Caring for and Cooking with Cast Iron
Cast iron skillets are the mainstay of any southern kitchen. Constructed out of one piece of heavy-duty metal, it’s virtually indestructible, conducts heat extremely well and, when seasoned properly, has a nonstick surface that even the stickiest foods will easily release from.
There's a reason cornbread baked in your grandmother's cast iron skillet tastes so delicious. Generations of seasoning that skillet left an indelible mark on everything she has ever cooked in it.It's also the reason why putting a cast iron skillet in a dishwasher is considered a cardinal sin in the south. Seasoning is the layer of polymerized oil that has been baked onto the surface. Seasoning your cast iron skillet allows for food to release easily, makes for quick clean up, and keeps it stain- and rust-free for generations.
When a cast iron skillet is seasoned you cook with less oil, and its very nature fortifies your food with iron. Cast iron is nonstick (if cared for properly) so there's no need to use a chemical nonstick cooking spray. While some of the newer cast iron skillets come "pre-seasoned" out of the box, it just isn't the same. The same holds true for the newer "seasoning sprays" we've seen sold online. We believe there's nothing like a home-seasoned skillet.
When it comes to seasoning a cast iron skillet, it takes more than a swipe of oil on the surface. As your grandmother can attest, a true seasoning process is only possible through heating and oiling the skillet multiple times. Each time the skillet is seasoned, it takes on a bit more character, and it reinforces the nonstick properties.
How Do I Season a Cast Iron Skillet?
Use the steps below if starting with a brand-new (or unseasoned) skillet.
- Line the lower oven rack with aluminum foil.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Wash the pan with hot soapy water and use a stiff non-metal or nylon brush to remove any rust spots.
- Dry completely and heat your pan in the oven for 10 minutes and remove.
- Using a paper towel, coat the pan with a thin layer of oil, shortening, or lard. Take care to coat all surfaces including the inside, outside, and handle.
- Put it back in the oven for 10 minutes.
- Take the pan out and pour out any extra oil.
- Put the pan back into the oven, upside down, for 1 hour. (Make sure foil is under the pan to catch any drips.)
- Turn off oven and let the pan cool in the oven.
- If you don't see a black, shiny surface, recoat with oil, shortening, or lard and repeat the steps above up to 2 times more.
How to Clean a Cast Iron Skillet
- First and foremost, DO NOT PUT A CAST IRON SKILLET IN THE DISHWASHER!
- Immediately after using, rinse in warm water, sprinkle with a bit of baking soda or coarse salt, and scrub gently with a nylon or non-metal brush. Baking soda will neutralize strong flavor and odor residues.
- Do not soak your cast iron skillet as standing water will cause it to rust. Be sure to dry completely. (Side note: Keep a specific towel for drying your cast iron as it can leave stains on linens.)
- Apply a thin coating of oil, shortening, or lard while the pan is still warm.
- Once cooled, cover the cast iron skillet with a paper towel to prevent dust from sticking.
How to Re-Season a Cast Iron Skillet
- When a cast iron begins to lose its shiny black sheen (gray areas will start to appear), when foods start to stick, or the pan starts to show signs of rust, it's time to re-season.
- First, hand wash with warm water. Use a handful of salt to scrub out any dried or caked bits on the pan. If that doesn't work, you can use a very small amount of a mild dish soap.
- Dry completely.
- Rub with a light coat of oil, shortening, or lard and follow the steps above on How to Season a Cast Iron Skillet.
How to Remove Rust from a Cast Iron Skillet
- If you've just inherited an older cast iron skillet (or been lucky enough to find one at an estate sale) that is showing signs of rust, use fine steel wool to remove the rust completely.
- Wash the skillet well with a mild dish soap in warm water. Scrub with a non-metal stiff brush.
- Dry completely.
- Follow the steps above on How to Season a Cast Iron Skillet.
- For severe rust that covers most of the cookware surface, take the skillet to a machine shop and have it sandblasted and restored to raw cast iron, then season immediately.
General Cast Iron Tips
- Do not boil water in a cast iron skillet. It can cause the pan to rust.
- Cast iron remains hot long after you use it, so take care when moving the pan.
- Cast iron takes longer to heat than other types of cookware, but it disperses the heat evenly.
- Cast iron gets hotter than other types of cookware, so start with a lower heat setting until you have a good feel for how your cast iron skillet cooks best.
- Cast iron performs best when heated gradually.
- The more you use your cast iron skillet, the better it performs.
Check out our video about caring for cast iron to see our tips in action!
With a well-seasoned pan and know-how on how to care for it, what’s next? Cooking, of course! Here are some of our favorite cooking with cast iron recipes from the site.
Cast Iron Skillet