The Care & Keeping Of Your Cast Iron Cookware Shouldn't Scare You

Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
It's a lot easier to be a home cook in 2017, and not just because of Trader Joe's. I already knew how much we rely on dishwashers and pre-heating ovens, but it wasn't until I tried whipping cream by hand that I realized just how much we owe to new innovations. There's at least one piece of old-school technology, though, that has more than stood the test of time: cast iron cookware. It's good at retaining heat, is crazy-durable, and naturally nonstick. So why aren't we all cooking with it all the time?

Even the most seasoned cooks (cast-iron pun intended) can be intimidated to start cooking with a cast iron skillet. After all, it requires much different care from your normal pots and pans, and, if not properly cared for, can easy rust and become unusable. But it's not as scary as it sounds. I talked with Mark Kelly, head of P.R. at Lodge Manufacturing, a company that has been making cast-iron cookware in South Pittsburgh, Tennessee, for nearly 120 years. He allayed my fears with a few simple tips on the care and keeping of cast-iron cookware. If you follow them, you, too, can be a (cast) iron chef in no time.

What Is Cast Iron?

There's a good chance that your great-great grandmother, wherever she was from, cooked with cast iron. Humans have been using it, in one form or another, for over 1,000 years. A fairly low-tech product to make (its a mix of iron and steel poured into a sand mold), it was originally used in China for military weapons. The reason we're still cooking with it a millennium later? Cast-iron cookware heats evenly, retains heat well, and is naturally nonstick.

And, amazingly, for an ancient technology, it's well-suited for modern cooking. Kelly explains, "You can use it on the stovetop, in the oven, on the grill, and on the campfire, and back home again." In fact, it's one of two types of cookware that can be used on an induction burner. It's great for searing meats, sautéing, and even baking, since the pans create a dry heat. Perhaps most importantly, Kelly notes that it's "awesome for grilled cheese sandwiches."

And, best of all, it's nonstick. Until recently, you'd have to make cast-iron nonstick on your own, through a process known as seasoning. Then, 15 years ago, Lodge figured out how to preseason cookware in the factories. Today, that process is industry standard and the vast majority of cast-iron cookware is ready to go as soon as you buy it.

Seasoned cast-iron means that it's coated with fat that is heated till it becomes carbon particles, making the pans nonstick. The more you cook with cast-iron, the more heated fat become carbon particles, and the more nonstick it becomes. In fact, Kelly says that, if you take care of it, cast-iron cookware can last for a minimum of 100 years. The key is, of course, taking care of it the right way.

Cleaning Cast Iron

The things we normally rely on for dirty dishes (soap and water) are cast iron's natural enemies. Exposure to both can break down the seasoning and cause the pans to rust. That alone can be enough to make people hesitant to start cooking with cast-iron themselves. But Kelly says it doesn't have to be daunting: "Personally, I just use water and a scrubby, and if there’s anything stuck I use a paste of course salt and water and rub it on there."

If it's a newer pan, Kelly recommends coating it lightly with olive oil and letting it sit on the stove at medium heat for about 15 minutes. This maintenance step will help the pan get even more nonstick faster. Once you've had the pan awhile, just rubbing it in olive oil and storing it will suffice.

If food really, really won't come off, you can boil water in the pan to get stuff off. The main thing is to never, ever let it soak overnight or put it in the dishwasher. Both will lead to rust, which means you'll lose the nonstick properties of the pan and have to re-season it. Kelly also notes that, the longer you've had your pan (and the more nonstick it is), the less likely this will be to happen.

Soap, which can break down the natural non-stick created by fat, is completely unnecessary. "Anything you’re going to cook in cast iron is going to be a minimum of 300 degrees, so any bacteria that may be in there is gone. It’s GONE," Kelly emphasizes. "People have been using cast iron cookware for a long time and nobody’s ever gotten sick from cooking with cast iron cookware."

That said, he also acknowledges that "It’s your choice, it’s your pan." Mild soap is fine, as long as you rinse and dry it thoroughly and coat with olive oil.

But What If I Need To Re-Season It?

If you care for your cast-iron pans well, you'll never need to re-season it. Even a small patch of rust can be fixed with a scrubby brush and some oil. But, if you've been what Kelly refers to as a "bad parent," you'll have to re-season it completely. The good news is, he says, even the most beat-up skillets can be rescued. And before you get worried, Kelly also has this piece of advice:

"This is cookware, not a Stephen king novel. There’s nothing to be afraid of."

Start by rubbing down the rusted pan with steel wool and rinsing it with water. Then coat it with a fat like vegetable shortening. Heat your oven to 350° and place aluminum foil on the bottom to collect dripping fat. Place the pan on a middle rack, upside down, and let it sit for an hour. After that, turn the oven off, and let it cool completely, and you're back on your way.
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