre-seasoned, look for that in the product description. It’s likely that you’ll need to season your vintage pan before using.
- Price: Affordable in price, a 12-inch skillet on average costs $40, and prices vary depending on size.
Modern vs. vintage
The vintage cast iron of the early 20th century was made in sand molds and then polished to a smooth finish. Modern companies no longer polish the pans as a final step, so they tend to have a pebbled surface. It doesn’t make as much difference as you think, as long as the pans are well seasoned. Modern cast iron, like Lodge cast iron, is still made in the United States using time-honored traditions.
How to season a cast iron skillet
If you have a new-to-you or vintage pan, before you start cooking, you need to season it. Seasoning is a process that leaves a thin layer of polymerized oil over the surface, creating a resilient nonstick coating. For an initial seasoning, I like this method:
- Spread a thin layer of neutral oil or vegetable shortening on to the skillet with a paper towel.
- Place the pan upside down in the middle rack of an oven that’s preheated to 375°F (190°C), with a tray underneath to catch any drips.
- Bake the pan for 1 hour, and allow to cool. Congrats, you’ve seasoned a pan!
During this process, the oil bonds to the surface of the metal, which is why it’s okay to scrub a seasoned pan with soap or even use metal utensils while cooking. Remember, these pans are tough!
Cooking with cast iron
Now that you have seasoned your skillet, you’re now free to start cooking. Use whatever oil you like, however, select a cooking oil with a higher smoke point for techniques like pan-frying. Use less than you would in stainless steel, copper, or enamel dutch oven. Remember to preheat your cast iron on the stove before adding anything to cook. Some of my favorite everyday cooking uses:
- Meats: Roast a chicken, pan sear salmon, cook steaks, or render a duck breast. Cast iron simply shines when searing protein.
- Vegetables: Veggies of all kinds love being roasted in cast iron, inside an oven at a relatively high temperature.
- Breakfast: Great for making pancakes or quick breakfast scramble.
- Pizza and Bread: You got it, cast iron makes delicious pizza and bread, especially cornbread.
- Desserts: Apples love to be baked in cast iron. Try a tarte tatin or a homemade fruit crisp.
How to clean a cast iron skillet
- Wash: While there are those out there who wouldn’t dare to use soap on their cast iron pans, it’s actually okay to clean a pan with a little soap and even a scrubby sponge. Just make sure the cleaning process is as quick as possible.
- Dry: Allow the pan to dry before giving it any additional seasoning. If any water residue is left in the pan, you will notice rust on the surface by the next day. Use a towel to dry the skillet immediately after washing and leave out on the counter or stove to completely air dry.
- Do not soak!: One thing you should never do is soak your cast iron skillet or run it through the dishwasher. This process can cause pitting to the cooking surface that cannot be repaired.
Care and maintenance
Re-seasoning is quicker than the initial seasoning; here’s what to do:
- After rinsing it out, return to the stove and allow it to heat up on high heat.
- When the water has evaporated, pour a small amount of neutral oil (grapeseed, canola) into the skillet and distribute the oil around the inside with a paper towel.
- Continue to heat the oil for another minute, then turn the heat off and allow to cool. Now your skillet is ready for another use.
Now that you have the basics under your belt, you’re all set to start making your best meals yet with this wonderful and revered cookware.